Much like its sudden release, Quarantine Circular aims to surprise. The second installment in Mike Bithell's short-story series doesn't have a direct narrative connection to the first game, Subsurface Circular, but it carries over the same sharp writing and intriguing central premise. This time the story jumps between characters instead of delivering its tale through a single lens, and while this structure leads to some tonal inconsistencies, Quarantine Circular is still a thought-provoking experience worth seeing through.
Like Subsurface Circular, Quarantine Circular is a straightforward narrative adventure. You never take control of its characters beyond determining how they respond to others during a conversation. A directed camera does a good job of keeping you engaged, utilizing sharp cuts and slow pans to evoke tension and serenity at the right moments. Its soundtrack, too, does an excellent job of setting the tone of each scene, especially after a sensational opening sequence.
Humanity is facing an extinction event in Quarantine Circular, which makes the simultaneous arrival of extraterrestrial life both inconvenient and suspicious. Taking place aboard a vessel tasked with maintaining a quarantine in a vulnerable city, you shift between multiple perspectives while trying to determine why the aliens have arrived and if they might be linked to the plague that's ravaging life across the globe. Although you never see the effects of the plague in action, Quarantine Circular ramps up the stakes quickly with a trail of clues that hint at what's happening outside the ship's confines. There's a palpable sense of urgency befitting the impending collapse of civilization.
Despite its brief two-hour runtime, Quarantine Circular manages to raise intriguing ideological questions about evolution, human nature, and tribalism. The arrival of extraterrestrial life opens questions about life beyond our planet at a time when there's little chance to preserve it. Issues concerning evolutionary fate and the human race's mistakes act as a centerpiece for the core conflict, which has some surprising twists before somewhat stumbling to a deflating conclusion. But it's a tale that will have you laughing moments before pondering deep existential questions, and it manages that balance with grace throughout.
Without the ability to see characters' expressions due to their bulky biohazard suits, dialogue has to do most of the heavy lifting.The color coding of each character helps keep things from getting too confusing, and it doesn't take long for Quarantine Circular to establish a strong sense of identity for each concealed face. Marc Peréz, for example, is a great early-game character with a contagious sense of optimism, and his inquisitiveness when coming face to face with the alien visitor for the first time mirrors your own. He eventually gives way to a set of characters with varied ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, all of which introduce differing yet surprisingly relatable perspectives for you to consider.
Conversational choices are often linear, giving you a handful of responses that sometimes loop back to the same outcome. They always align with the personality of the character you're guiding; you can't, in other words, role-playing however you see fit. You can't make a brooding security specialist suddenly sympathetic to a cause she doesn't believe in or work around the naivete of a young scientist. Quarantine Circular lets you make choices that affect events in some unexpected ways (so much so that you'll be enticed to replay certain sections to see alternative outcomes) but it never lets you mistake your role in its tale.
You also have the option to dive into alternative points of conversation that flesh out the premise and surrounding events. Sometimes you'll be limited as to how many of these conversational diversions you can take, and some choices lock out others. You'll never feel as though you're missing out on anything specifically crucial with your decisions, but your curiosity is often rewarded with morsels of information that influence more important choices down the line.
Infrequently, these focus points are used to inject some light puzzles into the story, which doesn't always work in the dialogue-heavy structure of the rest of the game. There's a section at the end that is specifically guilty of obstruction, bringing a powerful decision-making moment to a crawl as you rummage through character notes to hunt down a password. It breaks the flow of the game, but thankfully it's not a persistent hindrance.
What is slightly more annoying is the frequent hopping between characters. Quarantine Circular can shift perspectives multiple times in a single act, which gets confusing with the strict response options you have to choose from. The cuts feel jarring, and the writing is sometimes forced to acknowledge it. One scene cuts so rapidly that the responses are sign-posted to ensure you know who you're replying as. It's disappointing, too, when you're forced to change your perspective on a given situation during its potential climax, as it undercuts the emotional resonance the scene had built up all along.
Quarantine Circular's endings also struggle to prop up the stories that led to them. They aren't as surprising as the tales that they're meant to be rounding out, often concluding in transparent ways. They might factor in small decisions you considered inconsequential at the time, but the endings fail to encapsulate all the questions the story asks into a thought-provoking final message. Quarantine Circular ends too abruptly, and without much impact.
But it's still a tale worth giving the little time it asks of you, if only to be entertained by its intriguing characters and inspired by their existential pondering. Quarantine Circular is a mostly well-written sci-fi tale that doesn't succumb to tired tropes or obvious plot contrivances to draw you in. Instead it uses its limited working space to deliver a captivating tale about human nature and our theoretical place within the universe.