Circus Electrique’s rabble of roustabouts exploring the streets of a steampunk Victorian London doesn’t offer the usual circus fayre.
Darkest Dungeon made me suffer a considerable amount over the course of my initial playthrough. The oppressive atmosphere and insane difficulty made the game a significant challenge to overcome, but I enjoyed pretty much every minute of it. And judging by popular opinion, many other players did too. So, it’s a surprise to me that there are so few games that sought to emulate its style. Now though, we have Circus Electrique, a game that mimics that aforementioned game in pretty much every way.
You play as Amelia, a journalist in Victorian London who returns to her uncle’s circus after many years away. Almost immediately, the place is set upon by police officers with steampunk Segways and magic goggles, necessitating the circus performers leaping into action to protect Amelia, as well as the general public. It seems that a rival circus may have something to do with this, so Amelia sets out, aided by the performers, to discover just what sort of shenanigans have led to this chaos.
Circus Electrique is split into two elements. Firstly you have the circus to run. You’ll hire performers, train them, heal their wounds, and put on shows to bring in money and items. Then there’s the exploration of London itself, in which you’ll travel from node to node, finding items, completing tasks, and fighting off the mad locals. Other than the requirement to put on shows and the fact you explore via nodes rather than freely, the rest of the game is almost identical to Darkest Dungeon.
Managing the circus simply means putting performers into different jobs, be that resting, training, or acting in the shows themselves. I liked the element of putting on shows, as you need to puzzle out who to put in what slot, due to different performers gaining benefits by working with others, or doing worse if they work with someone they don’t like. Do well here and you’ll earn money and XP to make your circus and performers more successful, so it’s worth spending a few minutes on this each time before you go to explore. There’s crafting to do for items, buildings to upgrade, and performers to hire, but for the most part this is pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve played similar games.
Exploration is nice enough, with a few different mini games you can come across, as well as choice driven moments that can benefit you if you’re careful. When exploring, you’ll need to set up the performers you’re bringing with you in a formation from front to back, because during each exploration you’ll participate in a single battle against up to four foes. These combat sections have you choosing attacks for each member of your party, playing out much like a standard JRPG. Depending on the position in the formation of each performer, they’ll be able to carry out certain attacks against enemy positions. Placement is key, as certain units are far better in certain positions. A strongman up front can do a whole lot of damage, but if they’re in your backline they can do very little.
This goes for your opponents too, and using your abilities to get their rear units up front to deal with them is a good strategy in most cases. There are some neat wrinkles thrown in too, with weather and time of day playing a part in the battle. Fog reduces chance to hit, and rain makes fire attacks next to useless. I liked this element of the battles, and the fact you could always see the weather before combat means you can prepare your team for it quite well in most cases. Another feature I liked here was the Devotion metre. Much like stress in Darkest Dungeon, This bar can be manipulated via skills and attacks. If anyone’s drops to zero, they immediately flee, but building it up can sometimes trigger powerful bonuses for that character. There’s an additional benefit of some attacks being more effective when Devotion is high, so it really pays to maintain it by any means. Should it remain too low for too long, performers can permanently leave the circus. Dropping to zero health leads to this too. Make sure you use those recovery options wherever possible.
Losses really do matter too, not only because you’ll become attached to your best performers, but also because there’s no going back on that map screen until quite late in the campaign. This means there’s no real way to grind items, money, or XP should you lose your strongest fighters. There’s a very real chance of getting stuck with no way to recover save for starting a whole new campaign. I appreciated Darkest Dungeon providing countless options to adjust the difficulty of its campaign, as well as the option to keep working on dungeons to strengthen your people before moving on, but here there’s simply three difficulties, with even easy being a fairly stiff challenge towards the end.
This was by far the most irritating element of Circus Electrique, as much of the rest of it was pretty solid. Yes there are far too many resources to have to think about for upgrades and crafting, and setting up a performance after every single combat session does wear thin by the end, but there’s a great game here too. The sheer volume of different performers and enemies keeps things interesting, and whilst there are no customisation options, each performer looks really unique, even when they are the same class. I liked the chance to experiment with characters before hiring them, giving you the chance to try out different strategies in safety. There’s been some genuine thought put in in some places here.
Then there’s the presentation, which is just excellent. The Victorian steampunk aesthetic works really nicely with the circus theme, and the desaturated colour palette occasionally pops with the bright colours and flashes from both the circus and the combat events. This follows into the cutscenes too, which are all fully voice acted to a commendable standard. The whole thing is wonderfully soundtracked too.
Whilst I don’t think Circus Electrique is a giant of the genre, it’s a really solid game in its own right if you’re looking for something like Darkest Dungeon whilst you wait for the full release of the sequel. I realise that I’ve namechecked that game an awful lot, but this game really does invite that comparison, and though it doesn’t do enough to topple the classic, it’s worth a go for fans.
Circus Electrique is available now for PC, Xbox, Playstation, and Nintendo Switch.