Instead of commanding a group of rugged, blood-soaked mercenaries on a turn-based death crawl through unimaginable horrors, how about a neo-Victorian circus troupe battling biomechatronic London citizens? It’s Circus Electrique, a turn-based RPG that’s much more cheerful than its Darkest Dungeon counterpart (and apparent main inspiration). But after playing a preview of the game’s first mission, there’s more than meets the eye to this part steampunk RPG, part circus tycoon management sim.
You play as Amelia, a young, daring journalist who returns to London to cover the grand reopening of Circus Electrique. A metaphorical spanner is thrown into the works, however, as the ceremony is interrupted by news that the citizens of London have begun attacking each other (more than your average fists to get on the phone). Strangely, this doesn’t seem to have affected Amelia and your motley circus troupe, who venture into the dangerous streets of London to find answers.
Each day is structured in two halves: going out on the town to battle some Londoners in turn-based battles, and putting on exciting shows at the circus every night in a management sim. Why people still attend the circus during these stressful times is beyond me, but the show must go on, I guess.
Eager to sniff out a story, Amelia takes to the streets of London accompanied by four chosen characters from your circus roster. In the preview, I was tasked with fighting my way through the city after a rumor that London Bridge had completely disappeared. You must choose different paths across a map that can trigger loot drop story events, dialogue sequences where Amelia reveals more about the history of the circus, and tricks with the locals.
Battles are a 4v4 brawl between your chosen characters and whatever Queen Vicky-era archetypes you encounter. Circus Electrique is based in an alternate steampunk timeline, so everyone is outfitted in wacky biomechatronic outfits. An elegant Victorian lady in all her finery might not seem all that threatening, but a critical wave from her mechanical umbrella and your characters will see stars.
As in Darkest Dungeon, placing your party is key to getting the most out of their abilities. Eventually, there will be a total of 15 different character classes to choose from, but during the preview I only had a chance to mess around with four: strongmen, clowns, escape artists, and fire breathers.
Strongmen are the tanks and should always be at the front of the group for hard hitting attacks, while clowns act as the bards of the group, focusing on squad buffs so they can be placed in the middle. Fire breathers are great for powerful ranged attacks and will happily sit in the back, and escape artists are nice and versatile with a mix of support and offensive attacks. As you progress, more performers of different classes will become available for hire, including acrobats, snake charmers, mechanical bears, and conjurers.
As you progress, more performers of different classes will become available for hire, including acrobats, snake charmers, mechanical bears, and conjurers.
There are many statistics and numbers to get into, but the big one is devotion. If the morale of any of your characters gets too low, they will flee the fight – but so will your opponents. Sprinkle the opposition with a series of devoted de-buffs can sometimes be better strategically than cutting down HP. After a successful match you are driven back to the circus, which means you don’t have to hold out for more encounters and can go all-out. If things go south you can escape, but that involves choosing the escape action for each character instead of an entire group action, making it risky for those left behind. If all your characters die, they’re all gone forever, forever to perform in the big circus tent in the sky.
When you’re not banging old Victorian ladies, the circus serves as your main hub. This central location has various buildings where you can heal your characters, create items for battle, hire new artists and organize circus performances for the end of the day. This is where the second role for your circus list comes into play. Your athletes not only need to be good at throwing down, but also have the talent to excite the audience at shows.
Putting on a circus show plays out as a puzzle-like management minigame. You have to choose which characters will put on a spectacular show while trying to stick to the performer’s own preferences. An audience expectation meter shows what the show’s “score” will be and is divided into four categories: laughs, fun, amazement, and excitement. Character stats and their general devotion to the circus will affect the meter, with different character combinations making it easier to meet audience expectations.
For example, my strongman Balthazar had an incredibly high devotion to the circus, but refused to work with any fire breathers. Another member of my roster, escape artist Phoebe, didn’t mind working any of the show’s positions (opening act, main act, and closing), but had low entertainment stats. Training a group of athletes who can cover each other’s weaknesses, all work together and put on a good show is a different kind of strategic brain flexing than match meetings. There is also an additional important factor to these shows. Whoever you insert into tonight’s performance cannot venture into today’s match as they are booked and busy. This means juggling your list becomes a mental mind-mapping of your characters and their abilities, making sure you have enough upgraded talent to cover both.
A daily newspaper called “The Illuminated London Voice” serves as a summary of your activities: how the audience found your circus act, Amelia’s reports on the state of London’s insane residents, and several snippets of background information about the game’s world. Details like the paper only add to the general details of what is a very lavishly designed game. The 2D and 3D character models are all bursting with personality, every bit of dialogue is voice-over, backgrounds for encounters are always set in different parts of London, and every character attack has a flourish of animation. Every time you put on a show, the game will generate a vintage circus poster with the characters you chose to perform that day. Even the smallest details like HP gauges, status symbols and item descriptions all have their own steampunk flair. I have a soft spot for mechanical and steampunk aesthetics, so after drinking in all of the preview’s sumptuous details, I felt almost giddy.
I have become quite enchanted by my time with Circus Electrique. There’s just so much to take in. The balancing act of circus acts and street fighting forces you to think differently about building a battle with fighters, and I’m keen to try out the new classes. The story also seems interesting; there’s mystery and intrigue behind why London suddenly became noisy, not to mention some pretty sketchy details surrounding Amelia’s mother’s death and her involvement in the circus. However, these mysteries won’t remain secret for long, as Circus Electrique is out on PC through Steam and the Epic Game Store on September 6th.