Clowns get a bit of a bad rap. How many times have we seen a clown hunting victims through corridors in a survival horror game? Or appearing in a film, smiling away in make-up, complete with a knife and a scary laugh? So the name Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness doesn’t come as a surprise. But there is much more to this retro point and clicker than meets the eye.
I’m pretty sure that the sheer number of ‘retro’ points and clickers on the Xbox would have surpassed the actual ones created back in the 1990s. Yet that does mean the quality and storylines are probably stronger than ever.
With Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness you play the role of a clown who is down on his luck. Oliver Mills, or his clown name – Lazy Ollie – has been released from a mental health institution. In his previous job at the famous Vlad Circus, there was a terrible tragedy resulting in a fire and the destruction of the circus. Set in the 1920s we see Ollie getting an invite from the original rich owner, inviting him to a reunion along with all the surviving members. Ollie sets off, but things aren’t quite what they seem.
The writing and setup are extremely good, playing out over a long night at the mansion as you meet up with old members of the circus and try to stay sane. It had me hooked from start to finish with its strange story, amazingly weird characters and curious plot line. Some might find the story to be strange, but for me, it was a dream experience that could be enjoyed.
The gameplay is as simple as you might expect from games of this ilk, but enjoyable and all working great, as you interact with the environments and the rooms you enter. To begin with, it might seem to be a bit confusing as you are in semi-darkness and trying to work out how to move and play the game. But soon you get into the rhythm of Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness. Once you get involved in the quests on offer, it does sink its teeth into you.
The puzzles and the quests themselves are a good healthy bunch of things, as you take in a four to five hour running time. But throughout you’ll want to keep an eye on your stress bar which threatens to fill up, taking a knock to Ollie’s mental wellbeing. To conquer this fear you can use prayer beads to destress. There are small elements of combat to be had too, but these aren’t the most successful part of the game; they just don’t feel right. There is also – as in most point-and-click adventures – a lot of backtracking between rooms to be had, which is always a bit of a pain.
All that said, Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness is one of the best examples of a pixel art game. There are some brilliant lighting effects, great character design, and a stunning colour palette on show. It has a real sense of atmosphere, building as you progress through the spooky mansion and try to discover the truth behind things.
The small number of cutscenes on offer are also beautifully presented and designed; they’d not feel out of place in a high-end comic book. The sound that goes with all this is minimal, but what occurs is effective and enthralling.
From the moment the first cutscene arrives, you know you’ll be in for a bit of a golden time with Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness. One of the best examples of the genre, with its compelling and original story, pixel art visuals, and great puzzles, this is one you should be playing. Perhaps the backtracking is annoying, but that is hard to avoid in a point and clicker, and I could personally have done without the survival and combat mechanics. On the whole though, this is a game that excels.
Seeing Lazy Ollie’s progression into madness hasn’t lessened the stigma of clowns, but maybe it has made me a little more sympathetic.