I have a huge affinity for all things freak shows and circus. From Tod Browning’s Freaks to Alex Winter’s FREAKED, the 1947 and 2021 adaptations of Nightmare Alley, The Greatest Showman, the third season of American Horror Story and so much more. Not to mention my own personal experience of shows in Coney Island, falling in love with a bearded lady and being trained in pinhead and fire breathing. I’m not even bringing up books, comics, etc. Although one comic I will mention is 99 Girls by Terry Laban which has an amazing circus/sideshow scene for an erotic comic.
Taking that all into mind I absolutely loved the story and characters in the survival horror logic puzzle game Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness. What writer Durgan A. Nallar has created in an original tale based on many legends and truths of the world genetic mutations, the world’s treatment, trauma, pain, psychiatric development and failure is intensely heart breaking, soul crushing and intriguingly mysterious as you meander through multiple tales of people’s lives. People just like me and you and yet nothing like me and you, unless you are like me and have been a circus person in a way.
I also love pixel art and this is not just pixel art, but crazy weird complicated and at times scarily horrific art. Yet also charming and giving these characters not just the words that built their personality but an image to how they could be perceived.
In gameplay your character moves as smoothly as pixel art can hacking and slashing and having stamina so low that you can’t run for half a screen without being out of breath. How this mechanic plays into the challenge version of the game I will never know, but in the story mode it was definitely excellent for immersion of being Ollie even in third person 2-D point and click fashion. Which any game should be capable of doing, make you feel outside while in as much as it can.
Not that one would really want to ever be immersed fully into a world full of hallucinogenic or are they? headless “zombies”, possibly insane barkers, alcoholic magicians with no legs, one armed snake charmers who caught off their own arm, ventriloquists whose puppet is more in control and more story spoiling extremeness. No, just on the crux of immersion, guiding Ollie through at some points really wracking the brain solutions that when you solve them are actually fully logical and in place that you’ll be kicking yourself.
Recently discussion of story and plot progression has been a hotbed discussion. And then, and then, and then only works for improv and as a silly joke in a stoner movie, but as a usage to tell a story it truly needs to be “this happened, therefore that happened but then” till conclusion and resolution and Vlad definitely follows this rule even if as a player you get lost, the game itself knows it is making sense even in insanity.
If I had to criticize one part of the game and a proper review really should always find something cause the perfect book, movie, game does not exist it’d be the game’s next to final section. Like many video games when you reach the final boss it takes a sudden switch and lots of what you’ve learned is now thrown out the window and you’re practically playing a different game. Where you were once using your brain, logic, management, reading comprehension and strategy, you are now relying fully on hand/eye coordination and while forgiving I could see some players getting frustrated… the pay off is worth it though especially when you’ve been on this “dark ride”.
Dark ride allows me to mention one more carnival scene that I adore despite it’s sickening portrayal but which also speaks to Vlad Circus and what it attempts and achieves fully and that’s from Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman story The Killing Joke. Twisted, mind bending, leaving you feeling broken and yet wanting to return again and again. That fits Vlad Circus to a tee.
Vlad Circus is available NOW on Steam, GOG, Epic, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and PS4 and PS5.