Who would win in a fight – an angry clown, or a robot mime? In developer Zen Studios’ upcoming dungeon crawler Circus Electrique, which pits a carnival of performers against a Victorian London turned feral, the answer is whichever one’s devotion to battering the other is highest.
Circus Electrique takes everything that roguelike fans loved about Darkest Dungeon – namely the turn-based combat where proper positioning is crucial – and cakes it up in grease paint. For the most part, the premise is the same: each night, players send out a party of adventurers to do battle, risking death and a host of debilitating conditions to advance a plot. However, Circus Electrique isn’t content to simply walk in the footsteps of its goth dad, and a hands-on preview showcases a game that’s teeming with its own character.
For starters, there’s an intriguing – and easy-to-follow – mystery at the heart of Circus Electrique‘s plot, which serves up an arresting premise. The story follows young journalist Amelia, who has been sent to report on the 1899 re-opening of the Circus Electrique – a show organised by her estranged ringmaster uncle. Ten years ago, Circus Electrique closed its tentflaps when a deadly accident claimed the life of Amelia’s mother, and now that Amelia’s reluctantly returned to cover the planned re-opening, an event known as the Maddening plunged London into chaos – turning many of the city’s citizens into bloodthirsty killers who roam the street at night and leaving Amelia stranded at her uncle’s circus.
Amelia’s quest to investigate the Maddening is married to the Circus Electrique’s fate: she relies on the Electrique’s eccentric performers to escort her around the dangerous city, which in turn means trying to attract top talent by growing the circus’ reputation. This means that players will need to fight through the streets of London in a turn-based adventure, all while managing a circus: expanding the hub with new facilities, hiring talent, and putting on a daily show. This last feature is surprisingly brilliant, as it involves juggling a few tasks – picking performers that have good chemistry together, selecting an act that’s novel to audiences, and ensuring you’re meeting their expectations.
Besides allowing for an endearing mini circus sim, Circus Electrique‘s carnival setting lends itself incredibly well to the game’s combat. Archetypes are creative and enjoyable to play – watching a strongman bat a robot policeman comically off-screen is fantastic, as is seeing several enemies flee because an escape artist has electrocuted the lot of them.
There’s also a lot of depth to Circus Electrique‘s combat – fighters can only access certain skills if they’re in the right position to use them, which is made difficult to maintain when a robot mime’s imaginary lasso can inexplicably pull your party member out of place. There’s also devotion to consider – a secondary health bar that shows how eager to fight each combatant is. If it runs out, for friend or foe, they’ll flee. For tankier opponents it can be easier to empty their devotion meter rather than duking it out to the end, which means players have plenty of ways to resolve combat.
The only real issue with Circus Electrique‘s exploration is that getting into a fight brings an end to the night, which means that sometimes you’ll only have one bout before being sent back to the circus for another day of planning. It’s a bit of a knock to Circus Electrique‘s pacing as it gets in the way of properly jumping into the game’s intriguing story, but luckily it’s the only real qualm that came up in this preview. Aside from that, Circus Electrique is shaping up for brilliance. It’s remarkable that Zen Studios has captured the essence of Darkest Dungeon without falling under its shadow, but with a captivating setting and creative new features, it makes the trick look easy.