Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness Review – And Then There Were None

The Vlad Circus caught fire in 1921 and burned to the ground in less than 20 minutes. The owner’s brother, Josef Petrescu, was found guilty of starting the fire and was executed by electric chair. Eight years later, Oliver Mills, who once performed as a clown called Lazy Ollie at Vlad Cirus, receives a letter from the circus’ former owner, announcing his plans to renew the show and inviting all the now-retired acts to his manor to take a picture for the upcoming poster.

Indiesruption’s Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness is a psychological survival horror and puzzle game taking place primarily at the Petrescu’s family manor. Since the incident at Vlad Circus, Ollie has spent some time at Pennhurst Asylum and has been in recovery for a year. That being said, Dr. Jasper, the Director of Pennhurst Asylum is accompanying him on the trip to support him and ensure he doesn’t relapse.

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The cast of Vlad Circus reunite 

I would describe the story of Vlad Circus as Agatha Christie meets Resident Evil. Ollie awakens in his guest room in the manor at the beginning of the game. It’s time for everyone to gather in the entry hall to take their picture. However, the circus’ owner, Vlad Petrescu, is nowhere to be seen and suddenly, the electricity shortcircuits. As we spend the night at the Petrescu manor house, certain events unfold which will make the player question what is really going on.

Vlad Circus is an inventory puzzle game at its heart. As Ollie explores the manor, he will encounter obstacles in his path which he must find the correct tool or item to solve. The survival horror game elements are worked in through the inventory management system and also managing Ollie’s stress levels and fighting off the hallucinations that haunt him the more he revisits the horrific night the circus burnt down.

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What will be unveiled on this fateful night?

Ollie’s stress levels act as his health metre. They go up when he is attacked and also from prolonged exposure to his hallucinations. You can manage them by taking out the hallucinations, drinking Dr. Jasper’s mysterious tonic to get rid of them, or by praying to reduce his stress levels. Ollie has a few weapons that he can pick up throughout the game, but they do take up precious inventory slots. He’ll start off with a knife that gets more blunt the more you use it and requires sharpening, or guns which require bullets that are few and far between. This puts the player in situations where they will need to determine whether an enemy is worth taking out or saving their ammo.

Ollie can run away from most situations, however he does have limited stamina. There is no stamina bar, so you need to determine how exhausted Ollie is by listening closely to his breathing. I personally think a stamina bar is needed because there were plenty of times where I couldn’t hear Ollie’s breathing over the music or sound effects and found myself running out of stamina and needing to stop to let Ollie catch his breath. This mechanic also becomes annoying during general exploration, especially with the amount of backtracking that Vlad Circus has.

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Ollie will need to fight off his demons (literally) and keep his stress levels in check.

Starting off, Ollie has six inventory slots, however this can be expanded by picking up bags around the manor which will grant an extra slot. I did find Vlad Circus’ inventory management system to be really punishing and it didn’t feel justified. Despite this being a common element in survival horror games, ammo doesn’t take up inventory space, so all I really felt like this did was send us into a constant loop of needing to drop key items and then circle back for them when needed, adding yet more backtracking to the game. On top of this, sometimes items would disappear when no longer needed, but most of the time they did not, so this meant I would be carrying items that had fulfilled their purpose because I was unsure of whether we would need them again or not – wasting a valuable inventory slot. This blow is softened slightly by the inclusion of a page in Ollie’s journal listing any dropped items and where they’ve been dropped, which isn’t something I’ve seen in a game before and I thought was a brilliant idea.

Although relevant objects do twinkle on the screen when searching the manor, searchable containers or surfaces do not, so Vlad Circus does still have an element of pixel hunting. I also thought the map in Vlad Circus was absolutely atrocious and may as well have not been there. It essentially lists off the rooms that have been entered and leaves empty branches for the ones that are still locked, but you have no idea where they are because it’s not really a map and more just a spider diagram of the mansion’s rooms. Vlad Circus also suffers from a case of unnecessary Quick Times Events. I’ve never been a fan of these and they usually feel crammed in to add more gameplay elements, which I didn’t feel was needed here.

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Yes, this is the game’s map.

Combat in Vlad Circus consists of pointing Ollie in the direction of an enemy and either firing or swinging his weapon. If you’re using the knife, then each swing will use up stamina. I did notice that the monsters will often stop and wait for Ollie to reload before continuing to pursue him, which is nice of them. I didn’t really have any issues with the combat in Vlad Circus, and felt like it was nicely balanced with the puzzles. It would have been nice to see some more enemy variation though.

As Ollie works his way around the mansion, he’ll meet with the other circus acts and will catch up with what they’ve been up to for the past eight years. Like Ollie’s, these will mostly consist of sad tales and dreams of the show re-opening allowing them to return to the life they took for granted before. I think the storyline of Vlad Circus is its highest selling point and I was really invested in the characters and story. I did feel like the ending was a little predictable, but overall it was well told and all the characters felt fully fleshed out. After conversations, Ollie will usually add an entry to his diary to give further background information on the conversation that’s just happened. I think this is a brilliant way to add further context to the game’s dialogue without filling it with expository language.

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Ollie will add further context to conversations in his diary.

Vlad Circus is stunning in both its visuals and audio. It has a pixelated art style, but when further detail is needed, we’ll switch to a detailed illustration of what Ollie is looking at – usually a gruesome hallucination. I think this tactic works really well at stretching the limitations of Vlad Circus’ art style and really bringing forth those horror elements. I also couldn’t help but notice the dynamic weather effects!

Vlad Circus’ soundtrack is a brilliant mix of orchestral and piano tracks and the audio design is also fantastic. As Ollie becomes more stressed, he starts to experience whispering voices in his head. There’s also a great mix of horror-inducing sound effects such as the cracking of thunder to really set the tone.

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When needed, Vlad Circus will illustrate the gruesome scenes that Ollie is witnessing to bring further horror outside of the game’s usual pixel artstyle. 

I did find that Vlad Circus fell apart at the end gameplay-wise. We were suddenly thrown into a chase sequence, which doesn’t work with the pixel design since it’s really difficult to distinguish where the borders of the path are, especially considering the lighting in this level flashes on and off. On top of this, it was unclear what we were supposed to do, as all of a sudden Ollie no longer had his weapons and had to instead collect them in the maze we had been pushed into. The monster chasing us also felt really out of place and I think this segment would have been better off not happening at all.

Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness is an enjoyable psychological horror and survival game. Although its gameplay can be frustrating at times, the storyline and characters had me hooked for its six-hour runtime.

Jess reviewed Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness on PC with a review code. Vlad Circus is also available on PlayStation 4|5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.

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