Tuesday, November 28, 2023

The Amazing American Circus Stumbles into Town

Enamored with the concept, frustrated by the execution.

I have sunk dozens of hours into deck builders like Slay the Spire and Dicey Dungeons, and I have lost count of the nights spent building up my hamlet in Darkest Dungeon. In theory, The Amazing American Circus should be the perfect game for me.

A turn-based, deck builder with light sim elements, it combines the best parts of some of my favorite games. Although the experience is at times very enjoyable, it is held back by bugs, poor optimization, and systems that feel deep but fail to impress under scrutiny.

The conceit is simple enough: your father has recently passed away and left you in charge of his failing circus. To pay off your mounting debt, you agree to restore glory to the troupe and win a large cash prize in the process.

Gameplay is broken up into three distinct elements: exploring an interactive world map, building your troupe, and performing shows.

The world map serves as your stage selection menu. Your circus, represented by a tiny horse drawn wagon, travels around the map from one major city to another unlocking hidden locations and random events along the way. When you eventually arrive at your desired location, you are given the option to visit your campsite and make use of all the services it has to offer.

While the goal of the game is to raise your fame by performing shows until you are allowed to challenge your regional competitor, the development of your troupe is an intriguing, if simplistic, diversion.

In the campsite, you can accept side quests to unlock new misfits (support characters) and finales (finishing moves), build your decks, train and recruit artists, cure ailments, manage your quirks (positive and negative traits for your artists), cook food for your travels, upgrade your wagons, and set up your party composition for your upcoming show. It is entirely possible to complete the game while making minimal use of the activities the camp has to offer, but there is a lot of fun to be had if you want to invest in the systems.

When you start out, your troupe consists of three artists, a misfit, a finale, and a handful of upgradeable caravans. These limited resources make the early portions of the game a challenge and force you to think carefully about where you perform your shows.

Do you pick a small city that is easily impressed but offers little in the way of compensation, or do you head to San Francisco to push your luck with a two-act performance that is sure to bring in a bigger pay day but a tougher crowd?

At the outset, these choices can be enthralling.

More than a few times I saw my troupe shouted out of a major city, my coffers in shambles, and food supplies running low. However, once you experience this dejection a couple times, it becomes clear that the best approach in the early going is to travel between small cities, pay a little money to promote your show, and save up enough to recruit some of the stronger artists.

There are a wide variety of artists here with some interesting mechanics. There is the Counting Chicken who uses complex mathematical formulas to determine damage and shielding, an Animal Tamer that summons bears and monkeys to offer end of round effects, and the Fire Eater who specializes in healing your lost focus.

Completing side quests will unlock new misfits that provide passive benefits at the start of each act, introduce you to special variants of some of the artists, and open new finales to strengthen your showstopper. All of this leads to a deck builder that is as simple or complex as you choose to make it.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment I felt with the game was that once you find a party of three artists with enough Draw and Impress (damage), the battles become trivial and there is very little reason to experiment with deck building and party composition.

When I started out, I tried to see what the various artists had to offer but quickly realized that artists who focused on Ignore (shields) or gimmicks were largely overshadowed by those who pumped out significant Impress. Your crowds tend to pose very little threat once you have a party capable of impressing most crowd members on the first turn.

This issue is exacerbated by the slow trickle of cards and finite battles which prevent you from leveling too many artists past low levels. When training your artists, you can choose to add a new card or upgrade an existing one, but levels cap out at 8, so each individual artists feels rather limited in practice.

Despite several intriguing and deep systems, and the fact that it recalls a few of my favorite games in the genre, I struggle to recommend The Amazing American Circus in its current state.

While I had few issues with the game in the first couple hours of play, the more time I spent with it, the less enamored I became.

For starters, while the aesthetics of the hand drawn backgrounds and characters are pleasing from a distance, they are too cramped and muddled when playing the game in handheld mode. Some of the cards were so packed with information that it was impossible to read them on the Switch’s tiny screen. When playing docked, the sprites are stretched and pixelated.

Additionally, many of the campsites and show venues look nearly identical. Coupled with a lack of enemy variety; a bland, repetitive soundtrack; and a gameplay loop that encourages you to stick to your best party composition, too much of what is on offer here feels repetitive and uninspired.

This is without accounting for the poor optimization (in handheld and docked) and several potentially game breaking bugs.

By the time I got to the second map, I had an established party of the starting Juggler, Clown, and a Face Changer who I had recruited very early on. These three members could dish out significant Impress and were continually drawing cards from the deck to pad my hand.

The result of this combat optimization was that whenever my hand got above 6 cards or so, the game would slow to a crawl. I would play a card, wait upwards to fifteen seconds for it to resolve, and then another fifteen seconds or so to regain control of my deck. The slowdown would subside during finales, in camp, or when traveling the world map, but when so much of the game is spent in combat, it can become a frustrating experience.

Nonetheless, I found myself enjoying my time with The Amazing American Circus enough that I was determined to complete the adventure and see the (bare bones) story through to its conclusion. Unfortunately, a late game bug stalled my progress.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, the goal of each region is to amass enough fame to face the regional competitor. Unfortunately, when I finally made it to the East Coast, I encountered a bug that made it impossible to complete most shows. In at least half of the cities I visited, when I finally made it to Act 3 of a show, a card would be dealt into my hand sideways. This card became unselectable and prevented me from ending my turn or shuffling a new hand. The result was that I could not complete enough cities on the East Coast to amass the necessary Fame to trigger the regional competitor. No amount of reversion, resetting, or shuffling around my composition solved this problem.

Unfortunately, I cannot recommend you pick it up in its current state, at least not until they patch out the potentially game breaking bugs, but I do think that the systems here are deep and intriguing enough to satisfy the itch for those players longing for a new deck builder.

Matthew Pilkington
Matthew Pilkington
follow me on twitter: @zeroparse

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