PAX Aus 2022 Highlight – Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness

Posted on November 9, 2022

When I saw the poster for Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness at the Blowfish Studios booth at PAX Australia, I was instantly intrigued. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the poster was so haunting in the way it depicted a man in clown make-up, mouth open, hands gripping his face in a 50s cartoon style. I was hoping that this game wouldn’t disappoint, as the phrase “don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover” kept playing through my head. However, after playing the demo from developers Indiesruption (who are responsible for 2020s Nine Witches: Family Disruption), I can safely say that for once, the famous saying is wrong. Vlad Circus combines elements of pixel art, psychological horror, point-and-click adventure and a rich story that made it one of my favourite demos at PAX this year.

You play as 40-year-old Oliver Mills, who has recently been released from a psych ward after escaping a fire at Vlad Circus where he was working as a clown. The game is set in 1929, 8 years after the fire occurred, at the residence of Vlad Circus’ owner, Vlad Petrescu, who has asked you and the other circus performers to come over to talk about resurrecting the circus. However, Vlad is wandering the forest that surrounds the house calling out his dead brother’s name and the last eight years have not been too kind to the other performers. You as Oliver are also hallucinating, seeing rotting bodies and blood everywhere. Luckily, your psychiatrist is helping the Vlad Circus crew with their mental health and he’s around to give you some tonic that helps with these hallucinations. Or do they make them worse…?

It’s obvious from the vibes of the game that there is a lot to uncover. The pixel art style in Vlad Circus, along with the eerie murmurings as you make your way through the nighttime scape of the Petrescu house add to the uneasiness that Oliver is obviously feeling. His stress levels can go through the roof, especially when hallucinating, and only praying with his mother’s rosary beads will lower his stress meter. These beads can be found in your inventory, where the items you collect and also your diary are stored. The latter acts as a way to fill in the gaps about the world of Oliver and Vlad Circus and to understand exactly how Oliver is feeling. It adds to the theme of psychological disruption and by reading Oliver’s scrawls it’s easy to realise that he’s not faring too well with his mental health.

The game rewards exploration, with Oliver finding different secrets around every corner just by moving him around the house and the limited outdoor locations. The actions work like a traditional point-and-click game, with you moving the protagonist around, using certain items with others and asking other characters questions that advance the narrative. It’s a game that focuses on heavy themes of mental health yet is light on gameplay elements, which really does leave space to digest the intense messages the game explores.

Vlad Circus: Descend Into Madness has been announced to be releasing in the first half of 2023 on PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and Nintendo Switch.