Ladies and gentlemen and those who know better! Friends and enemies! Esteemed guests of all ages! I am proud to announce the grand reopening of the Circus Electrique! Come one, come all, enjoy the show!
Ah, but what is the Circus Electrique you ask? Why, it’s a strategy and tactics game about managing your circus while also taking a team of highly skilled freaks, weirdos, and clowns onto the streets of a steampunk Victorian London to investigate why the entire city has lost its collective mind!
The game describes itself as combining a story-driven RPG with tactics and circus management, and it certainly delivers on that ambition.
Before I continue, I feel it worth mentioning that this game was published by Saber Interactive, which was acquired by Embracer Group in February 2020. If you aren’t following all of the behind-the-scenes new in the games industry, you may be unaware of the recent trend of monopolization. Groups such as TenCent, Microsoft, and of course Embracer Group are vacuuming up as many studios, Intellectual Properties, and talent as they can get their hands on. This has nothing to do with Circus Electrique itself, but again, I feel it worth mentioning to anyone with an interest in games as a medium.
Tonight Only! The Greatest Show in London!
The game(s) I was constantly reminded of while playing Circus Electrique is the recent XCOM titles. Which is somewhat of a weird comparison as many of those similarities are only skin deep, but I could not shake that impression. Possibly because of the named units with minor unique details about them who can die permanently.
You spend the game alternating between three different styles of gameplay, largely freely.
First off is the circus management section, which should feel familiar to anyone forced to interact with other people on social medial. Here you plan the Circus Electrique’s daily performance by balancing several factors like one of the performers you employ. Each show requires you to assign a certain number of your performers.
But the show can’t go on unless their combined performance states reach the designated threshold. And even then, if you forgot that your stage magician has an irrational loathing of clowns specifically and paired him up with one, their chemistry rating will tank. And you need a high chemistry rating in order to get bonus stars like you’re playing a Mario game or something. Because you then have to assign those stars to determine the size of the crowd you draw and what they give you for the performance.
But the audience in this game behaves the way every terrified corporation executive thinks that audiences behave. That is to say they have the attention span of an overcaffeinated squirrel. So you also have to keep switching up what shows you perform in order to keep them novel.
And in addition to all of that, you use this circus to craft items, recover your performers, hire new performers, and acquire your team special moves.
The second gameplay mode is mercifully the simplest to explain. Once you’ve managed your circus, you take four of your performers who have nothing better to do and send them out on an expedition into the streets of London. Which happens to be crawling with London citizens driven homicidal by unknown means. Let me assure you, the temptation to begin making political jokes about the situation in Britain right now is overwhelming, but I will resist. Probably.
This section plays like a board game, where you move from tile to tile on a set path, sometimes being forced to choose a direction from a branching path. Each tile does different things, from unknown possibly randomized events to minigames. This section continues each in-game day until you inevitably get into a fight with one of those rioters I just mentioned. After any of these fights, the day ends and you repeat the process.
Which brings us to the third and final mode. Greeting people who are sick of Steampunk being overshadowed by that recent CD Projekt Red game—you know the one—and have decided to bring the party to us.
Combat in this game has your team of up to four carnies facing off against four maddened Londoners. Oh, the urge to make a political joke is back, I have to repress that real quick. Ahem. What makes this combat interesting is the placement. Both you and the enemy are lined up. And each attack requires the attacker to be in a specific position in that line, and can only target other certain positions in the lines. Having your party in the right order before a fight starts is crucial, as is managing moving them around and how the enemies reshuffle themselves.
There’s quite a bit to manage in a fight. Everyone has a Devotion state, which provides various bonuses while high but when low a character might abandon the fight or your circus altogether. There are attacks that use Devotion as a cost and attacks that lower enemy Devotion until they run away crying. There are also various fight conditions, like how everyone hates fighting in the rain, or how the Victorian London smog is poisonous to everyone, or if you’re fighting at night the cops might get called on you which is bad because they’re all insane—no, that joke is way too easy, keep resisting the urge—and several others conditions that affect your fights.
My main complaint with the combat is that you are only ever solving a single problem: eliminate four enemies as efficiently as possible. Even the boss fights bring three random dudes along to fill out the roster. Or, in at least one case, is a single character treated as four.
Personally I recommend playing the game on easy first so you can get to grips with how many different interlocking systems there are and different resources to be managed. Like, for example, the fact that wounds carry over from day to day. Normal is doable for a first-time player, provided you don’t have a history of stress-related illnesses, though having seen what strategy game fans are like I imagine many of them will be diving straight into the hardest difficulty headfirst and thanking the game for the concussion.
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Sights and Sounds to Dazzle the Senses!
It’s safe to say the Circus Eletrique is stylish. Which is good, or the circus would be out of a job.
Characters and environments are cartoonish in the sense that they have human proportions that have been slightly exaggerated for effect. Perhaps comic books would be a better comparison to make over cartoons.
While each ‘class’ of performer shares a model, they have a wide variety of minor cosmetic details that change from person to person to help them all feel unique. For example, two strongmen will have the same basic body and wield barbells, but one might have a solid leotard while the other wears one that’s striped, and might have different hair and a beard.
The backgrounds as well as varied and detailed, changing from fight to fight depending on where in London you might be.
The HUD is constantly comprised of various Steampunk gadgets and gears and charged with electricity. And let me tell you there are few things that can really help the feel of a game like a well-designed HUD that fits visually with the game.
I am constantly finding new ways the HUD succinctly conveys important information that I hadn’t noticed before, which is simply impressive.
The attack animations have quite a lot of thought put into them. Characters involved in any specific attack are dragged out of their comfortable little lines to pose in front to the camera and react to the attack or even dodge attacks that don’t connect.
Or lose Devotion and cry. That’s always fun.
The music is delightfully old timey to fit the feel of the game’s setting. I found in the options that you can disable the filters to make it sound like an old scratchy record disc, but of course I didn’t because I’m not a coward. Those details are ingenious and add so much.
I’m also quite pleased by the game’s sound design. The sound effects are also somewhat cartoonish but always fit with the tone perfectly. And the voice acting is a treat. I tell you there is not a single force on earth that could’ve prepared for me the Newsie advertising the paper by declaring, “This story is so good it makes me wish I could read.”
Come One, Come All!
Our story begins with Amelia, a reporter for the Illuminate Voice newspaper, in attendance of the grand reopening of the electricity themed Circus Electrique. We learn almost immediately from her narration that the circus had previously closed because of a fire-related accident that killed the lion tamer, sister to the Ringmaster. And, by staggering coincidence, mother to Amelia.
And then, just as the Circus activates its newest electrical marvel, suddenly two nearby coppers being trying to murder the crowd. The Ringmaster quickly orders his performers to Amelia’s rescue, and as it becomes apparent that the Circus Electrique is one of the safest places in town, Amelia resoles to use it as a temporary base for her investigation into what is quickly dubbed The Maddening.
Really now I’m beginning to suspect the developers were trying to get me to make a political joke.
This story is told through primarily through Visual Novel style conversations between character portraits, and the occasional important story moment given a motion comic narrated by Amelia. Other important bits of lore can be found by reading the daily newspaper.
Of course, some of this lore is information that Amelia herself wrote. Possibly from an interview you were present for.
There’s also a great deal of thought that’s been put into how the gameplay can tell the story. And not just in the circus management. The people affected by The Maddening all have something in common that you can notice well before the protagonists comment on.
Of course, it’s also rather silly that for all the effort put into selling the downright apocalyptic situation on the streets of London, you can consistently bring in dozens or more people for your daily circus act.
Though given what I’ve seen these past few years this is completely accurate and realistic, so I guess I can’t complain.
Another fantastic indie game releases in 2022. Shocker. All sarcasm aside, this year has been filled with Game of the Year contenders and this is another one throwing its comically oversized hat into the ring. The blend of base management and field strategy is hardly new, but Circus Electrique does more than add a new coat of paint. If you’re a fan of strategy games, I assure you that you’ll find this show well worth the price of admission.