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Several outlets have had the chance to check out the upcoming Neo-Victorian RPG from Coin Operated Games, Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates, a few weeks before its October 4 launch. Overall the impressions could be classified as lukewarm at best, and the game's unique setting is about the only thing that gets any praise. Have a look:
One of the mechanics that disappointed me the most with this game was the combat. It presents a significant challenge, one of that will take quite a while to master for newcomers to the genre with the combat manipulation where the player utilizes the spacebar to pause the action and select a series of moves that then will play out once the action is resumed. However, from the pre release version of this game I had the opportunity to play, once the combat was mastered to a certain degree, most battle felt repetitive, and the AI rarely adapted to my play style. I began to feel as though the major battles served more as an obstacle in my progress through the story, rather than meaty experiences I was looking forward to.
I was also disappointed with most of the environments in the game. With a game that is so heavily inspired by the steampunk style (an art style that immediately grabbed my interest to take a look at this game), I felt that most of the environments around the flooded version of New York were unpolished and uninspiring. This is something I hope will be fixed with the final release of the game at the beginning of October, as steampunk tends to be a difficult style to pull off (and I don’t remember in recent memory an isometric RPG that strived to achieve it). It helps that 1911 New York lends itself so naturally to the steampunk aesthetic.
I have long believed that these old school RPG’s have told some of the best stories in video games, and for this game to succeed, I think it will hinge on the ability of this story to grip players the way it gripped me. I am glad to see that Coin-Operated Games, the brand new developer behind this game, has taken the chance to throw their hat into the ring of this genre.
What soon followed after this compelling intro was nothing like what was marketed. Empyre starts out not with a customizable character creation, but a tutorial that features four characters, each with their own strength. You know the drill: shooting, stabbing, sneaking, tinkering–these characters speak to each kind of player imaginable. And if they don’t, well tough luck, because you have to choose one of these four characters as your main PC.
It really didn’t matter, as I came to realize that my character was just the piece on the board I would move from Point A to Point B to Point C, and on and on. Interacting with NPCs was like reading from an instruction manual, so I didn’t really care who I was in this world. One such interaction that affirmed my indifference was with my little sister, who would probably be the closest relationship the character has in the game. My mission instruction read as follows: Go say goodbye to your little sister. Okay, easy enough. When I arrived in her cookie-cutter apartment, guess what her name was? Little Sister. She patted me on the back and wished me luck on the journey ahead. Then, I left.
The squad-based combat in Empyre has the needed effect. While time is stopped, the player can move characters to strategic locations to best inflict damage upon enemies, but the actions feel disjointed at times. Ultimately, what I played showed that the job can get done, you just may need to rely on items heavily. There are healing items that can fully regenerate your character’s health, even in the middle of combat, so every fight can be won if you fall back to your resources accordingly. Playing without them, I found myself in more treacherous situations.
However, the lasting bad taste I have in my mouth is the sound, which by the end of my experience was pure silence. The voice-over work at the beginning was the only voice you’ll hear in the entire experience. There is ambiance, but it’s the creaking of boards and the cawing of gulls. I understand that voice talent is expensive, but you’re telling me the biggest American city, even in disarray, can’t have some hustle and bustle to it? And I can’t say there’s not music, but what music there is can only be described as elevator bossa nova. It’s not fitting of the environment and ultimately led to me muting Empyre entirely.
Empyre is a promising looking title with a unique aesthetic. There are a great many isometric RPGs stuck in development hell, but Empyre seems worthy of being pushed through. Right away I felt very absorbed in this idiosyncratic world of rickety creaking bridges criss-crossing rooftops, with every street below a river. There’s a lot of attention to detail in making this world Neo-Victorian, from the cog-riddled elevators to the olde-tyme rapiers equipped by the characters.
Empyre is a pause-and-play RPG in the style of the Baldur’s Gate games. What’s more distinctive about Empyre’s battle system is that it’s grid-based, making is something of a hybrid. It recalls X-Com in how it’s based around a system of waist high walls to duck under and walls to peek around. However, Empyre’s combat system is far more amenable to slugging it out in melee combat. Perhaps too amenable at times.
There’s some polish needed for enemy AI. Early on, I was breaking a cowardly doctor out of prison and was instructed to kill all the guards in the courtyard before proceeding. What was oddly evident was how easy it was to lure guards behind walls and just bundle on them with melee attacks while their allies just stubbornly refused to help. The way stealth worked also seemed somewhat inconsistent, as I was firing off guns wily nily with nearby guards not seeming to notice. Though the tutorial seemed to advertise stealth being a crucial aspect to the game, the most viable strategy always seemed to be tempting lone enemies down cul-de-sacs.
The social interaction element of Empyre shows some promise. During encounters you’re allowed to choose responses from any member of your party, and it’s up to you to choose which one seems most apt. When I encountered a gang of ruffians in a godforsaken rooftop district, I was able to select the towering, bald-headed hardman of the group to threaten them. This made their leader run off so the ensuing battle was much easier.
Unfortunately, dialogue in Empyre tends to be quite perfunctory and utilitarian. Once you’ve got a quest or resolved an encounter with most characters, you can’t go back and chat with them again. Similarly, there’s sadly no option to have a quick natter with your companions about their backstories either (don’t expect detailed life stories like in Mass Effect). It keeps the plot moving forward at a steady pace, but doesn’t do much to situate things. When I encountered a city state ruled by Italian American gangsters, I was really looking forward to being able to immerse myself in the flavour and history of the setting, but annoyingly I found that beyond sending me out to do questy type things, none of the characters had any interest in shooting the breeze with me.