Title: Circus Electrique
Developer: Saber Interactive
Release Date: August 8, 2022
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Zen Studios
Welcome, one and all, to a land where misfits and machines coexist. Set in the Victorian era of London, Circus Electrique is a tactical story-driven RPG and a circus management sim rolled into one, where you’re given the responsibility of presiding over Circus Electrique and its inhabitants while simultaneously uncovering the reason behind why a majority of London’s population have suddenly turned into cold-blooded killers.
As I began my playthrough, what initially captured my attention was its beautifully depicted environment of Victorian London. The title screen sets up the game’s vintage aesthetic by employing a film grain effect reminiscent of old-school films while displaying a classically uniformed British policeman beside an antique automobile.
In keeping with the game’s theme, you can choose from three aptly named difficulties, Doorkeeper (Easy), Artist (Normal), and Ringmaster (Hard). Following this, you’re introduced to the main protagonists and how the core conflict, called the Maddening, first began.
While the initial scene does well in establishing the central theme, the plot’s progression and storytelling felt unpolished and predictable. Aside from a few foreseeable twists towards the end, nothing about the story made it especially stand out. The uninspired writing and lack of character development only magnified its narrative flaws.
Outside of the narrative and exploration, you will enter battles. Encounters are turn-based, with the combined movement order for both the opposing team and your party being determined by the value of each character’s Initiative attribute. You begin with two of the more durable classes, Strongman and the Clown. Each party member has a set of 6 skills depending on their class.
Devotion is an essential element that impacts combat and circus management. Devotion affects skill strength and accuracy in battles while influencing performances and general satisfaction outside of it. For example, if a character’s devotion meter is left empty for too long, they’ll leave the circus permanently. Further, if a party member or an opponent’s devotion meter drops to zero during an encounter, the character flees the fight, leaving the others to fend for themselves.
Lineup positioning in battles is another integral system, as several skills are only usable if a character is placed in a specific position. A maximum of four party members can be brought into skirmishes, and each class has its own preferred position within the lineup. For example, the skills of Strongman and Clown are mostly usable in the first and second slots of the lineup. By contrast, “glass cannons,” such as the Fire Blower and Knife Thrower classes, have mostly usable skills in the third and fourth slots of the lineup.
Circus Electrique’s battle system emphasizes positioning, and I especially enjoyed tinkering with different class lineups for certain stages and opponents. It was a facet that I thoroughly appreciated initially. Still, it did start to feel a smidge repetitive as I progressed because the encounters didn’t have much variation outside of differing opponents.
After the initial combat tutorial, the story can be accessed and advanced through a board-game-like map with several different icons, each representing a specific event, scattered throughout. Maps have multiple paths that can be taken, but whichever route you take ultimately leads toward the same conclusion for that chapter.
Finally, I found the circus management aspect to be an innovative feature that brightens an otherwise dreary Victorian environment. An essential part of managing the circus involves setting up shows that can help you earn money, experience points, and increased devotion to your troupe. In addition, a variety of circus show drafts are unlockable as you progress and can then be used to create more elaborate performances, increasing the rewards you earn.
The circus also features interactable auxiliary structures such as the Train, where you can recruit performers, and the sleeping cart, where you can heal injured party members. Having your troupe members interact with the surrounding structures becomes doubly important as their devotion drops if they’re left idle for too long.
Various buildings can be upgraded by spending supplies and money that are mainly rewarded after combat. Resource collection was one of the more difficult elements I encountered, as the allocation of supplies after a victory is heavily influenced by RNG. What you earn won’t always be what you need, and I often found myself lacking the necessary supplies required to sustain the circus and upgrade structures.
Another factor that adds to the game’s difficulty is its perma-death. Similar to classic tactical games, a character permanently disappears from your lineup if they die in combat. Though a replacement can easily be found and recruited, it’s never a good feeling when a character you’re familiar with is removed from the team. Much like a real-life circus, the initial excitement eventually dissipates once the game’s novelty wears off.
Circus Electrique is enjoyable not only for its accurate depiction of the Victorian era aesthetic but also for its distinctive class and combat system and flexibility found in creating lineup combinations. The idea behind the game’s creation is innovative, but what it offers in creativity lacks execution. Several thematic elements make it stand out from typical genre tropes, yet I can’t help but feel that it would have been better served if it had focused on polishing its foundation.
So, tell everyone to spread the news that the high-flying and electrifying Circus Electrique is in town.
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