Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Circus Empire Review

Circus Empire, developed by Silver Wish Games and published by Enlight Software.
The Good: Requires some advanced managerial strategies, comprehensive show production options, pleasing 3-D graphics, polished user interface
The Not So Good: Agonizingly slow advancement, freestyle mode is identical to the campaign minus the objectives
What say you? A generally well designed and surprisingly rewarding circus management game at a budget price 6/8

Everyone loves the circus. Well, maybe not people who suffer from coulrophobia, but for everyone else of all ages they can be great fun. And we’re talking about the real circus, not that fruity French crap. You know: lions, tigers, tightropes, things on fire, all that jazz. It’s kind of surprising, then, that computer games haven’t cashed in on this yet. I mean, when you have Fish Tycoon, you would think everything would have been covered. Not so! Circus Empire is here for kids of all ages in the form of a management game in the ilk of RollerCoaster Tycoon and involving, well, the circus. Will Circus Empire successfully complete death-defying stunts, or get bitten in the face by a tiger?

Circus Empire has really good production values, especially for a low-priced title. The game advertises good graphics and it delivers. While it isn’t at the pinnacle of cutting-edge graphics, the game does look believable. The performer models look good and their tricks, although they could flow together better, are genuine. The circus grounds also look good, similar to those seen in the latest RollerCoaster Tycoon game (the one in 3-D). A notable aspect of the game is the background: the locations where the circus takes place look alive with moving cars and 3-D buildings. It makes it seem like you are performing in a real place rather than in a game. Later in the game where more people, effects, and tricks are available, Circus Empire successfully conveys the chaos and spectacle associated with the circus. Watching a performance is pretty fun, at least the first time through. The sound design is also well done. Circus Empire has the famous circus theme song, in addition to other background music to accompany different kinds of tricks. The game also features voiced guidance during the game, something that’s usually not included in tycoon games. It’s apparent that a lot of effort was put into the graphics and sound to create an authentic circus atmosphere and it is certainly worth it.

Circus Empire features a linear campaign with a forgettable story about a guy that leaves the banking industry (after being fired for wearing shorts on his day off…blasphemy!) to run a circus. Forgettable story aside, you’ll try to grow your circus into a worldwide phenomenon as you advance through three settings (Europe, the Orient, and America). The campaign comes with clear objectives and gradually (too gradually…more on that later) introduces new buildings, tricks, and performers over time and introduces each of them. Short missions are also available every once in a while, typically having you make a performance with specific requirements for a cash bonus. One of the two disappointing things about the game is the freestyle mode. It uses the same characters as the campaign, just without the objectives. Also, you can only use the tricks and buildings you have unlocked in the main campaign. So what’s the point? None, really. Circus Empire would have benefited from a true sandbox mode with all (or a random mix) of the animals, people, and tricks in the entire game and having a budgetary limit on how many you could hire. As it stands, you’re only going to be at the same place you are in the campaign, so unless you are done with the game, there is absolutely no reason to mess with freestyle mode.

Each morning, you’ll set a daily plan for each of your performers. They can practice a new trick, repeat existing tricks (as they will forget tricks they don’t perform over time), or rest in the morning and afternoon. There are different types of rest, and better rest (like going to the park or on a day-long vacation) costs more money but allows performers to recover. Performers have both energy and stress levels. Stress is probably the most important aspect of the game, as performers can’t practice too much and perform too many tricks in one night or they will fail and storm off stage. This goes for animals and their trainers, so overworking people is something to avoid. Over time, performers can gain experience that will unlock more advanced tricks. Circus Empire features great feedback in all areas, and this includes performer needs. There is a long list of areas of importance for each performer, such as accommodations, circus cleanliness, how much they are used in the show, and, of course, salary. If you are unhappy with someone (I have developed a strong contempt for the default clown Pepe), you can replace them, although the campaign lacks alternative or additional performers most of the time. There is even the potential for some naughty action at the circus, as happy male and female animals that live together can produce babies (that can be trained for use in the show), and you can meet a sexy female performer and becomes partners in your endeavor.

Circus Empire features a very robust show editor that allows for some pretty sophisticated and choreographed performances, at least once you’ve progressed through the game some. In the beginning, you’ll be limited to solo acts and a basic suite of tricks, but as performers becomes more advanced, you can do more involved and more realistic shows. It is important to limit the number of tricks each performer does according to their stress limit, but once you get a feel for how many tricks a particular performer can do, scheduling becomes quite easy. Each trick can be accompanied by lights, music, fanfare, and effects, and matching the atmosphere to the trick will improve public perception (the game gives hints on the best type of trick for each music selection). Each trick is rated in five areas: thrill, art, exotic, fun, and cute. Each of these appeals to a different demographic and a good balance is the key to appealing to a large audience. I really like the show editor as it allows for some really complicated and involved performances through a straightforward interface: just click on the tricks and you’re ready to go. I would like the game to show the skill level of each trick on the screen, but you can gauge it from the ratings. After each show, you are given clear feedback on what the audience liked and disliked so that you can make improvements in the next show.

The money you earn from the shows is dependent on how many stars the audience gave you for it: the higher the quality of your performance, the more money you will make. At first, the money comes in quite slowly, but once you get a semi-decent show together after a month or two, you can afford to purchase additional buildings and hire more performers. You can place some auxiliary buildings to earn some extra money: shops, food, drinks, restrooms. You can also place your animals on display like a zoo to make the visitors come a bit earlier in the day. You can increase your attendance through good performances and word-of-mouth, but you can also do advertising campaigns for the circus itself or particular performers. Your character can even greet visitors at the gate to improve their experience.

The game sounds pretty great, but now we’ve reached the other disappointing thing about Circus Empire: things unlock very slowly. Although you might (and will) have the money to afford them, new buildings and performers won’t unlock until the game lets them become available. This results in a lot of waiting: once you’ve gotten your show down, there really isn’t anything to do until performers level up or new things become available. And since they rarely become available, Circus Empire borders on the tedious. This is really frustrating because it’s an easily fixed problem: just make more things available if you have the money for it. For example, in one game I had $100,000 and nothing to spend it on. The game wouldn’t let me hire any new performers or construct and new buildings, so it just a matter of waiting until the game decides you a ready for more objects. This really takes the wind out of your sails and slows down what is otherwise a very entertaining game.

I wasn’t really expecting much from Circus Empire based on the price of the game, but I must say I was pleasantly surprised. While the building elements are pretty standard, developing a show is a fun experience and allows for some pretty complicated performances. The graphics are enjoyable and the sound design fits the atmosphere very well. The straightforward user interface makes the game approachable for all skill levels: designing shows and making daily plans is very simple. Circus Empire isn’t all candy and roses, though, as it progresses too slowly to keep you interested for the long haul and you start to wonder when the elephants are. Still, for $20, there’s no overwhelming reason not to get this game if you enjoy circuses, play tycoon games, heard of a circus, or can spell the word “circus.”