The brainchild of developer Zen Studios and publisher Saber Interactive, Circus Electrique aims to scratch that itch if you’re a long-time fan of Darkest Dungeon (or similar games).
In some ways, Circus Electrique does manage to offer intriguing mechanics that make it stand out. Unfortunately, some of these don’t necessarily translate to an enjoyable experience. Indeed, I often felt that some ideas were being thrown out there hoping that one would stick.
Circus Electrique takes place in an alternate Victorian-era London, one where the city is depicted in full steampunk flair. You take on the role of Amelia, who sets out to visit her uncle, the Ringmaster of the eponymous traveling attraction.
Things take a turn for the worse, as hostiles known as “Vicious” start appearing out of nowhere. These are ordinary citizens, warped by some unexplained phenomenon that turned them into homicidal killers. While your characters are circus performers, you’ll encounter numerous foes from bandits carrying large contraptions made of steel to mish-mashed machines resembling beasts. Moreover, you’ll partake in several random events and minigames as you explore different districts.
The graphics, for the most part, are quite decent as well. The visuals are crisp and the colors are vibrant, far from the grim and gothic locales that you’ve probably seen in Darkest Dungeon.
Speaking of Darkest Dungeon, Circus Electrique borrows heavily from tried-and-tested combat mechanics. You control a squad of four performers, mixing and matching classes depending on your needs. There’s the tanky Strongman, placed in the frontlines to smash foes, as well as support classes/healers like the Clown and Fakir. Additionally, you’ll find a slew of fighters with different functions, such as Acrobats, Fire Blowers, Jugglers, Ventriloquists, and even Robot Bears.
The people in your squad come with their own skills, usable depending on their position in your lineup. Units take turns attacking, buffing, and defending until you’re finished with an encounter. You’ll notice zany and wacky attacks — everything from rip-roaring buzzsaws to healing popcorn. Oh, and characters who die in battle are gone for good.
One of the key mechanics you’ll have to master in Circus Electrique is devotion. Think of it as akin to morale and/or stress, whereby the stat is increased or decreased in battle (i.e., buffs, multiple enemies killed, and certain abilities). If it’s at a high enough level, a character may gain a buff that lasts until the end of the encounter. If it’s too low, then they’ll get penalized instead.
This can be used against enemies as well, such as repeatedly activating abilities that lower the devotion of mobs, causing them to flee. However, if you’re not paying attention to it, you might find your own teammates running away. Likewise, devotion is tied to the Amazemeter, a bar on the upper-right corner of the screen that allows you to cast powerful abilities once filled up.
Come one, come all
Apart from engaging in battles all over the city, the game also has you managing your circus. Think of it as akin to a town or hamlet, though there are only a handful of building improvements that can be upgraded. Examples include the Train (i.e., unit recruitment), Sleeping Cart (i.e., healing), Artisan (i.e., consumables crafting), and Workshop (i.e., unlocking new Amazemeter abilities).
The most important one is the Circus Tent. This is where you’ll assign characters to do an act, leading to XP, gold, and loot rewards. You’ll want to take note of character bonds and stats, too, as these determine how successful that performance will be. Moreover, it’s a way to restore a bit of devotion that has dwindled while you’re out and about fighting.
The downside is that this feature becomes unbearably tedious and time-consuming down the line. Each act gets completed when you finish a battle, which means you’ll have to micromanage these functions a ridiculous number of times. You’re free to ignore it, but that also means neglecting possible rewards.
It’s bound to hit the mark sometime
There are a few quirks to like about Circus Electrique, and I do commend the effort in presenting some originality. Most notably, I enjoyed unlocking new classes to test out their potential and various team setups, though a few have really odd kits. I also appreciated the inclusion of minigames to break the monotony of progression.
Sadly, similar to the Circus Tent concept, other ideas don’t quite hit the mark. For instance, the aforementioned Train where you get new recruits relies on too much RNG. Units might end up at lower levels, without ideal active skills, lacking a passive perk, poor stat distribution, or negative relationships with other classes.
Similarly, devotion can be a pain to manage in certain moments, especially since a lot of character skills and enemy attacks can lower that value. In some cases, I found that it’s easier to just dismiss someone with low devotion just so I can recruit someone else, rather than wasting a crafted item or having them join a performance.