When we think of Zen Studios, we quickly think of their excellent pinball games. They have a nice library of creative and diverse titles outside of that genre as well though, and recently added Circus Electrique to it. It’s available for all major consoles and PCs – we tested it on a PlayStation 5.
It doesn’t take long before Circus Electrique starts to feel a bit like a circus-themed version of Darkest Dungeon. That works on a visual and gameplay level, but it also tricked us for a while, as the circus theme seems welcoming at first, but underneath there is a lot of complexity to uncover in its mechanics, which makes it as daunting as the game that inspired it. The circus isn’t just a layer of paint on a familiar theme here either – it actually makes for a backdrop that’s been woven into the narrative and fully voiced characters, which is very engaging and makes it more charming than the dark and dreary setting of similar games.
Not unlike movies like The Greatest Showman, Circus Electrique takes players back to the golden days of the traveling circus in P.T. Barnum’s era – though with a darker side to it all, set in a rather haunted version of London. There’s some base building, you can put on shows, but you’ll also have to venture into the streets of London. At the same time, you’re working towards expanding your circus, adding new artists (and thus troops) to your roster and distributing XP among the ones you already have. And all of these tie together somehow, making for a very involved gameplay experience.
As you’ll probably expect by now, battles are of the turn-based variety, and despite the fact that you view the action from the side it matters how you position the four members of your party. Each one can belong to a different class, have their own abilities, and will likely work best when positioned in a certain spot – either closer to the front or towards the rear of the group. This is true for the enemies you’re fighting as well, and knocking someone out of their preferred spot can make them more vulnerable or less dangerous.
How a battle unfolds will depend on the objective that’s most feasible (chipping away at the health bar or trying to scare them off, for instance), but is also affected by your use of special attacks that are powered by the “amazemeter”, which can both change the tide of battle and allow you to develop different strategies. There’s a very deep combat system here that you maybe wouldn’t expect from a game with “Circus” in its title, and Darkest Dungeon fans will find a lot to love here.
That’s probably also the weakest point of the game. If games like Darkest Dungeon overwhelm you, this will do the exact same thing. It’s been a while since I played a tutorial that lasts for over an hour, and this one went well past that mark. And even after completing it, there’s still a lot to learn by playing and sometimes failing.
Get past that hurdle, however, and it’s an enchanting game with a nice visual style that shows both a classic circus setting and a dark fantasy side. It’s definitely not a “next gen” kind of game, but the design side of things is eye-catching nonetheless, and backed up by a good soundtrack. It won’t be for everyone, but those who resonate with it will likely spend dozens of hours playing it.