STAFF REVIEW of Circus Electrique (Xbox One)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022.
by Adam Dileva

Circus Electrique Box art Usually when I first watch a trailer for a new game I can generally get an idea and feel for how the game is going to be. I’ll admit, watching the trailer for Circus Electrique left me somewhat confused at to what I was about to experience. I’m glad I did experience it though, as Circus Electrique is an odd blend of turn based tactical combat, a narrative RPG, but also a circus management game, all wrapped in a Victorian era steampunk aesthetic. Intrigued by this unique mashup yet?

While you don’t play directly as her, the protagonist is Amelia, a young journalist that’s related to the Ringmaster of the circus, Randy. You’re actually here investigating an event being dubbed as “The Maddening”, which is having people in London being killed at random after becoming violent and aggressive. With her tamed lion along her side, Leonidas, you’ll investigate what’s the root cause for The Maddening with circus performers acting as your bodyguards as you explore six districts within London.

The narrative is intriguing at first, wondering what’s going on and some more sub-plots beneath the surface, but I’ll admit, it was hard to follow along at times simply because of all the circus management and game mechanics you need to constantly be checking in on and having to focus on. As you explore each district you’ll battle against numerous types of enemies, some robotic and others creepy looking. Boss battles await at the end of each district as well, something you better have planned to prepare for well ahead of time.

There’s numerous distinct portions to Circus Electrique’s gameplay, each unique and a lot to remember and manage, but all intertwined simultaneously. A large portion is the actual circus management that plays in a daily cycle. The big top tent is where you’ll plan for your daily (or multiple days) shows, choosing which performers will be the main, secondary and supporting acts. Certain performers are better suited for specific roles, but each character also has preferences on who they like, and don’t like, to work with, that makes for a better show overall. So it becomes almost like a puzzle to figure out the best ‘team’ to make a show from your inventory of performers to earn the most stars. The more stars you earn the more resources you gain, allowing you to craft more items to earn better performers and more fans. It’s quite confusing in the beginning, especially since you also need to keep enough people on your team for the exploration and combat sections, but more on that shortly.

At the end of each day after a combat portion, you then get your rewards for the circus show you setup that was performed, adding a day since The Maddening investigation began. These shows start out with just three performers, eventually going to four or five, but also upping certain ‘stat’ requirements to even start the show, so it’s somewhat a puzzle on figuring out if you have the proper performers to even start some of the shows with bigger rewards. It’s very complex, and even trying to detail and explain it is difficult, as it took me quite a while to eventually figure out.

The circus grounds will have many different areas you can interact with, each meant for a different use. The Train is where you can recruit new performers that appear randomly, but this of course costs money and resources to do so but you can only house a limited number at a time, so choose wisely, as you need to start leveling them up as soon as you can if you want to be successful in combat. When your performers are used for combat rounds they will most likely return injured. This is where the Sleeping Cart comes in, as they will need to rest to refill their health if you want them to survive subsequent battles. The Artisan is where you’ll go to craft items. As you defeat enemies in battle and perform circus events daily, you earn a number of different resources which can then be used to create specific items like healing potions for health and devotion, bonuses for your shows, bomb-like items to use in combat and many more. There’s a huge list of items that can be crafted though you can only bring a certain amount into each battle, so there’s definitely some strategy involved.

You’ll eventually be able to equip Super Skills, so The Workshop is where you’ll go to choose which ones you want to research. These are essentially special attacks that can be used after a certain amount of turns for a huge advantage in battle. Depending on your choices you could get a heal for your whole team, critical buffs, damage to the whole enemy team and many more. With three different tiers of Super Skills, once your Amazemeter is filled to certain levels you can then choose to use these abilities that will reset the meter, so it’s best saving these for difficult or boss battles. The higher the tier the more powerful the skill will be, so there’s a strategy of holding off longer for a more powerful version of the ability.

Before you get into the turn based battles, you first need to explore the district map along a set path. After the first map you’ll then choose branching paths, almost like a board game, all eventually leading you to its boss. Do you choose a shorter path with less ‘stops’ but maybe filled with more battles, or a longer path with possibly more rewards along the way? At these forks in the road you’ll have to make a choice and then you’re committed to that one way path, unable to go the other way until you defeat the district's boss and can then replay the area should you choose.

At each ‘stop’ along the path you’ll get a story segment, special items, healing or battles, depending on the icon shown that you land on. Much of the time you’ll be put into a battle though, and this is where you team of four performers comes to fight four opposing enemies in turn based combat. Keep in mind these are circus performers, so you can expect to build your team across fifteen different archetypes, from clowns, strongmen, fire blowers, mentalists, acrobats and many more. Each class is quite unique and has a different skillsets that works ideally with specific other classes.

Taking place on a 2D field, your team has four positions to fill from front to back, as does the enemy. Each performer has a set of abilities and attacks they can perform, but many are only usable in specific positions. For example, your strongman is generally the ‘tank’, dealing huge damage and able to take the biggest hit from enemies. Generally this means he’s best in the front two slots, as that’s where he can attack from, but if he's in the two rear spots he has an ability that he can buff up his defense and offence and then place him ahead a few positions.

Learning where each archetype is best where takes a while to figure out, plus it also is based on your playstyle, but once I figured out my ideal team of performers and their positions I was performing much better in combat. You can move your characters positions back and forth, but that takes your current turn and you can see the order of your and enemy team turn placement, adjusting your strategy accordingly.

While you might think that simply depleting an enemy’s health to zero would be the way to win a battle, that’s not the only way. There’s an equally important stat called Devotion that is just as imperative, if not more so, to keep track of for yourself and enemies. Devotion determines how they perform in battle, but if it’s completely depleted they’ll retreat from the battle, so sometimes it’s more strategic to use abilities that deplete their devotion instead of their health to force them to flee from battle. It’s a really unique system that takes some getting used to but will definitely keep strategic thinkers on their toes.

After each battle you get the latest newspaper showcasing what happened the previous day for your circus and combat outcomes. There’s some lore and story bits embedded into the recent events, giving some insight into its unique world. You definitely don’t need to read all of these to understand the main story, as that plays out in dialogue cutscenes for the most part, but will give you a deeper appreciation for its world.

Circus Electrique has a gorgeous aesthetic if you’re into the Victorian and Steampunk style. It’s colorful, characters are drawn well, and it certainly feels as though you’re living amongst a cast of unique circus performers for a living. The cutscenes are voiced actually quite well and the soundtrack is something you’d probably hear in one of the circus tents when you go to watch a live show under the big top.

My main complaint is that there’s simply much too much going on simultaneously in Circus Electrique. With a handful of different mechanics, you are taught each one, but having new things to manage and figure out before you’ve even become comfortable with what you just got shown is quite overwhelming early on. Even playing on Normal I was struggling initially, eventually starting a new game and having a more balanced time on Easy. There’s a codex you can reference anytime you forget any of the tutorials or instructions, but it’s a mountain to sift through.

While I quite enjoyed the turned based strategic combat of choosing my ideal performers and how they all best worked with one another, I struggled early on with understanding the management aspect. With enough time you’ll get the hang of it, but there’s almost too much going on, feeling quite overwhelming initially. Fans of Darkest Dungeon should feel right at home, but newcomers and casual players will most likely feel quite overwhelmed in the opening hours until it all starts to make sense and come together.

**Circus Electrique was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 7.3 / 10
Gameplay: 7.0 / 10
Visuals: 7.5 / 10
Sound: 7.5 / 10


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