EMPYRE feels like a game created from modules hastily thrown together. The result is uneven to play and frustrating due to many mundane reasons and a pervading sense of unfulfilled potential. Some of those modules are great, some are passable and a few key ones are clunky and unsatisfying. I wish they had more time or inclination to file off the rough edges and integrate better. It aims for Wasteland 2 but falls short of Shadowrun.
Should You Buy It?
EMPYRE straddles the line between recommendation and rejection and so there are caveats. You should buy this if you really like traditional turn-based-strategy, derive pleasure from exploring isometric maps and consider an adequate, largely non-interactive story told well to be decent use of your time.
I love the setting. 1900’s flooded New York, civil unrest, dwindling resources, mob turf. It should have been dripping Gangs of New York but instead is closer to one of those cute old timey movies with jaunty piano music and football players with tiny leather helmets. The maps are absolutely gorgeous but there’s no grime or dirt in the story or in the air. New Yorkers are durable but not in this British stiff upper lip sort of way.
Fresh water has stopped flowing and after selecting one of 4 characters you’re off across New York’s Burroughs to pickup party members and figure how to turn the taps back on.
Instead of going on and on about how grand it could have been I’ll instead focus on what it is. A typical, paint by numbers story with a couple of twists told with very competent, direct writing. The larger narrative won’t quite suck you in but the writing makes it easy and painless to follow along. Likewise your companions don’t receive nearly enough character building to create relationships but they’re written well and say non-annoying things and so you at least grow fond of a few of them.
Weighing it all down and hampering any sense of drama is the engine itself. These isometric affairs which started proper with Baldur’s Gate and have reached their current plateau with the shiny Divinity 2 have always had a hard time telling emotional stories beyond the strength of the words written on the screen. The stiff sprites and far away perspective make for a poor storytelling device – there’s a reason emotions in movies are told in closeups.
The already drama-less engine is brought to its knees in combat. Not performance or anything technical, just heavy amounts of sludge. The way things are animated, the balance of the weapons (they are victorian firearms but it feel like muskets would have been faster to reload), the pauses and stutters. Nothing is broken and everything needs fine tuning.
There’s a lot of combat to get through and at no point do you feel deadly. Even in the end, after 19 levels, when normal games have to throw either hordes or massive bosses to challenge your minor-deity of a character I was fighting very pedestrian enemies and feeling much like I did throughout the rest of the game’s fights. Sort of challenged, sort of bored, not fully engaged, not impressed.
It doesn’t help that there’s no consequence to any of it. Fallen characters wake up after a few moments and the AI is not bright. I won many encounters by just moving away with a surviving character while the enemy slowly gave chase. By the time they caught the runner the original party members would awaken, heal and be ready to finish off the fight.
Despite the weak AI it’s not always easy. Past the halfway point I had to reload certain missions several times. Bullets do a lot of damage and certain setups (rushing defenders armed with gattling guns) requires real strategy and tactics. It’s just that the engine is so clunky that you don’t want to do anything complex, you’d rather blow by it. I want to be clear that it functions, your characters do as they’re told, but between the long aiming time, their fragility, the molasses reloading, the weak melee and lack of ability to physically restrain enemies you won’t have as much fun as you should.
More than anything it felt like I’m playing an old 90’s game like Baldur’s Gate but without any of the AD&D magic and abilities that made those fights kind of fun despite the engine’s annoyances and the general clumsiness of it all.
So Many Dangling
Someone made an RPG system for dealing with complex social and physical situations as well as characters’ individual personality quirks and flaws. But someone else forgot to create any scenarios using all that stuff. I spent most of the game upgrading skills which were never used. I read tooltips about interesting traits that played no part in any conversation. If for some reason I decided to replay this I would put every skill point into firearms. It’s the only thing that really matters.
There’s a crafting system hastily grafted on but never fleshed out. Chests that don’t open, equipment with vague abilities. Party members that hint at side stories and quests that never materialize (with one small exception that was cool and right at the beginning, further making me think more was intended). Some loot never shows up so you carry its ammo for the entire game and never get to see it in action.
It’s like they had this amazing setting and all these beautifully drawn maps and characters so they stretched a smallish story to fit it all, leaving everything thin and unsubstantial. It’s not even the story that is small – it’s fairly grand (if cliché). They just didn’t use enough words to tell it. All surface with no agency or room for inhabiting a role. An RPG on rails.
Why A Recommendation Then?
Despite all these flaws I didn’t mind finishing the first of two campaigns. The brisk writing made sure it’s never painful. The easily exploitable AI means you can blow past most encounters (sometimes with laughable ease). Also keep in mind I don’t factor price into the recommendation but if you do in the slightest you should move on because it’s not cheap at CDN$33.
I wish the combat had impact (and blood) and was more lethal. I wish my few choices mattered more and that I had a lot more of them. I wish the story tried a little bit harder to be as original and fresh as the setting, and I wish it did more with it instead of whisking me away somewhere far less interesting. I wish they put a tiny bit of effort into getting me to care about my party members. I still did but the game barely helped.
Instead I got a serviceable game with some bright spots and lackluster combat. It ended on a high note as far as the last mission and then completely dropped the ball on the emotional payoff or acknowledging any of your choices. If you take the good and you take the bad what you’re left with is more good than bad.
The ingredients are all there. This can be patched into something quite impressive. All the hard work of creating great assets is done, just do more with it.
The Score – 70
There are two “books” and I played the first, which had 3 acts and took 15 hours to complete. That’s a decent amount of gameplay if you like it and the hook for the second book is interesting (you don’t get to continue with your party but it won’t be with a stranger either). There’s no branching or much reacting to your character’s traits so no reason to replay.
I’m eager to move on to a new game and will not revisit EMPYRE to finish the 2nd campaign. But if I was stuck in a cell for the weekend with only EMPYRE and no online connection it wouldn’t be that hard to pass the time. That’s not a ringing endorsement but it’s a bar many games wouldn’t pass. Another three months of polish could have done wonders, for now it gets 70.