When I think of Zen Studios, I think about the best pinball games on the market. There’s not a single game in my Steam library I’ve played more than Zen Pinball 2, and even now it’s a staple part of my Steam Deck gaming diet. Zen Studios have made more than just pinball games though, games like Dread Nautical and Castlestorm proved the developer was confident dabbling in all sorts of genres. Now Circus Electrique is here: a tricky RPG with some serious circus management elements.
Set in an alternative steampunk Victorian London, the city is in a state of peril when the majority of its citizens start mindlessly attacking each other. Our hero Amelia is a reporter investigating this phenomenon, who upon realising the danger on the streets reluctantly accepts some help from her uncle’s circus.
Amelia was raised in the Circus Electrique, as her mother was the star attraction. Then one night after a performance went wrong, Amelia’s mum tragically died leaving Amelia alone and angry. There’s understandably a lot of bad blood between Amelia and her ringmaster Uncle, and their relationship is fully explored in fully voice acted cutscenes throughout the game. The relationships of the characters coupled with the sinister happenings of old London town make for an interesting backdrop to the RPG action.
Combat in Circus Electrique is turn-based, and sees a team of four of your circus performers taking on (usually) four unruly Londoners. What makes combat different in this game though is the importance of your position. Each of your employees has six moves at their disposal, but they can only be used in certain positions in the party line up. The same is true for your enemies, and when you add attacks that shuffle characters around into the mix it makes for some truly chaotic battles.
The different classes in Circus Electrique are as charming as they are unique. Clowns are tanks/healers with a few status effects up their sleeves (along with a very long handkerchief), Strongmen deal huge damage but struggle to take it, and Snake Charmers use poison on enemies and can raise the spirits of your party with their exotic dancing. You’ll unlock loads of different classes as you progress through the game, and each one of them is totally different to the last.
A character can be taken out of battle by depleting their health bar as per usual, but they can also be taken out by lowering their devotion to zero. This blue meter indicates how loyal to the team each performer is, and affects enemies as well as friends. If you want to keep your party around you’ll want to ensure they’re having a good time, especially because characters with high devotion are more accurate, more likely to hit critical attacks, and given beneficial status effects.
How do you go about keeping all your performers happy? By letting them spend the night performing in the big top instead of fighting brainwashed civilians of course. Between each fight in Circus Electrique you’ll need to manage the circus, which means assigning roles to everyone. Anyone who’s hurting can spend a night or two in the sleeping car, slackers can be sent to the practice tent to level up, and a lucky few will be chosen to perform in the next day’s show.
Setting up an entertaining performance isn’t as easy as you might think. Each of your party members has four different skill points that dictate how they entertain the crowd. Some impress most with music, whereas others entertain with comedy or feats of danger. The performers you choose will have to total certain point values to star in the show, but to get the most stars (which equal money and experience for the circus) you’ll need to organise them correctly.
You see each of your performers has a preference for what position they slot into in the show, as well as who they perform next to. You might have a clown who likes to open the show and have a firebreather follow his act, or a strongman that wants to be the main attraction and hates going out after an escapologist. Only by fitting the right performers into this logistical puzzle will you get the maximum amount of stars to upgrade your base of operations.
Once you’ve put on enough entertaining shows, the circus will level up and you’ll have options to upgrade each of the individual parts of it. Upgrading the sleeping car allows more people to rest, but putting valuable money and resources into upgrading the Artisan will unlock powerful new consumables and show upgrades to craft. There are a ton of decisions to make every time you go back to the circus, and some people will probably find it overwhelming.
No matter what’s going on at the big top, you’ll need to make sure you have a healthy party of four who are ready to explore the streets of The Big Smoke. When you leave the circus you’ll be presented with a sprawling map of nodes, and you’ll need to figure out the optimal path for your team. You might want to go down a path that leads to a loot crate, but the fight you’ll have to do in the rain after it will be a nightmare for your fire breathers. Every one of these decisions could lead to riches the circus needs or the permanent death of a performer, so don’t take them lightly.
That’s right, Circus Electrique features permadeath. If a character runs out of HP they are gone forever, and if they run out of devotion they probably won’t be sticking around for long either. Modelled after games like Darkest Dungeon, Circus Electrique wants you to know that there are consequences to your actions, and will happily kill off your favourite clowns and ventriloquists if you’re not careful. Unlike other more oppressive RPGs though, it isn’t too tricky to fill up your sleeping quarters with replacement performers of similar power levels if a boss fight wipes you out.
I’m not ashamed to say I had full teams of characters taken away from me after certain tough scraps, and it felt bad. Some boss fights especially just don’t play fair, and if you aren’t using all of your abilities to buff and position your team correctly there’s a good chance they’ll take some of them down.
There are loads of extra mechanics and systems I haven’t even mentioned yet in Circus Electrique. There’s the powerful Amazemeter that slowly builds up between fights and could save your bacon with a massive heal, buff, or attack when unleashed at the right time. There are also loads of different events you can find on the map, like street performances or penny sliding mini games that shake up the loop of combat and show organising with a bit of fun and a chance for prizes.
There’s a lot I love about Circus Electrique, but it does have a few issues. Perhaps the one that prevented me from playing for hours at a time is how often you need to organise a circus show. Between every battle (until you unlock the harder two day shows) you’ll need to figure out which performer to put where, and because you’re punished for running the same show twice you can’t even repeat one you already set up.
Also as much as I appreciate the punishing difficulty, I think some aspects of the game are simply unbalanced. There were occasions where I’d go into an encounter and just get battered by opponents I expected to be very beatable, and times where I loaded into a fight only to see four fire enemies in the rain who could barely damage the team. The consistency just isn’t there.
Circus Electrique is a challenging RPG that long term fans of the genre will get a lot out of, but don’t go in expecting an easy ride. The circus theme and management is delightful (if slightly repetitive) and the position based combat actually makes you think instead of letting you grind and win every battle. Circus Electrique isn’t a game that everyone will like, but the ones that do will have a new obsession.
A fantastic, punishing RPG
Combat is thoughtful and compelling
The circus theme and management is charming and unique
An engaging story
Repeatedly organising shows can get tiresome
The balance is sometimes a bit off
Not everyone will have the patience to learn all the mechanics