Circus Electrique is quick to pique the interest of any fans of a turn-based tactical RPG, especially those who loved Darkest Dungeon. However, its unique design raises the question of what Darkest Dungeon would be like if it were filled with mechanical mimes and pretentious police officers, all while being set in a gritty, steampunk Victorian London. Zen Studios has answered with this eccentric part circus-sim, part story-driven RPG, and unfortunately the answer is 'not as good'.
From the moment the game begins, players take on the role of Amelia, the niece of Electrique's ringleader and a young journalist commissioned to report the re-opening of the show following a deadly accident ten years prior. Coincidentally, the accident's victim was Amelia's mother, so there is a prevalent tension between niece and uncle. However, upon Amelia's visit, an unexpected turn of events unravels with 'The Maddening,' an incident that plunges London into chaos and turns its inhabitants into vicious enemies. So, instead of reporting the Circus' re-opening, Amelia takes it upon herself to discover the source of The Maddening and relies on Circus Electrique for support.
Toward the beginning of the game, an in-depth tutorial talks you through your first experience with combat. From the get-go, Circus Electrique presents a lot of information to digest. Unfortunately, in handheld, the text is so tiny it's almost impossible to read, and there isn't much difference when playing docked. The game offers a complete codex that can be accessed anytime in case vital information gets lost or ignored among the masses, but at this point in the Switch's lifecycle, tiny text should really be a thing of the past.
Gameplay is split across two predominant styles where you take to the streets of London and cross an expansive map while facing enemies, collecting loot, and occasionally answering riddle-like questions for extra cash, and then, instead of collating a band of reprobates to fight the robotic opposition, Circus Electrique puts the role of ringleader in the players' palms.
Each night, you're tasked with putting on a performance in the big top. This element of circus management provides an exciting change of pace compared to the combat side of things but also requires a lot of thought. While hiring talent from the train station is simple, finding performers who have a good working relationship and can provide an audience with entertainment is far from that.
A lousy show results in a bad reputation. However, a good show can return wealthy gifts from the audience and line your pockets with extra coins. As the circus receives more attention, the game's central hub expands and produces new buildings to utilise. Additionally, you'll unlock card slots as you progress, meaning you can adopt more performers and, in turn, more fighters. This is one of the main reasons the short-lived circus management sections keep you returning at the beginning of the game.
But as you progress through the map and the city's six districts, these circus-management sections become pretty insignificant. While they're good for gaining funds and occasional gifts, there aren't many other perks. It quickly becomes tedious to stop what you're doing on the map, re-visit the circus, and sacrifice another handful of potential fighters to put on a show for the night. Furthermore, each 'day' essentially consists of one fight, so it's impossible to feel like you're progressing when the end of each battle takes you right back to the hub where you started. It would be far more engaging if each day consisted of a handful of encounters, allowing you to sink your teeth into the main appeal of the title — combat.
Circus Electrique features a turn-based approach in battle, where each player is positioned in a line, meaning certain moves can only be used in certain positions, meaning you have to think tactically about your next move. Each fight requires up to four members, and you're challenged to use the skills of 15 different archetypes. While only a handful are available during the beginning, you gain access to more eclectic performers as you progress.
Every archetype has six different moves and abilities, ranging in target, power, and accuracy. So while fire blowers may be able to damage every member of the opposition from the back of the line, strongmen can hit hardest at the front. Much like the initial tutorial, getting to grips with every skill and ability takes a lot of attention. Still, Circus Electrique is quick to explain the pros and cons of each action, and combat is best learned hands-on.
As a new addition to this combat style, the game takes an extra step and introduces 'devotion,' which acts as a secondary health bar. Your team depends on devotion to fight, which can be increased by using crafted items or using abilities to boost morale. Without devotion, the fighters will flee from a match — which is excellent when the opposition runs low but not so great when your team packs up and leaves.
Combat isn't particularly challenging, and it becomes more of a fight for who can land the most brutal hit towards the end. As different characters engage, they gain XP, which, predictably, can be used to level up and enhance skills at the central hub. Leveling up a character's skillset will increase the chances of landing critical hits, with a higher damage percent, while also increasing devotion generally. So given you're increasing your characters' levels as you explore, combat won't keep you up at night.
The most enchanting element of Circus Electrique is easily its gritty, steampunk Londonscape, where the adventure takes place. During the dialogue, the game adopts an almost vintage victorian hand-drawn appearance, carried across in the circus' promotional posters and the performers' cards. Disappointingly, this same art style isn't applied to battles.
Characters from the same archetype look identical, aside from simple things like hair colour, and the general appearance of characters in battle is lacklustre compared to their appearance in their portraits. Unfortunately, the same can be said for the enemies you're facing, which rapidly become carbon copies of the previous battle you've just encountered, feeding into the tedious repetition of fighting in the same zone.
That's not to say the first few combat encounters aren't engaging. It's fun to get to grips with learning each archetype's abilities, and combat's over-the-top nature mirrors the circus performers' humourous charm, so it's a real shame that this novelty wears off after the first city zone is complete.
Although Circus Electrique has its intriguing quirks, with the reliance on devotion and the occasional circus-management opportunity, too many flaws accompany them. With most of its story revolving around combat, it soon becomes an annoyance rather than an enjoyable element. The game does offer refreshing and unique twists on the genre; still, there's a lack of drive to keep you wanting to fight through London's steampunk streets. The story grips you initially, but it takes a while to develop and a lot of the initial dialogue is wasted on family feuds which offer no real substance. To fans of turn-based strategy and those who loved Darkest Dungeon, Circus Electrique may be more enjoyable, but it's a little too disjointed and repetitive to recommend wholeheartedly.