The moment I saw the trailer for Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness, I knew I had to play it. It immediately drew me in with its unique yet simplistic visuals, intriguing characters, and striking setting, and as a fan of all forms of horror – the weirder the better – it was a real stand out for me during Fear Fest 2023. As such, as soon as I saw an opportunity to get a ticket to the show, I immediately donned my red nose and face paint in preparation for this Vlad Circus Switch review.
As a part of Steam Next Fest, there’s a Vlad Circus demo that you can play for free on PC, but I was resolute in waiting to dive into the full experience blind, armed with no knowledge of what happens in the game beyond the brief trailer, and I’m so glad I did. This truly unusual tale is as mind-boggling as it is beautiful, in its own macabre way.
Set in the 1920s, Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness sees you step into the clown shoes of the deeply troubled Oliver Mills as he reprises his old role as the circus clown Lazy Ollie. Following a tragic fire that saw the destruction of the famous Vlad Circus, Oliver receives a letter from former owner and eccentric rich man, Vlad Petrescu, inviting him and all the surviving members to visit the mansion with hopes of founding the circus anew.
Taking place over the course of a seemingly endless night, you join Oliver as he catches up with old friends, attempts to keep the reunion on track, and battles with his own demons. But the borders of reality grow increasingly blurry, and before long you’re plagued by disembodied screams and whispers, battling with horrifying headless apparitions, and crawling through creepy sewers in a desperate attempt to keep everyone happy and yourself out of the asylum.
The narrative is expertly crafted, showing a high level of research and a clear understanding of the era. The characters, while unusual and sometimes cruel, show a level of sensitivity towards the plight of freak show ‘attractions’, and the sense of a very dysfunctional and fractured yet familiar found family is well portrayed. The story takes several twists and turns, and, while the ending was somewhat predictable for me, I still find it entirely enrapturing throughout and, like a good book, I struggled to put it down.
The gameplay loop is simple yet enjoyable, and, in my opinion, makes for a very effective example of puzzle-infused survival horror. It generally centers around you taking on seemingly simple quests, either from the other characters or Oliver himself, then exploring the mansion and surrounding grounds and solving puzzles to complete those quests.
The puzzles in the game are generally quite simple, but overall make for a claustrophobic and twisted experience, as you run around in search of items and clues. This does lead to quite a bit of back and forth, but considering the map is generally quite small and elements often change throughout the game, in my experience, it doesn’t feel like a chore or padding.
Oliver notes all the tasks you adopt in his diary, which you carry in your inventory. He also scribbles down entries after anything of note happens, giving you further insight into both his mind and the world he inhabits. This personal touch is a nice way of delivering backstory and allowing you to build deeper connections with the characters that surround you, and sometimes even hint towards important clues or plot points, and I actually came to look forward to the sound of Ollie’s pen scrawling across the page.
As with most survival horror games, you have a finite number of inventory slots – three of which are almost constantly in-use, taken up by the aforementioned diary, a lantern, and a rosary. The lantern is vital, as most of the grounds are plunged into near pitch darkness, and not only is it near impossible to navigate without a light source, but you also can’t read in the dark. It has a fuel percentage that drops over time, with the radius of light slowly shrinking as it runs out. You need to manage this by refilling the lantern at one of the two kerosene tanks you find throughout the game.
While this type of restriction can be frustrating, I actually find it very effective here. It’s not hard to manage your kerosene levels once you unlock both tanks, but it’s yet another thing to remember, and it certainly adds to the tension when you venture out into the garden to get a refill with little to no light, and suddenly something starts lumbering towards you out of the shadows.
That leads us nicely to the other required item – Oliver’s late mother’s rosary. Rather than a health meter, Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness presents you with a stress meter. Throughout the game, you come across multiple scenarios that cause Oliver stress – some as seemingly insignificant as a rat nipping his ankles (you quickly learn why this is such a problem for poor Ollie), and some as ghoulishly gripping as an apparition of a burning circus cart filled with corpses.
As Oliver’s stress level increases, he begins to lose touch with reality (even more so than normal) and you have to endure a chorus of unsettling whispers surrounding you. In order to reduce your stress level, you need to go to your inventory and use the rosary to pray.
When you see your first apparition of one of the headless corpses, your vision shows this neat multiply and blur effect, your controller rumbles, and Oliver’s heartbeat becomes audible. This is a smart way of informing you that, should you see this happen again in the future, danger is nearby. I love this approach of ‘show rather than tell’ when it comes to tutorials, as it clearly guides you without too much hand-holding, and the practical application makes it easier to remember.
At the point of the first apparition, you don’t have access to a weapon, so you need to go grab a tonic from the doctor and then drink it while next to the ghoul. Your supply of tonics is limitless, but you can only carry one at a time and need to go to the fireplace by the mansion doors in order to get more. So it’s lucky that soon enough, you also find a nice bloody butcher’s knife to defend yourself with.
Throughout the course of the game, you can find a few weapons, including a kitchen knife, a pistol, and a shotgun. Like the lantern, the butcher’s knife has a meter tied to it – this time indicating sharpness, which you can only restore by heading to the grindstone in the garden shed. This is yet another factor for you to keep an eye on, adding to the overall tension of the experience. Outside of this, you need bullets for your pistol and shotgun, both of which are in very limited supply, especially in the early game. However, sometimes enemies drop ammunition, which gives you a bit more incentive to take them on rather than running away.
Combat itself is pretty easy, and there isn’t much variety in terms of enemies. As the world is 2.5D, it can be a bit of a pain to aim or position Oliver perfectly at first, but you quickly get used to it. Hitting enemies also generally cancels their attacks, so after a spot of practice you’re likely to walk away from every battle without taking a speck of damage – though being in the apparition’s presence still eats away at Oliver’s sanity gradually, so you still need to pray after most battles.
If Oliver’s stress level gets too high, he passes out. There’s no penalty to this – you keep all your items and progress, and there’s no death count or anything. You simply wake up nearby, perhaps with an encouraging yet backhanded comment from Oliver’s deceased mother, and then off you go. I suppose this lack of consequence detracts from the tension in some way, but I don’t feel like this is intended to be a punishing survival horror, and with the damage being stress-induced rather than physical, it makes sense to me.
I do feel like a few locations are somewhat underutilized, such as the train station or the art shack that you only really need to visit once, but overall each location is cleverly designed and serves a purpose either to further your progress or your understanding of the game’s world. There’s also the brilliant touch of the old group photo of the circus members that you can interact with to enter Oliver’s memories, transporting you to a dreamlike, sepia rendering of the circus tent. There, you can recall specific memories of Ollie’s past interactions that can help you in the present, such as the location of a specific key or the code for a safe.
Now, onto the visuals. This may be one factor that puts some people off, but I truly love the aesthetic of the game. The character and monster sprites are very simple, but the pixel portraits that pop up when characters speak are brilliant. Then there are the absolutely gorgeous, macabre environments made up of labyrinthine gardens populated by those ghastly ghouls, foreboding corridors infested with rats, bathrooms filled with mysterious green ooze, and more.
There’s also the brief, highly detailed pixelated CG scenes that show up sometimes, and they’re always an absolute treat – from Oliver on the train at the beginning, to the dead bodies later on. The whole world it builds feels dark and entirely hostile in the most wonderful way, and I think it’s a perfect example of how you don’t always need flashy graphics and a big budget in order to make a beautiful game.
Another feature that truly amplifies the atmosphere is the sound design. Between the dull, droning soundtrack, the occasional classic or operatic number, the howling winds and rumbling storms (which also rumbles your controller, by the way), and the sound of whispers and Oliver’s heartbeat, it makes for an extremely tense world, and I highly recommend playing with headphones if possible.
And finally, we get to the Switch performance. Everything plays smoothly – no stutter, framerate drops, input lag, or anything of the type. The game doesn’t appear to be very taxing, so load screens are quick and far between. The control layout is intuitive and easy to pick up, and everything looks great on both handheld and in docked mode. My one gripe is that the text is a bit small on the TV, and it would be nice to be able to enlarge it, but beyond that, it’s all good.
So, what’s the verdict? Well, as you can probably guess if you’ve read this far, I really love this game. Its simple yet effective gameplay and unique visual style act as a great vehicle for a truly enjoyable (if a touch predictable) story, and I feel it’s a perfect example of why indie horror games are making such an impact these days.
Above everything, Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness is an experience – one that gets deep into your bones and stays there, and I met every twist and turn with a sense of nervous excitement, constantly eager to see what would come next. Its story and world will no doubt stay with me for a long time, and I can see myself paying many visits to Lazy Ollie and friends in the years to come.
Right, that’s enough from me, it’s time to say goodbye to the circus. But if you’re still on the hunt for more spooks to tingle that spine of yours, be sure to check out our list of the best horror games, or our guides to the Poppy Playtime characters, FNAF characters, and all the FNAF games.
Vlad Circus: Descend into Madness is a deeply atmospheric survival horror game with a hefty dash of puzzles to keep you engaged. Its twisting tale, tragic characters, and deeply hostile yet claustrophobic world sucks you right in from the beginning, and while it may not be for everyone, I’ll never forget my time at the circus with Lazy Ollie and pals.