Billing itself as the “Greatest Campaign Mode on Earth” Circus Electrique from developer Zen Studios is finally here. Does the idea of an alternate ‘Steampunk’ London pique your interest? The way energy prices are rocketing we may soon be unable to afford to boil a kettle in the UK but at least in this Circus Management and tactical turn-based RPG, we can pretend things are all ok. Well….apart from ordinary people suddenly becoming vicious killers that is! Come with me as I traverse a mechanically obsessed ‘Victorian’ cityscape in the XboxEra review of Circus Electrique.
What is going on?
The game is story-driven and I will not spoil anything within this review, This is a tale of rival Circuses, broken friendships, mysterious deaths, a plucky female reporter, a trained lion called Leonidas, and ‘Uncle Randy’ the Ringmaster. After an event known as the ‘Maddening’ people in London have begun killing people at random, could it be something to do with the tech that is becoming popular with everyone including the Police? Only the performers of our very own circus can investigate the mystery and save the day.
Complexity is the name of this game. When it comes to the management part of the title, not only are you building a Circus from the ground up but you are also required to keep an eye on a staggering number of different parameters to be successful. The more successful you are the more money you make and the more resources you receive from your fans. These can be used to increase and upgrade your facilities to produce more highly skilled performers and more complex productions. The bigger and more acclaimed the show produced the more capital and resources you receive and so on and so on.
After originally only being able to hire from a few different types of performers such as Clowns, Strongmen, Fire Eaters, and Escapologists progress through the six different main sections of the city allowed me to discover more exotic acts and add them to my roster. Snake Charmers, Fakirs, and Ventriloquists are just a few of the fifteen character types that become available (sometimes after being beaten in combat.) Each performer has likes and dislikes regarding who they work with and this also has to be taken into consideration when planning a performance.
The happier my acts were the better they performed on the night. Allowing the performers to get bored or starve can lead to them choosing to leave your employment so it is imperative to keep people occupied and fed. As the circus gets bigger, training and recovery tents are helpful to employ those that have not been chosen to perform in the next show or to be part of an exploration team that wanders around progressing the story and fighting any ‘vicious’ individuals that they come across.
The most important thing to consider is what’s known as the ‘Devotion morale system’. This affects each character’s performance both in the ‘Big Top’ and in turn-based combat. I soon came to understand that devotion is the most important statistic to monitor. Obviously, health is key, and dropping to too low a level will result in the death of performers (introducing a space on the roster for a newbie) but running out of devotion will make characters useless in terms of circus spectacle and if occurring mid-combat will cause them to run away endangering the remaining members of their team. This can, however, be turned to your advantage when the option of draining an opponent’s devotion and scaring them off is easier than draining their health.
Something is going on
A ’jaunt’ around the six districts involves steering a four-strong team of characters (who are not performing that particular day) toward a boss battle and end-of-chapter revelation. A map offers various paths to get to the destination and whilst choosing a particular branch cannot be undone, after section completion players are offered the opportunity to go back and experience what they have missed along with the opportunity of winning large rewards for doing so.
Fights with random groups of ever-changing foes are interspersed with mini-games offering benefits for success. Hospital visits allow team health replenishment and successful interactions with the public increase the reputation of the circus or deliver other material benefits. Materials gathered can be used to create bandages, explosive bottles, and other items for use in combat as well as for the improvement of the circus itself.
Each daily cycle ends with a show that has been prepared before the exploration team set off on a jaunt and complete a combat encounter. Any conclusions that the female reporter has made from interviews she has held are reported in a daily newspaper (The London Voice) as well as major story events, a review of the last big top performance, notes about dead performers, and an update on how the circus is doing financially.
The other half of the game revolves around tactical turn-based combat. The options here are deep and multifaceted. It is almost too difficult to describe how this works or how well this has been designed. Depending on which characters you choose the scope of what they can do is mind-boggling. All I will say is that where each character stands makes a big difference to how they perform in a fight, passive skills are important, fire is your friend (unless it is raining) and you should ALWAYS have a Clown with you who can top up everyone’s devotion with a trumpet or heal those near death. A future Masters’s course is probably the best way to become a master of this combat system but a key fact to remember is that devotion needs to be kept high to get hits on the opposition and avoid attacks.
Having played on various difficulties for this review it seems to me that the normal setting is far from that and is particularly challenging. This may be a mistake on the part of the developer in that casual gamers or newcomers to the genre potentially attracted to the game by its ‘Victorian Circus poster’ inspired visual style could bounce straight off it when they struggle from the very start. For those wanting to enjoy the campaign without getting frustrated I would recommend the easy setting which performs far more like you would expect normal to perform. It is certainly not easy to work through.
A sign that the developer knows that Circus Electrique is overly complex is that the player is actually asked at a certain point if they are struggling to keep up and a detailed instruction Codex is supplied. Even hardened fans of the genre would be hard-pressed not to make heavy use of this tool to look up what they have forgotten from the numerous tutorial sections. In terms of accessibility options, there is not anything extra on offer that is not to be expected in a game of this type.
In conclusion, Circus Electrique is visually very arresting and is quite possibly the most challenging game in terms of complexity that I have ever played. Die-hard fans of tactical turn-based combat and management simulators will absolutely love this title while casual gamers or newcomers to these types of games may struggle even on the easy setting. It is clear that this has been a labour of love for the developers and is certainly one of the most unusual games to be released on Xbox this year. If Steampunk Victorian archetypes and challenging gameplay are your things this game has your name written all over it.
|Reviewed on||Xbox Series X|
|Available on||Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Windows PC, PS4|PS5 Nintendo Switch|
|Release Date||September 6th, 2022|
Circus ElectriquePrice unknown at time of review
- Surprising levels of depth and complexity.
- Well designed turn-based combat.
- Many different puzzles and games are bundled into the campaign.
- The normal difficulty is rather challenging.
- The gameplay instructions are so complex a codex is necessary.
- Not a game for beginners to the genre.