Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness Review (PS4) – When I first looked at Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness, I knew I wasn’t the target audience. Still, something about it made me question all the filters my brain funnels game choices through.
Thankfully, hindsight favored my foresight, because damn it if I didn’t enjoy it, even with the cumbersome puzzles.
Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness Review (PS4) – Making The Best Of A Puzzling Genre With Fantastic Storytelling
Oliver receives a spontaneous letter from the leader of his old troupe, organizing a reunion of sorts. Not much good has happened to Oliver since the fire that destroyed everything, including his psyche which ultimately placed him in an asylum.
So, getting back together feels like a major positive for Oliver. Unfortunately, his old friends no longer share the same life circumstances that he does, leaving him even more alienated.
Vlad Circus plays much like modern Escape from Monkey Island, insomuch that the game focuses more on solving puzzles than action elements. You spend a vast majority of your time running from zone to zone, trying to figure out what needs to happen in order to get where you want to go.
The Wandering Puzzler
For instance, I wanted to get an item from a monkey. So, I had to find a saw to get into the greenhouse, break into Oliver’s circus wagon, take an hour hand from his clock, place a banana on a dinner trolley, set the time on a grandfather clock, and get inside the greenhouse while the monkey is eating in order to pick up what I wanted in the first place.
The game often asks you to complete sequences like this. At times, the items make sense and you don’t need to wander too far, which keeps those sections moving and more engaging.
Other times your goals aren’t as transparent. The first one that hindered me is something as simple as collecting fresh rain water. I have an empty jug, and my first instinct is to place it on the ground and let the rain fill it. That doesn’t work. Instead, I have to find a rain gutter and collect water from the down spout.
Overall, this game is written very well, with strong characterization delivered with very little subtext. At the same time, the hints provided for the puzzles lack the same minimalistic attention to detail. Puzzle games are meant to be challenging, but that challenge doesn’t yield fulfillment if you can’t intuitively figure out the puzzles in front of you.
Low Rez Suspense
Continuing with the aforementioned minimalism, the visuals lend to the concept beautifully. All details mimic games like Stardew Valleybut the lighting enhances everything. All the details are there, but they’re intentionally blocky. This forces you to project your imagination into it, which works to great effect.
This plays into the formula intentionally. As you go along, certain things appear that are big enough to have refined pixelated details. These things then take every bit of your attention span simply because they are so vivid.
The dev team maximizes its potential with the way it delivers the game’s visuals. Even through my deep frustrations with the puzzle-y sections, the overall narrative and visual execution keep me thinking about what the game showed me. The ending, while abrupt, cascades everything you learned back onto itself, and everything lingers in your head long after the credits.
Despite The Frustration
Still, the conversation nature of the puzzle gameplay sticks with me. This game is a specific type targeting fans. Going into this game, I knew that.
At the same time, I persevered simply because of the story the game tells. Oliver is a guy defeated by life, with the only experiences he has are being a clown and living in an asylum. Despite all that, he wants to be a good person and help his friends, even if their goals don’t align with his.
From the beginning to the end, Vlad Circus showed me that even I, an avid puzzle despiser, can still enjoy this genre. Keep that in mind when considering this game.
Compelling Narrative Carries The Day
Vlad Circus Descend Into Madness reaffirmed my gaming mantra: Good games are good, regardless of genre. It still includes heavy puzzle solving that only sometimes feels fulfilling.
Nonetheless, the minimalistic visuals and writing lend to the engaging, melancholic, defeatist story of Oliver, in a way that stands out amidst the tedious nature of the genre. You won’t forget about the tedium, but you will be motivated through it in Vlad Circus.
Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness is available on October 17, 2023 on PS4.
Review copy provided by publisher.