Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness Review – Tears of a Clown
I’m always a sucker for some good story-driven indie horror. Give me a few sympathetic characters, an interesting narrative, some engaging combat and exploration and a smattering of puzzles, and I’m all set. So when I caught wind of Vlad Circus: Descent into Madness, I thought I was getting exactly this. But does it hold up? Well, after finishing the game, I can confidently say that of all the horror titles I’ve ever played, this is… certainly one of them.
Vlad Circus puts you in the oversized shoes of former circus clown Oliver ‘Lazy Ollie’ Mills. It’s 1929, and the times haven’t been kind to ol’ Ollie. Eight years ago, the titular Vlad Circus burned to the ground, killing and injuring dozens and bringing financial ruin to all those involved. The event was enough to break our boy Ollie, who wasn’t exactly in the best of shape to begin with. After spending several years in a mental institution, he’s released into the custody of his psychiatrist Dr. Jasper, who keeps a watchful eye on his patient lest he relapses. Things take a new turn, however, when a mysterious letter arrives from the carnival’s aged founder. Vlad Circus is being revived, and Ollie and his fellow former performers have been invited to attend a mansion dinner to discuss plans. Cue scene, and we find Ollie at the mansion as the storm cuts out the power, with things soon getting weird from there.
Mechanically, Vlad Circus is best described as a point-and-click adventure wearing the trappings of a survival horror game. It’s best played with a gamepad – as the game itself tells you – and you can move around the environment freely with the left joystick. There’s even a sprint function and some very light combat, but the meat of Vlad Circus is classic adventure game fare. You’ll spend the majority of your time looking for items, using them on objects and talking to NPCs to progress the story. There aren’t really any puzzles as such, unless you stretch the definition by considering key hunting and the occasional QTE puzzles. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t frequently find this aspect tedious. The game isn’t very good at telling you what you need to do, and there are objectives that you’ll only be able to complete several hours after getting them. There were times when I hit a brick wall and had to rely on a walkthrough, which is never a good sign.
On the other side of things, there’s the combat. As the night wears on Ollie will encounter various hostiles ranging from vermin to demons from the fractured depths of his psyche. Rather than losing health, Ollie gains stress every time he’s attacked or sees something disturbing. Get too stressed and Ollie will black out, waking up somewhere else in the mansion. There’s no real fail state in the game, although you’ll sometimes be punished by losing some of your non-essential inventory items. Ollie can heal his stress by praying with his mother’s old rosary beads and you’ll also get access to a couple of weapons later in the game, which can come in handy when dispatching foes.
Sadly, Vlad Circus fares no better as a survival horror title than it does as an adventure game. The combat itself consists of no more than shooting or slashing in an enemy’s direction. This wouldn’t be a problem if only the game managed to create an interesting strategic dimension around that. What made the original Resident Evil so great wasn’t its sucky, tank control combat, but how that combat fed into the wider gameplay loop. The scarcity of consumables and ever-present danger meant players had to plan each journey outside a saferoom. It was about taking calculated risks and optimizing the various paths through the Spencer Mansion to reach objectives.
Vlad Circus has none of that. Monsters are almost entirely relegated to a few very specific areas, and the game autosaves progress anyhow. Rats are the most abundant hindrance, but are only semi-hostile, although that didn’t stop me blacking out to them more than the nightmare creatures thanks to their annoyingly small hitbox. The cherry on top of everything is the presence of a limited inventory system. In a game that’s basically a point-and-click, this mechanic makes no sense. All it leads to is a tedious amount of backtracking. As a small plus, I suppose, Ollie has a notebook that can list where dropped items have been left. This is a clever feature, and one more survival horror games should use.
Probably Vlad Circus’ strongest element is its presentation. It goes down the pixel art route but manages to throw together some creepy scenery with it. Besides the backgrounds, a particular high note is Ollie himself, or rather, his dialogue portraits, which really manage to sell the idea of someone who’s been put through the wringer by life. Overall, the game’s art style is neo-noir meets southern gothic, and the whole thing looks like it could have been ripped straight from Nightmare Alley or some other pulp novel. There’s zero subtlety here, but by going all in it does manage to shock and disgust with its horror imagery.
Finally, there’s the story itself. This is really the make-or-break aspect of a game like this, and an element that could potentially carry Vlad Circus above its flaws. Unfortunately, the narrative is so completely over-the-top that it’s hard to take seriously. The story is a 15-year-old gritty edgelord’s idea of dark subject matter, hurling together a grab bag of everything from insanity to pregnancy to drug addiction and wrapping it up in a hokey package of ‘woo, creepy old-timey circus stuff’. It doesn’t even manage to pull off much authenticity, either, with everyone using modern speech patterns and Ollie taking the Lord’s name in vain a helluva lot for a supposedly feverishly devout Christian. I also hope I’m not spoiling anything when I say the story plays the 101 of psychological horror tropes. You know, that one. The one that’s so lazy you’d have thought nobody does it anymore. Whatever mystery the story may have intrigued me with initially, it turns out I was giving it way more credit than it deserved.
I don’t like to end on a negative, so if I had to give some kudos, I could say that the game does at least manage to paint Ollie as a poor, pitiable bastard. His bug-eyed, overly earnest dialogue and disheveled appearance all speak of a mentally ill man dealt a crap hand by fate, and you do feel somewhat sorry for him. Likewise, the horror moments – often delivered in a pixel ‘gotcha’ jump screen – are often so grotesque that they usually provoked a suitably nauseous reaction. But these two high notes aren’t enough for Vlad Circus to pitch its tent with.
Vlad Circus took around five hours to beat in total, although a good portion of that time consisted of backtracking and wandering around figuring out what to do. The game was bug-free on my playthrough and remained at a solid 60fps throughout. Then again, being a 2D pixel game, it really shouldn’t have been anything other than that. It’s a very linear affair, and with no hidden achievements or alternative endings to unlock there’s no real reason to go back. This is probably for the best, as it means that the game doesn’t outstay its welcome.
I don’t go out of my way to criticize games, and especially not indie games made by small teams. It brings me no joy when I do, and I genuinely wanted to like Vlad Circus. But its frustrating gameplay and boilerplate story make it hard to recommend, especially at full price. There are just better titles out there. At most I could say that if you’ve got a pathological need for creepy pixel adventure games, you could do worse than grabbing this during a Steam Sale for an evening’s entertainment. But otherwise, this is one circus that just isn’t worth the price of admission.