In 2020, a little pixel art game caught our eye and went on to win our Hidden Gem Award for our Game of the Year awards, and that game was Nine Witches: Family Disruption, a point-and-click adventure game about a Nazi German division unleashing an ancient curse at the height of WW2, developed by Indiesruption and published by Blowfish Studios. Three years have since passed and the small development team has come out with a brand new point-and-click game, dubbed Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness.
In this new entry, you play as the traumatised clown Oliver Mills, set in the 1920s after a horrific fire burned the once famous Vlad Circus to the ground. Vlad Petrescu, the former owner of the circus, invites the old crew back together to reopen the circus, eight years after the incident and seven years after his brother was found guilty of the fire and was sentenced to death by the electric chair. And it is here in the Petrescu Manor where the story begins, taking control of Oliver as he contemplates rejoining the circus after having spent the past eight years traumatised in a mental asylum.
Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness is a wild ride from start to finish. Each character is as memorable as the next, and they all play important roles in the grand scheme of the plot. As I uncovered new rooms and tidbits of information, I simply had to read everything I possibly could in order to learn more about the world and the context of Oliver’s mental state. With hallucinations aplenty, it’s a classic case of an unreliable narrator and, oh boy, the game knocks this motif out of the park.
The game’s psychological horror themes are splendidly integrated with the game’s setting, both in the hotel and at a time during the economic crisis that was The Great Depression. As Oliver further explores the manor, his mind will play tricks on him, causing him to see horribly vivid hallucinations. In order to calm his nerves, he must pray with his late mother’s rosary beads, making the stress metre go down.
The pixel art—oh boy, it is glorious! Pixel graphics are sometimes deemed overdone by indie developers, but with modern technology, many developers are really showing just what can be achieved. As is the case with Vlad Circus, the pixel art is absolutely astounding in this game, and it’s complemented with an impeccable lighting system that works well with the dark mansion hallways. The use of lighting in dark colours is spectacular, so much so that it was for this reason that I chose to play this game entirely in handheld mode on my Nintendo Switch OLED; it just made everything pop!
- A truly captivating plot
- Splendid tangible use of psychological horror and stress
- Glorious pixel art and lighting
One of the most frustrating aspects of point-and-click adventure games is that some answers to puzzles can be completely illogical, and unfortunately, Vlad Circus occasionally falls into this trap. The best example of this is that towards the beginning of the game, you are instructed to collect some rainwater in a jug for an infusion. To do this, you must find a horn and an opera record. Combine both of them with a gramophone in the library so a cup above it will smash, causing a key to fall out, allowing you to unlock a door that leads to the back of the manor, which has a leaking pipe where you can fill up the jug from. This would all be fine if it weren’t in fact RAINING THIS ENTIRE TIME! My first, and more logical, solution was to simply place the jug on the ground outside so it’d fill up by itself, but nooo, we had to do it the complicated way.
To add insult to injury, Vlad Circus has an item management system where you can only carry a select amount of items at once (with the ability to find more item slots in the form of bags). This decision baffles me as point-and-click adventure games are all about picking up items, so when you want to try an item on an object but realise you left it all the way on the other side of the manor in order to make room for something else, you begin to wonder where the logic behind this decision came about. I just finished Starfield before playing Vlad Circus, and let me just say that I’m tired of rifling through inventory menus!
- Occasionally illogical puzzle solutions
- Pointless item management system
Final Score: 8/10
Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness tells an eerily disturbing tale with brilliant scriptwriting and fantastic world building. Indiesruption proved that they can tell a fantastic story with Nine Witches: Family Disruption and followed it up here spectacularly, proving that it wasn’t luck the first time around. However, where Vlad Circus struggles is in its adoption of illogical puzzle solutions that are frequent complaints that circulate the genre; cap this off with a pointlessly frustrating item management system and it’s a shame that these aspects hold back what could have been another hidden gem. But if you’re looking for a captivating psychological horror game with marvellous storytelling and captivating worldbuilding, then Vlad Circus ticks every box boldly and emphatically.
Thank you for checking out our Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness Switch review, thank you to Blowfish Studios (via Stride PR) for providing the review code and thank you to our Patreon Backers for their ongoing support: