I don’t understand why my strongman’s barbells are plasma globes, wouldn’t those weigh very little?
Darkest Dungeon is one of those games that has established its identity so absurdly well that I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever seen another game exactly like it, but Zen Studios has worked very hard at their attempt to change this: Circus Electrique. Zen is not exactly shying away from this comparison, Darkest Dungeon is the game I have heard Circus Electrique compared to more than any other and it’s easy to see why. Battles look and feel very similar, there’s a similar amount and type of resource management when it comes to your party members, permadeath is a present factor, etc. So how does it actually stack up to this comparison? It should be noted that I am not actually a fan of Darkest Dungeon myself, so I went into this review with the angle of finding out if somebody like me might still enjoy this game.
Circus Electrique takes place in an alternate history Victorian era London where Tesla-esque technology has become commonplace, and there is no better place to see the wonders of this world than the titular circus. The Circus Electrique is reopening after many years, and to mark the occasion they plan to light an electric Pillar of Power, but the moment they do so The Maddening occurs. People all over London begin to turn violent and murderous, and the circus’s performers must use their unique skills to protect the city while also trying to uncover the cause behind The Maddening. Because of the circus aesthetic the game is going for, character classes like fire breathers, clowns, and strongmen replace your usual fare for an RPG, with each class having their own sets of skills that perfectly match up with the kind of showman they’re supposed to be. Clowns can heal with laughter and taunt enemies with their jokes, escape artists can channel electricity through their chains, and strongmen hit things very hard.
A party in Circus Electrique is made up of up to four members, and positioning is very important. Party members will stand in a single file line, with each character having a set of preferred positions that would work best with their skills. Certain skills can only hit certain positions on the enemy team, a clown’s ball throw attack can hit anybody from anywhere but their hammer can only strike the first two people in the enemy line and only if that clown is in the first or second position. Some attacks can hit every member of the opposite party, though these are generally weak and more meant for their secondary effects such as breaking an enemy’s defensive stance or causing status effects. Aside from HP characters also have a secondary stat called devotion, which affects their stats such as evasion or attack strength. Certain attacks can lower the enemy’s devotion, and if you bring it down to zero they will immediately flee the battle, but be warned that this also applies to your characters. If a performer’s devotion stays at zero for multiple days they will leave the circus, this also happens if their HP reaches zero while in battle but for a much sadder reason (they die). Battle overall is rather slow paced for an RPG which does help ramp up tension, but I found this pace was a bit of a problem when an overly long loading screen accompanied each fight at both ends. Fights also feel rather repetitive, especially at the start, with very little variation on the skills you’re using until devotion levels force you to change up your party configuration.
Devotion and HP levels on your performers are only one of the many, many things the game expects you to keep track of. A lot of these are introduced early, but this has the problem of feeling kind of overwhelming when presented all at once. Luckily Circus Electrique keeps all of its tutorials available at any time, so if you don’t quite understand a mechanic you can look at that specific tutorial again. One of these mechanics is the act of organizing shows for the circus to put on. Before embarking out onto the streets of London you must select a number of performers who will stay behind and entertain guests, and doing this is a much more complicated affair than you might think. Every performer has a preferred section of the show, the opening or closing act for example, shown using a V shaped symbol on their character card. They also have a type of performer they work well with, and one they very much don’t. Your job is to make sure each performer is in the best spot possible, with the success of your show depending on this synergy. A successful show will earn you resources that can be used to keep your circus afloat, something very important if you want to make it to the end of the game.
Overall Circus Electrique probably won’t change your mind if you’re not already interested in games like it, the slower pace and heavy amounts of resource management will probably still cause you to bounce off. I can tell that this is a pretty good game even with some of its flaws, but it was very much not my flavor. It doesn’t help that, while the Tesla circus aesthetic is fun, the game’s use of 3D models means that it is not as visually distinct as the game that inspired it. One aspect that may change your mind about trying it is that, unlike Darkest Dungeon, Circus Electrique has difficulty options that include an easy mode where characters regain a bit of health at the end of each day, but even with this it was not enough to hold my interest the whole way through. If you like Darkest Dungeon, this is absolutely a game you should give a shot, but otherwise the grand Circus Electrique is probably not going to change your life.