|Platforms||PS4/5, Switch (reviewed), Xbox One/Series X|S, PC|
|Release Date||September 6, 2022|
What would happen if you combined Cirque de Soleil with those weird hat-zombies from Meet the Robinsons? If you’d asked me that question about a month ago, I would have given you a very strange look. Ask me now, however, and you’d still get the weird look, but I’d also have an answer: Circus Electrique, an intriguing little RPG from Hungarian developer Zen Studios.
Language: Characters occasionally use minor epithets such as “hell” and “d***.”
Violence: Characters bludgeon each other with various weapons, including barbells, baker’s paddles, slapsticks, chains, and more. Other weapons include guns, fists, rat traps, and more. All violence is slapstick, and there is very little, if any, blood. Characters cry out in pain and otherwise express pain when they are hit or defeated. The Vicious are real people, and not robotic replacements, as they first appear to be. The newspaper mentions several violent incidents, including a Vicious stabbing a poodle through the throat.
Sexual Content: Several female characters wear midriff-bearing outfits or show a bit of cleavage.
Other Negative Elements: The circus performers make a lot of sacrifices for The Ringmaster, who doesn’t give a lot of thought to their own wellbeing or agency.
Positive Elements: The game focuses a lot on the devotion of characters and their binding together to fight off the Vicious. There’s a decent variety of skin tones and body types throughout. The main story is focused on reconciliation between estranged family members.
Circus Electrique is a weird RPG. It’s a story-driven steampunk circus simulator with a Dungeons & Dragons style gameplay loop, mixed with traditional RPG battle mechanics. That covers a lot of ground, and it’s hard to get across absolutely everything the game has to offer. But suffice it to say, it’s a unique take on a time-tested genre, and I’m always up for something new.
The game begins by following Amelia Craig, a journalist for the London Voice. She’s been sent to cover the Circus Electrique, a failing circus with a unique gimmick: lots of electricity. In fact, this particular evening, they’re about to unveil their latest attraction: the Tower of Power. Amelia arrives just as the Tower is activated. Immediately, a flash of light blares from the top of the mechanical monstrosity. In the aftermath, people all over London go absolutely insane, attacking anyone and anything nearby. This event, termed the Maddening by the Voice, hasn’t seemed to touch the performers of the Circus Electrique, however. Amelia decides to investigate the Maddening, and the Ringmaster of the Circus Electrique, who happens to be her estranged uncle, sends a group of performers along with her to protect her. Your ragtag team of big-top bruisers heads off into an alternate steampunk Victorian London to discover exactly what caused the Maddening. If they’ve got to knock a few heads to get the job done, so be it.
I have to give Circus Electrique credit for one thing right off the bat: the presentation. The entire game is rendered in a sketchy art style that looks straight out of an illustrated tome from the time period. The cutscenes, too, are presented like a silent movie, complete with film grain and scratches. The music even has a filter put into it to make it sound like it’s coming from a phonograph. The game goes out of its way from the gates to present a cohesive steampunk experience, and I have to say that it succeeds. The artwork is skillfully done, and I appreciate the little presentation flourishes throughout.
The filters did get a little old pretty quickly, however. Thankfully, it only takes a quick trip to the options menu to see those beautiful graphics in full fidelity and to hear the music as it was originally composed, rather than sounding like it’s being played inside a tin can.
I also have to highlight the wealth of quality voice acting. Most of the game is voiced, including all the intermediary cutscenes. We’re (thankfully) far from the days of early video game voice acting like Resident Evil, but it’s still refreshing to see a game have a talented and committed voice cast. It never felt over the top or even campy, (well, as non-campy as you can be with a story so bonkers.) It made following the story a treat, and the characters were enjoyable.
The gameplay is separated into days, each with three phases: circus management, exploring London, and beating off any pesky Vicious that dare to show their faces. You begin each day at the Circus Electrique, with all its various options. You can recruit new performers, rest tired performers, set up circus shows, and craft items for your journey. Each building can be upgraded as you gain more experience from battling the Vicious. The recruitment and rest options are pretty self-explanatory: your performers are your units, and you need to hire more and rest the ones that get tired out.
The circus show management is the real focus here. That’s right, even in the middle of an apocalypse of killer zombie bobbies, the show must go on. Each day, you’ll need to set up a show to perform at the Circus Electrique. As you progress, you’ll unlock more show plans, with different performance slots and stat requirements. Once you’ve chosen your plan, you’ll have to fill the slots with performers, keeping in mind their preferred role and relationship with other types of performers. All these elements affect the outcome of your shows. Once you’ve got your circus freaks in line, you can make some final adjustments to the show, and then get to advertising.
The circus shows are the main way you get resources other than exploring London. It’s an intriguing element to the game, and it takes a decent bit of strategy to get a good setup. Each individual performer is different, and you’ve got to make sure they all get along. If you pair a clown who hates fire breather with a fire breather, the synergy of the performance drops, and the audience can tell. It’s a nice way to break up the exploration and battling, though it is frustrating when none of your units line up in the way you need them to. These are some picky performers, but when you’re able to get a good lineup, it’s satisfying to watch the gifts pour in from the audience.
Exploring London is fairly straightforward. You assemble a team of four performers and move around the map to different nodes, where events take place. Each performer has a preferred slot in the lineup, where they’re most effective. The odd thing about this whole system, though, is the way it’s controlled, at least on the Switch. You control the party assembly menu with the left stick and make selections with the face buttons. But you control the actual map itself with the right stick, while also making selections with the face buttons. It would have been much more intuitive to have a party menu you can open, then close to explore the map. I kept accidentally removing performers from my party by hitting B to close what I thought was a menu, then having to re-build my team.
The events throughout London vary a bit, but overall, it’s a bland offering. You have event nodes, which are your typical DND NPC encounters. You may find a homeless man begging for food, and you’re given the option to give him food, escort him to a shelter, or ignore him. Your choice will determine his fate and, more importantly, what resources you gain or lose from the interaction.
There are also game nodes featuring some simple minigames. These are simple little risk-and-reward affairs. You’ll have to please circus fans by beating a certain stat score with a chosen performer, or play a shuffleboard-esque coin toss game. These are a nice diversion, but they’re not really intricate enough to be more than a momentary distraction.
Add to both of these the fact that the resources don’t feel like they have much of an impact on gameplay, and exploring London leaves the player feeling a little empty. Yes, the resources impact whether or not you can afford to hire a new performer, craft an item, or upgrade stats, but it never really feels like you can manage your inventory. I felt more like I was blindly clicking on whatever the game told me was ready to upgrade without really needing to give thought to my resources. If I ever didn’t have enough, I just kept playing until I built up enough inventory. The minigames never felt like I was gaining enough resources to make any difference. If some of them had a higher reward, say a TON of one type of resource, it would have raised the stakes a little bit. But as it stands, two thirds of the exploration portion of the game didn’t quite land.
So that leaves the last third: the battles. The third type of node is a Clash node. In a Clash, you’ll go toe-to-toe with a group of Vicious. Every battle has unique elements that you’ll have to contend with, like weather, time of day, and more. Once you enter a Clash, you’ll take your team of performers onto the streets. Every type of performer is its own class, from the healer Clowns, the tank Strongmen, and the ranged Fire Breathers. The variety of performers lends a much-needed sense of variety after the samey explorations segments.
Battles are turn-based, and the turn order is determined by the Initiative stat of every character (again, with the DND inspirations). On each character’s turn, they’ll have the option of using an item or one of their skills. As I mentioned earlier, skill usability is determined by a character’s position or a variety of other effects. If a character isn’t in an optimal spot, you can move them at the expense of their turn.
Each character also has a Devotion stat. The higher the devotion, the more resistant they are to fleeing battles, and the better they’ll perform in the circus acts. If a performer or enemy’s Devotion drops to 0, they’ll flee the battle, and maybe even your circus as a whole.
The battles are where your characters’ preferred order come into play. Depending on where your character is in the lineup, different skills will be locked off or available. Typically, most of a character’s skills will be available if they’re in a preferred spot. However, there were a few times I ran into an issue where a character was in one of their favorite spots, but half of their abilities were still unavailable. Turns out, if a character has more than one preferred spot, there are some abilities they’ll only be able to use in ONE of those spots, and it’s difficult to tell what moves can be used from what spot before you’re in a battle. What’s more, when you are in a battle, the game doesn’t do a great job of letting you know if an ability is unavailable because of a negative status effect, a non-ideal placement, or an environmental effect. This led to a lot of unnecessary frustration where I couldn’t get my characters to do what I desperately needed them to do.
The battles make up a majority of the playtime, which is why it’s such a shame that they, too, are just plain boring. Every battle drags on for what seems like an eternity, and it takes far too long to sort through which skills are available or even effective against enemies. And heaven forbid if you should need to move a character. You’ll need to burn up multiple turns just to get them to a place where they’re halfway usable.
The environmental battle conditions could have been an opportunity to add some variety, but there’s not much you can do to mitigate their effects. For instance, one effect of rainy weather is that every character loses a bit of Devotion at the end of every turn. There’s nothing you can do to mitigate this, so all this does is make your characters run away quicker, as well as add another 5 seconds to every turn while the character loses Devotion. A typical battle has so many buffs and other effects that it’s near impossible to keep track of which character has which effect. It wasn’t tactical at all; in fact, I usually just ended up ignoring the status effect and whaling away with my strongest attackers to get the battle over with.
Instead of feeling like a fluid and intuitive battle system, the clunky skill selection, frustrating “preferred slot” system, a tedious and overly abundant stats made it feel more like I was babysitting a control console. It didn’t feel like I had any real control over how the battle was going. Things just happened, and I had to deal with them, and there usually wasn’t much I could do other than use an item to restore Devotion or health. Many attack animations take too long to carry out, making even short battles feel bloated. The difficulty, too, is wildly inconsistent, with one battle being comically easy and the very next one taking you out in just a couple turns.
All this adds up to make Circus Electrique an ambitious, beautiful concept that completely falls flat on its face when actually put into practice. Far from feeling like an engaging resource management/circus ringmaster simulator with some RPG battles thrown in, it ended up feeling like I was micromanaging my way through an onslaught of mystery effects and random minigames. In a good battle system, you’re able to think one or two steps ahead of where you are and build your way to a good outcome. I never got that feeling in Circus Electrique. It never felt like I was able to plan for anything, since I never knew what random thing was going to be thrown my way, and even if I did, the game was actively fighting me being able to do anything with my characters.
One of the most frustrating situations for me as a reviewer is when a game is not objectively bad, or in fact, is good in so many ways, but just fails to deliver on being an enjoyable experience. This is one of those situations. Circus Electrique is not a rushed game, or even a bad game. It tries some unique and novel things, and accomplishes about 40 percent of them well. But it is a boring game, which is honestly one of the saddest things I can say about a video game. The main bulk of the gameplay simply falls short of being fun, and that kills the rest of the experience.
There’s a lot of passion behind Circus Electrique; that’s clear from the moment you boot it up. But passion has to be followed by an engaging experience, and unfortunately, that’s where this circus falls off the trapeze.
The Bottom Line
Circus Electrique is a beautiful and ambitious RPG that unfortunately fails when it comes to delivering a fun or engaging experience.
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