The Amazing American Circus is… not so amazing.
I appreciate what The Amazing American Circus has tried to do. Part management sim, part card-based battler, it’s tried to do something different with a popular genre. It takes its primary gameplay cues from the likes of Slay the Spire and attempts to infuse them with something altogether different. In that area, at least, it has succeeded; The Amazing American Circus does indeed have a very different feel from other card-based games I’ve played.
But in doing so, it seemingly lost focus on what makes games like Slay the Spire so successful: a straightforward and easy-to-understand gameplay loop. Instead, The Amazing American Circus is a convoluted mess that tries to do too much with too little.
Slay the Spire isn’t the only popular card-based game out there, but it is one of the most prominent, and one whose systems other games so often ape. While I’m generally loathe to compare one game to another in a review – a game should be considered on its own merits, after all – I feel in this case it’s almost impossible not to compare the two thanks to the nature of The Amazing American Circus’ gameplay. While Slay the Spire (and indeed other games from the genre) sees you using cards to battle your way through enemies, The Amazing American Circus instead changes things up. You aren’t warriors; you’re circus performers. And your “enemies” are members of the audience that must be entertained.
And so rather than ‘attacking’, you ‘entertain’. And rather than blocking incoming attacks, you ‘ignore’ jeers. So far, so Slay the Spire, only with terminology changed a little. But where Slay the Spire‘s incoming and outgoing attacks are clearly explained and easy to understand, here they’re vague and poorly introduced in the game’s long but uninformative tutorial. Sometimes, you’ll play a card and the result doesn’t match up with what you expected to happen. Sometimes, your troupe takes damage and you have no idea why. Is it a bug; should it even happen at all? Or is it simply a system that the game fails to make clear to you?
One system that is made clear to you, however, is one so ridiculous it makes longer combat encounters almost impossible. When you’ve exhausted your current hand of cards, your troupe members each take damage, and each have to discard one of their five cards from their hand. Now, the cards given to you at the start of the game aren’t great. There are only few ‘perform’ cards, so impressing the audience enough to ‘defeat’ them (i.e. satisfy them enough) can be tricky and long-winded – particularly if those audience members have abilities up their sleeve to counter your actions. Some audience members, for example, refill their ‘health’ several times before you’re done with them. And so, when your cards are slowly but surely whittled down, it gets more and more difficult to win over your audience, especially when you have multiple performances you need to survive through in one go.
You do at least have the opportunity to unlock new cards as you play, but you can only ever have five per performer – so a total of 15 cards. And, like other games in the genre, you have a fixed amount of ‘energy’ to spend each round, with each card having its own energy cost. Some are free, but some might cost two or three energy points to use. Each card also has another value; a number that goes towards filling up a ‘finale’ meter. It’s something of a ‘special attack’ that can be activated once the meter is filled.
Calling it a ‘Finale’ is a little misleading, as you can use this special attack at any point, and as many times as you’d like, providing your bar is filled. Now, I assume the Finale is meant to impress (and therefore ‘damage’) all members of the audience by a large amount. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t. Again, I can’t possibly tell you why that is, because The Amazing American Circus never makes it clear. But it’s there, and it’s sometimes useful.
Outside of the main encounters of The Amazing American Circus, there’s a whole circus of events for you to interact with. By spending the money you’ve earned from a performance, you can unlock upgrades for your performers and for your circus at large, giving you overall benefits like fewer negative statuses in performances, or a bigger tent to pull in bigger crowds (and thus make more money). As you travel from location to location, you can also recruit new performers, all of whom come with their own cards and abilities. There are some arbitrary and unnecessary systems here, like needing to cook food to keep your performers fed. There’s a lot to fiddle around with, none of it feels particularly intuitive, and most of it gets tiresome.
I wanted to like The Amazing American Circus. The idea of a card battler game that isn’t necessarily about combat sounded appealing, and its 1800s travelling circus theme makes a rather interesting backdrop. But its gameplay just isn’t fun, and its systems are convoluted and often make little sense. Chances are you’ll get so fed up of long-winded, unsuccessful performances that you’ll give up long before you make any sort of meaningful progress. The bottom line? There are much, much better games in the genre, so play something else instead.
The Amazing American Circus Review – GameSpew’s Score