Step right up and into the circus management, strategy and turn based tactics of Circus Electrique. Do this show need to go on? The Finger Guns Review.
I have always loved the circus. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve never seen them the same after the film Water for Elephants or obviously Dumbo, but there is something about a circus that is very uniquely special. Recently, I felt the urge to change things up a bit, because I had recently played a lot of cosy, cutesy puzzle games. No complaints here however, as that as normally my jam, but sometimes you gotta’ switch it up. You can imagine my interest when Circus Electrique came to headquarters boasting a mix of genre’s to tickle my fancy at once; colour me interested!
Set in London 1889, we follow the story of Journalist Amelia. London has been struck with a terrifying mystery where everyday folk and police have turned into the ‘vicious’. These ‘vicious’ act in complete tyranny, wanting nothing more but to kill you. The only saving grace for London is a run down circus where nobody seems to have been affected by the terrible going’s on of London town. The story also follows an inspired tale with famous circus giant P.T Barnum (that’s Hugh Jackman’s character in the Greatest Showman). Amelia wants to get to the bottom of why London has been overrun with possessed Vicious, but has reason not to trust her estranged uncle who is the ringmaster of this circus, believing he killed her Mother in the circus when she was a child. The story is entertaining throughout, and gives the player much to explore via conversation between characters. The conversation choices won’t change the outcome, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a rich story if you want too.
Beyond the story, the first impressions of Circus Electrique are divisive. From the offset of the game, everything is first spread out all over the screen, from character stats to move descriptions to item inventory. This initially feels really overwhelming and could easily give new players the impression that there is too much information to take in. Players could be turned off by this, but Circus Electrique acknowledges this after the prologue, so credit where credit is due. To plicate this somewhat, it immediately directs the player to a codex where it can explain everything on the screen. From how to handle your circus monkeys, directions for exploring the circus and the status of Steampunk London acting as a frequent reminder for your state of play, you can find everything you need in this codex.
The three main elements of the game are the combat sections, London Town, and your circus. The basic idea of the loop is to manage your circus by planning performances, treating wounds or training members, exploring London Town, and engaging in combat with the “vicious”. Amelia takes to London town with her Journalist partner-in-crime, the blind lion her mother used to tame before her demise.
A Juggling Act
Circus Electrique does have an excellent job of balancing all three of these elements. I suppose ultimately the task is to help Amelia explore all of London to get to the bottom of the Maddening, why people are possessed and how London got this way in the first place. London is explored through a series of events laid out onto a map of London. Most of the events will be combat, while others will be conversations, rewards or even mini-games to achieve experience or items for battle. The mini-games are a lot of fun and a welcome break from all the battling. Made up of small traditional circus games such as coin sliding for the most points, balancing plates, and top trumps.
As a player you’ll need to build an exploration team from the members of the circus you have in your roster. This is where skill and strategy is your absolute friend. Circus members will all have different levels, stats, devotion and moves depending on both the individual and what type of Circus member they are, such as clown, firebreather, snake tamer etc. However, an extra element to think about is the placement of your team. Members will prefer to be placed in certain positions in a row for battle. If they are in their desired position, they will likely be much more beneficial to the party by power and access to moves they have. The vicious will go out of there way to change the order in battle to make the team weaker and more vulnerable to attacks.
Devotion is a thick blue line underneath a performer’s health, indicating how happy your members are in the circus under your masterful hands. Building devotion is important because it will determine the power and accuracy of their attack and their ability to stay in combat. If their devotion falls too low, they’ll either flee a battle, leaving you high and dry, or leave the circus completely. Devotion can be built through a number of ways, mostly by putting them in circus shows.
The fact that you can only be in one place at once, exactly like in real life, adds another layer to the strategy. Therefore, if a member is added to the exploration team, you cannot add them to the show. They won’t be able to participate in a show or battle for you if they are sick and need to rest. At first, this is quite simple to handle, but later on in the game, it can become a real balancing act to level up all of your characters evenly while maintaining their devotion, employing them in battle, and keeping an eye on their health.
Combat is turn based, and players will need to employ the best tactics they see fit at the time, whether offensive or defensive. Players can also decide to assault the opponents’ devotion, causing them to flee the conflict. For your members’ particular circus class, each member will have a variety of attacks. Not every clown will attack in the same way as the other clowns. Battles are rarely dull since every move, brings the action to life and shifts the tactical focus. Don’t get me wrong though, RNG can really talk dirty to you and not in the nice way. Missing a hit that could be worth 60HP is painstaking, like your favourite team hitting the goalpost in football.
Players will also need to account for the type of weather the battle is being taken under, as this will change the effectiveness of some moves and even whole circus types. Rain will essentially make it very difficult for anyone in your roster who is a fire tamer, where as it will increase the effectiveness of the clown. The strategy is extremely clever and will need you constantly moving your team around to account for the weather. I think this leads me to the first thing I personally did not enjoy in Circus Electrique. That is the night battles.
Night battles have a bobby meter, meaning when the meter is at full capacity, extra reinforcements of police come wadding into your current battle. This can take your balanced 4 vs 4 to a 4 vs 8. The meter will fill with any loud noises, so essentially any time you actually attack an opponent. It turns play into a race to try and beat the other team in the most strategic way, but some members will heal members of their team and it can go on forever with you taking a massive disadvantage and being no better off than you started. The most infuriating part is that you are the only side with the meter and the other team can attack you as much as they like with a consequence. I actively tried to avoid night battles in the map by going in different directions, because if your team ‘die’ in the battle, they leave the circus permanently and losing some of your best men to a bullshit meter the other team doesn’t have made such a dent in my game that I didn’t find entertaining or fun.
Running Away With the Circus
On the other hand, the circus management side of the game is well intertwined with the rest of the game. Members will need to be satisfied with your progress in the circus and you will need to put on the best shows to gain experience and create the biggest bustling circus in town. Here, the focus is on the chemistry and each member will have their own individual needs on who they will best perform with.
Putting on a great show will be determined by filling the amount of stats needed, accumulated by each player, but also making sure their chemistry is high. Some body-builders hate working with clowns, some clowns will perform better with a snake-tamer on their team. Some performances will do better overall if a magician is involved. As you progress through the game, different shows are able to be performed. Circus Electrique won’t allow for complacency and if you continue to put on the same show ‘because it works’, the novelty will wear off for the public. Thus the show will not be successful, earning you less items, experience and money. Money can be spent in a variety of different ways, performers need to be paid daily and you can buy new performers from the sleeper train and craft items for battle.
The management sim is as fun as you make it, off balancing your performers with all body-builders because they pack a huge punch in battle, is going to give you a hard time performance wise, so it is important to lean into a variety of skills, performances and build up the levels of the less offensive characters so you don’t have such a hard time overall.
From a technical standpoint, the game mostly runs very smoothly, and there was never a lag in battle. The animations run really well and the art style offers a steampunk edge that will satisfy anyone who has a taste for this era and aesthetic. I did run into one crash where it wouldn’t let me swap out any of my exploration team. Nothing a quick restart won’t fix. The game will autosave often so it’s not possible to lose massive chunks of your game.
One thing that is worth highlighting is the difficulty differences between easy and medium. I initially played the game on medium and got as far as just before the third district. There are 6 overall and they get larger and more vast as you proceed. On medium, you really have to balance the scale, and you’ll find yourself really feeling the strain of needing to swap out your team frequently and evenly using all elements of the circus to train your team, heal your team and build XP. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of it. However, I ran into a boss fight difficulty spike where they essentially destroyed me from the offset. Their attacks were a jump up from previous battles and they were a level higher than me. Impossible to get to that level as each one of my performers met their demise, I knew I was toast.
During play, you’ll likely develop a couple of favourite units and if they’re dead, they ain’t coming back. I knew once I reached the final few, it would be impossible to beat the boss. Due to a new day starting after every battle, there is no way anyone can ‘heal’ or train without you fighting. You end up in a bit of a stalemate if you come across a team harder to defeat because it isn’t like you can go back and ‘train’. You’d need a new fight and a new day to do that, which is impossible.
It turned into a survival game very quickly, and once everyone’s dead, it is over. It felt punishing and quite unforgiving to see my game slowly soft lock itself into place with no way of helping myself. I didn’t realise I was playing XCOM. I was far into the game but not far enough that I felt hopeless. Rather than start again, I played on easy to see the comparison. I am well into the fourth district and can tell you, I have not used the med bay once. Nobody has lost their life, and I am always nearly a level above anyone I am fighting.
It seems strangely disproportionate to the game I had played previously that I am almost missing the challenge and strategy from my other playthrough. However, I wouldn’t be looking forward to playing a game where I have to essentially stay perfect. I also don’t feel you should have to start a game this vast and story driven again to be able to learn from your potential mistakes.
Despite that bugbear, I have had a lot of fun. The game is very interesting, the story is mysterious and the combat and management side is a lot of fun to manage as long as everyone doesn’t die! The game has managed to blend the genre’s well and intertwine them to compliment each other in a way they don’t feel disjointed and not part of the strategy. Everything feels as if it is on purpose and there is a lot to do to keep the players entertained. I am looking forward to see the conclusion of this ‘in tents’ story (hardy ha).
Circus Electrique features a unique take on a blend of genres that are nicely balanced against one another – a fun narrative, slick turn based combat and interesting circus management simulation. The art style (a steampunk take on Victorian London) is easy on the eye and players can customise their game to be as strategic as they like. That said, the gameplay loop can be either too demanding or passively easy if not played on the right difficulty.
Circus Electrique drops 6th September 2022 on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series, PC and Nintendo Switch.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
Developer: Zen Studios
Publisher: Saber Interactive
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