Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
If there’s one style that never fails to capture my attention, it’s Victorian Steampunk. Finding ourselves within the streets of said Victorian Steampunk’d London, Circus Electrique by Zen Studios and Saber Interactive is a tale of a reporter named Amelia. Following Amelia, it’ll be up to you to help her figure out what has happened as the city has apparently gone mad on the evening of her uncle’s grand reopening of the titular Circus Electrique.
One thing that I immediately enjoyed about Circus Electrique, other than the artstyle and the premise, is the execution of both the gameplay and the narrative. With a lot of “dungeon crawlers” it’s not uncommon to be thrown content upfront and then have it scattered lightly through the rest of the experience. While there will obviously be more dungeon crawling than storytelling, as you do need to fight your way through to these events, there is still more than enough to keep your interest if you can of course make it that far.
Starting off with a brief tutorial of the many, many, MANY elements that you’ll need to keep in mind, everything truly kicks off once this has been completed and you get access to the Circus Electrique grounds that act as your base of operations. Within these grounds you’ll have access to a train that brings in new circus performers, a medical cart to heal up and eventually other facilities that allow the creation of items, the physical training of performers and the biggest of them all, the performance tent.
Each day, you’ll have decisions to make. These decisions, while seemingly not really important in the beginning, will eventually reveal themselves to be the difference between continuing on this adventure or seeing the dreaded game over screen. So every day, you will need to decide who will be exploring the city during the day, who is performing that evening, who will be resting up, and who may be mentally prepared to train themselves up to get tougher. Mental health is a very large component of Circus Electrique as it not only affects your performers and their performances in battle and live for the crowds, but also your enemies as you head out into the streets.
Technically built as a story driven RPG meshed in with simulator elements, I’m calling Circus Electrique a dungeon crawler. The reason? Because that’s really what the style lends itself to. Once a day, after you’ve made your decisions as part of the simulation process through the hosting of nightly performances, don’t worry if you forget as you’ll always get a reminder if you did, you’ll head out into the streets of London. Set in a series of event nodes, there are multiple paths forward for you to choose from but all roads lead to your goal. Starting off with the first chapter, the London Bridge has disappeared, disappeared, the London bridge has disappeared and you’re going to find it! Sorry, Circus Electrique does it so I figured I would throw it in.
So in order to make it from your base of operations over to the London Bridge, and other goals thereafter, you’re also going to have to pick a group of performers that will act as Amelia’s protection. Not ALL nodes are combat nodes, as you can find treasure, meet with people from the city, play host to mini-performances and more, but once those have been cleared, it’s time for a rumble. Every second node is a combat node and these will truly affect how the story plays out. If successful? You get to move forward. If you fail? Well Circus Electrique, the title, does not hold its punches and if your performers are downed in battle? They are dead. If they run away due to poor morale and mental health? They’ll leave the troop. Either way, it’s easy enough to lose characters and once your coffers are empty? That’s a curtain call.
So to avoid this, you’ll want to make sure that you not only win each of these above stated combat nodes, but also make sure that your troop is in constant tip top shape. Full health, good morale in this case known as devotion, and finally? Prepared for the action ahead. Combat itself is both simultaneously simple and complex. Having an initiative order for who will go when on each turn, every participant then gets to have one, or more, actions depending on their abilities. From there, participants are also lined up on both sides of the screen in a 1-2-3-4 lineup with #1 being at the front, and #4 being at the back. This is where things start to get a bit tricky.
Character skills range from direct melee attacks to full on range attacks. These attacks can hit one person just as easily as they could hit everyone. The placement in the order is what will dictate which moves can actually be performed as every character has abilities for their position in the lineup. THIS, is a life saver as it means that no unit is ever useless which is a big thing especially once enemies can start shuffling your group. It was however also a curse as sometimes in order to use better moves for the situation, your front line hulk would need to take a step or two back in the line in order to throw their weapon across the entire enemy line for a decent sum of damage.
The other element with all of the above is that some character types, such as clowns, have the ability to temporarily boost devotion. The higher the devotion, the tougher your character. As devotion gets lower though, you may just see people leaving combat… on both sides. It’s a very useful strategy especially against certain enemy types. However restoring devotion and improving mental health isn’t always the easiest to do. Making matters worse, some abilities actually require the lowering of devotion in order to perform on top of the fact that some enemies can lower your entire group’s devotion with a single ability. Do that a couple times here and there and it won’t take long to lose a few of your group that way.
While this management of characters could be tough at times, there are enough elements in place that all loopback into one another. You leave the Circus Electrique during the day and pass by one event node before engaging in enemies on the combat node. Every night, you can have a performance for those within London that have not gone mad and could use entertainment. Between these two major elements, the daily combat challenges will not only help to level up your performers, but also the Circus Electrique itself, while performances, if they go well, will be earning your money.
As Circus Electrique levels up, you’ll be able to improve upon the existing facilities. The train that brings in your performers can start to bring in higher level versions with different abilities. The medical cart can start to treat more than one performer at a time. The training facility can also start to do the same as more than one performer may train themselves simultaneously. It’s little things that all start to accumulate, however, you also need to keep an eye on your resources to make sure that you have what you need in order to continue operations. While money is the main one, you’ll need an eye on food so that your performers can eat alongside several other resources that are required to level up a performer’s abilities to make them better in combat.
If I was to have, one complaint, it would be that if you mess up? That’s it. Game. Over. You really need to keep an eye on everything even if it doesn’t seem that important at the time. Also another good idea is to keep various manual save files as you never know when you’re going to need them. With the way that Circus Electrique is structured, I figured that it would only be a matter of time before it was curtain call, however, I thought that a game over would only result in having to restart the current area again, not the entire experience. Some bosses are TOUGH and the first time going up against the boss of area 2? I lost. That’s it, I just lost.
The reason I lost was because the boss would take out all four performers. Running away wasn’t even an option as they couldn’t even make it to their next turn to do so. Also running away severely reduces devotion so that’s another thing that didn’t help. For every performer that died however, I had to hire new ones. Each hired new performer results in less money in the bank, do this a few times and next thing you know you’re down to only a handful of performers and can’t put on a performance for more money. You see the end coming but you try anyway. But that’s also part of the fun especially in a higher stakes dungeon crawler!
Finally, if there’s one adjustment that I would have liked to have, it would have been the ability to speed up combat. Some abilities just take too long, your side and the enemy’s especially if you’ve seen them a hundred times by that point. That is also without exaggeration as you spend quite a lot of time in combat. But overall, Circus Electrique even if it has a lot to keep in mind, will also often remind you that if it is too much? There’s a built-in guide to remind you about everything that it’s told you.
Overall though, while it may be a bit harder to recommend Circus Electrique to those that do not like a challenge, especially a tougher challenge, for those that do? There’s plenty of challenges to be found. Add in a great visual presentation of a Victorian Steampunk’d London and Zen Studios have created something memorable that I’m going to remember for quite some time.Score: 7.75 / 10