It’s not steampunk, it’s Neo-Victorian!
Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates is a trip into an alternate history New York of 1911 where the rising sea levels have flooded the city. In the resulting chaos, the city divides into city-states where scarcity has the competing factions increasingly at eachother’s throats. Empyre drops the player into the heart of the chaos as an enforcer in the Grand Tower faction. In something of a callback to Fallout 2’s storyline, you’re sent to find and fix the issues with the cities’ malfunctioning water system. Empyre’s storyline really does define the hopeless old saying : “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.
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.
It was on one of the questy type things I was sent on for the mobsters that I discovered another interesting new mechanic Empyre adds to the mix. One of the PCs you’ll meet early on as an amusingly Mary Poppins type lady who wears a lovely frock and fights with her umbrella. I was sent on a tutorial sort of mission where I was meant to use a stun grenade to make some rebellious capos woozy, but then capture them alive using handcuffs. Oddly though, the handcuffs didn’t seem to work on the cantankerous criminals unless I used two stun grenades in quick succession, and there was no sort of readout to help me determine whether I was being successful in my cuffing attempts. This required quite a bit of trial and error and wasted time to figure out and hopefully this sort of annoyance will be ironed out in the full release with some UI improvements.
I had mixed feelings about Empyre. The battles have an element of tactics to them even if they tend to devolve into prison-style beatings in proverbial back alleys. It felt a little too combat-focused and light on dialogue to be a true classic CRPG, but its unique setting has made me curious enough that I am eagerly anticipating the full release. Look forward to a full review of Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates when it emerges Cthulu-like onto the teeming shores of Steam on October 4th.