It’s always fascinating to find a game that has a mismatch between how fun it is to play, and how much money, resources and effort has been lavished on it. So many people have hitched their carts to Circus Electrique. It’s beautiful in every conceivable way; it’s got a ludicrous number of systems that act as scaffolding to the main game; and there’s more endgame content than you can shake a ringleader’s baton at. But the game that’s supporting this cacophony of stuff? It’s fine. It’s so serviceable that we look at the majesty of everything around it and wonder how Circus Electrique happened.
Circus Electrique is very vogueish in its love for steampunk. This is the story of a journalist who travels to see her uncle, a ringmaster in the Circus Electrique: a Victorian-style cirque that supplements its act with Tesla-like energy bursts. But as she arrives, and a magical pylon is activated in the centre of the circus, things go haywire. The local constabulary, being cyborgs, go mad and start killing the punters. Without the police to keep the peace, it’s down to the strongmen, clowns and firebreathers of the Circus Electrique.
In the days that follow, the fingers of blame are clearly pointing at the Circus Electrique, but it doesn’t take long to realise that they are being framed. The rival Circus Mechanique troupe look like they may be the culprit, using hypnotising goggles to take over the world. And it seems that you are the only ones capable of stopping them.
It’s a hell is a setup. Immediately we were invested. We don’t often get to be militant clowns or knife-throwers who are aiming to hit their mark, rather than lodge a knife around them. The steampunk (electropunk?) aesthetic invigorates things further, and the plot has all the potential of going to wild places.
Graphically, Circus Electrique swings and hits. In conversations, it looks like a dark Alan Moore-like comic book. When fiddling about with its systems, it’s an expensive board game. And when in battle, it’s stylish, a mix of cel-shading, crosshatching and neon lights. Somehow, it all coalesces, a moody lens on circuses that reminded us of the Carnivale TV series.
The majority of Circus Electrique’s gameplay is in some good old turn-based battling. The board game screen (more on that in a moment) propels you into combat with hypnotised policemen, mimes and civil servants, and you are bringing your team of four performers into battle with them. It’s always four-vs-four, with your team ranked on the left, and the opponents on the right.
This is where Circus Electrique becomes surprisingly conventional. A turn order cycles in the top-left of the screen, with a character’s Initiative determining where they are positioned on it. Then it’s the unit’s turn to pull off a move, with one item (relatively expensive and rare) and one action possible in that turn.
Each unit has a couple of passives that are always in play, and six possible moves. Those moves are dependent on where the character is within your formation: some of them are only possible when in the front row or back, for example, and equally they might only target the front or back row of your enemies. Little pips help to show which is which.
So, you’re choosing from a list of moves that get reduced by the unit’s placement. Those moves attack one of two stats: the characters’ Health or their Devotion, effectively their physical or mental health. Having two bars to manage is a reasonably neat deviation, but not one that’s particularly new, having been used recently in We Are the Caretakers. Still, it offers some strategy: which of the two health bars do you target?
And that’s it, really. Attrition wears down you and your opponent’s health bars, and you choose to focus on particular units to clear them out first. Perhaps the situation demands a healer or the removal of debuffs, or your carefully planned configuration is disrupted by an enemy who shuffles your team.
It’s something we have played umpteen times before, whether that’s in Final Fantasy-style JRPGs, pure turn-based games, or deckbuilders. Which is kind of the problem: the turn-based battling is all that Circus Electrique has, at least in terms of meaningful gameplay. Without meaty supporting content, in the same way that Final Fantasy or Slay the Spire has a game world to explore or a deck to construct, Circus Electrique puts focus on the battling which it can’t quite support.
The two health bars seem like they are ripe for strategy, but instead turn out to be obvious. If an enemy has a low Devotion, then of course you’re going to nibble away at it instead of the health bar. Formation is fine when you’re planning a team, but a pain in the arse when it’s disrupted. If your snake charmer is in a position where it can’t perform any of its moves, then all you can do is spend the turn moving your team about. Which isn’t a whole lot of fun. And your moveset is constantly being depleted. These moves are so situation-dependent that you can, all too easily, choose a favourite and stick with it, over and over again. It doesn’t help that your performer comes with abilities baked in. You can adapt or change those characters, aside from levelling them up.
Battles become a routine. Rarely are they anything other than four individuals with reasonably similar attacks. We found ourselves reaching for some kind of battle automation. We fancied someone else doing it for us. But it’s not there, and Circus Electrique probably shouldn’t be making us feel that way anyway.
But here’s the thing. While the combat is the only substantial thing to do in Circus Electrique, and it’s enough to occasionally put us to sleep, the frilly supporting stuff is so good that it almost hauls the game over the line. Which brings us back to what we first said about Circus Electrique: why put so much effort into supplementing a game that’s okay, a bit meh really?
Circus Electrique is split into days, and those days give it a cracking rhythm. Undoubtedly you will find yourself playing around in the circus grounds first. There is a ludicrous amount of stuff to do here, unlocked over the course of the game. It plays a bit like a worker-placement board game. You allocate your performers to complete jobs: some will be kept back for the combat, but the others are free to be allocated to circus acts, training grounds, an oracle (giving you more information for the coming day), sick bays and more.
The circus acts are probably the deepest of the systems. You will unlock different frames to socket your performers and – in a bizarre and unexpected comparison – it’s a little like FIFA Ultimate Team. You need to put performers in their best positions, synergising them with similar characters, to get a better overall score. Then you send them off to perform automatically, hoping they will return with cash, resources or experience which benefits you in the long run.
Bloody brilliant is what it is. We loved juggling the characters, choosing their best orientations and recruiting new performers from the game’s train cart and shuffling them off to their best roles.
But it’s not even Circus Electrique’s best feature, as that comes after the circus management: the game’s board. Each day, you move along a board until you hit some combat. Once fisticuffs come out, the day is done. But you can do so much in that time. There are dozens of tile types on the board, all hiding something interesting. A grifter with a cups game will reveal a secret path, as long you keep an eye on the balls. A wheel of fortune lets you bet on your character’s stats. Slay the Spire-style text events offer up moral quandaries.
In all honesty, it’s Circus Electrique’s crowning achievement, yet it’s not why the game exists. It’s just there to facilitate the combat. Yet, somehow, we began to dread a square with combat underneath, as that not only meant that we were going to go through the combat motions all over again, but it was an end of the board-game meta too. It was a double-kick in the nuts.
What a curious game Circus Electrique was to review. Like a ringmaster, the promotional materials have been touting the world and the combat within it, twizzling its moustache as it shouts about them both. But they’re a ruse, because the good stuff is hidden round the corner.
While the main event of Circus Electrique is the turn-based combat, it had us falling asleep in our seats. The real fun, you see, comes from the side-acts. Managing your circus and performers is great fun, and the board game is just plain exquisite. We’re not sure how Circus Electrique became so back to front, but we’re glad that someone stepped up and filled the gap that the turn-based combat left behind.
You can buy Circus Electrique from the Xbox Store