Review – Circus Electrique

As common as roguelike games are, few developers get them right. They’re among the oldest of genres that survived into modern gaming, beginning as they did in the 70’s/80’s with classics like Rogue, Adventure and Moria. It’s a formula that you would assume the gaming community would have down after playing them for over 40 years, but sadly it’s not to be. At first glance, Circus Electrique appears to be an exception. It’s a very thematic and well-designed game with smooth, simple, yet addicting gameplay. Yet, keep playing it and huge critical flaws become more and more apparent, bringing this promising game down to its proverbial knees. 

Circus Electrique has seen plenty of comparisons to Darkest Dungeon, and for good reason. You run a circus, set in a Steampunky, Victorian-era London. Due to an event known as the Maddening, citizens of London have been going crazy and turning into violent psychopaths. And apparently, the only one who can save London is your circus. You split your time between putting on shows for the public and leading your entertainers in turn-based battles against the crazed populace. All of this is done in a manner almost identical to Darkest Dungeon’s, just with Steampunk themes instead of Lovecraft. While I preferred the latter, I can’t deny that Circus Electrique wears its theme proudly and authentically. Presentation is always important in making yourself distinct, and Circus Electrique succeeds in spades. 

At the end of every day, you get one of the coolest end of turn summary formats I’ve ever seen.

The general foundation of gameplay is just as solid. The turn-based combat is simple, easy to read, yet has plenty of depth. The focus on balancing status effects, the position system, and the numerous abilities and classes make for combat with plenty of complexity and variety. Likewise, running your circus is simple and fun. The main mechanic is putting on shows for the public (despite the circumstances), and this is done through a simple worker assignment mechanic. It’s also much easier to run a bigger team than in Darkest Dungeon. You’ll always have a large crew to split between exploring London and performing shows. This makes for more variety and more freedom to specialize and experiment. It’s all great, fun, and for the opening ten hours or so, it plays fantastically. 

Once you hit your first wall though, everything changes. I’ve always felt that a roguelike shows its true nature once you hit that first difficulty wall. After all, this genre is built around these walls and overcoming them. So how any roguelike handles them is core to its quality. And sadly, Circus Electrique almost completely falls apart at this point. See, you need resources for upgrading basically everything. And you only get these resources randomly from battles and, to a much lesser degree, from shows. And there’s no way to circumvent this. There’s no store, no exchange system, and critically no grinding. As you progress through your run, what you get is what you get. Once you hit the wall, if RNG hasn’t already given you what you needed, then you’re done. Time to restart and hope that RNGesus is nicer in the next life. 

Everything about battle from the UI to the background is carefully animated, designed, and interesting yet clean.

And then that’s when other issues rear their ugly heads. For one, the opening hour of the game is a railroaded tutorial. And it never goes away, nor is it skippable. So every time you restart, and unless you’re the luckiest person in the world, you will be restarting, you have to sit through the hour long tutorial again. And again. Given the absolute low chance of success even on the game’s easiest difficulty, it’s absolutely ridiculous that you have to sit through this every time. Not only that, but there are no carry-over mechanics. Every time you restart, you begin with only the same base classes unlocked, with the same opening squad, and have to unlock and find everything all over again. 

Basically, Circus Electrique is a roguelike that will keep kicking you in the face regardless of how well you play and make you sit through an hour of cutscenes and dialogue right after. Key to the roguelike genre is learning and then overcoming, which is something that’s simple impossible in the game’s current state. Sure, save scumming is a thing, and roguelike veterans will surely be using those skills here. Even then though, there’s still a chance of failure and any game that can only be beat by abusing the save system is ridiculous. I genuinely don’t think that your standard gamer could just walk up and complete this game playing by the rules. The RNG is too random, encounter design and pacing far too unbalanced, and there’s just no drive to keep playing. This is just frustrating, and the kind of game people think roguelikes are. 

Putting on a show is just as intuitive as battle, quite literally plugging and playing.

Still though, Circus Electrique has so much promise. It’s gameplay foundation is incredibly solid, the theme unique and well executed, and there’s plenty of variety in everything. And while it’s definitely inherently flawed, there’s nothing here that can’t be fixed. Right off the bat, a store or resource exchange system would go far in improving your dealings with RNG. A way to leave current districts and replay previous ones to grind would as well. Balance changes are as always the easiest to pull off, and I’m sure some are on the way even now. The point is, while these issues are critical to actually playing and enjoying the game, they’re all easily fixable and I’m really hoping the developers realize this. Because this really is a fun and unique game, and I’d really really love to actually be able to enjoy it. 

Graphics: 9.0

The game is gorgeous and absolutely nails the aesthetic and feel of it’s steampunk setting.

Gameplay: 9.0

Combat is fun and tactical, the Circus strategic layer unique and engaging, while the variety of classes, abilities, and passives makes for plenty of variety.

Sound: 7.0

The voice-acting and soundtrack are both fine enough, but ultimately nothing special.

Fun Factor: 5.0

While the game is borderline brilliant at first, the longer you play, the more holes you’ll find, and play even further and those holes become gaping chasms that ultimately bring everything crashing down.

Final Verdict: 7.0

Circus Electrique is available now on Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch and PC.

Reviewed on PC.

A copy of Circus Electrique was provided by the publisher.