That Sea is Really Lording it Over New York!
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 bleak premise really does define the hopeless old saying : “Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink”.
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. Also, each ward of the flooded New York has its own identity, informed by the era. Tammany is the headquarters of the old world police and is a maze of beaurueacracy and procedure, whereas one neighbourhood is run by a loose coalition of Neapolitan gangsters. There’s lots of humorous historical touches, such as a quest where your foppish dandy character dons a selection of different hats to vote in absentia on behalf of “sick” voters in a send up of the rife political corruption of the period.
Though Empyre does give you a compelling world to explore, it’s not as freeform as the many classic isometric CRPGs it harkens back too.
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. The comparative lack of conversation is a shame as I did develop quite an affection for many of the characters. In particular, I loved the matronly Mary Poppins-esque Rivka who fights with a steel-tipped umbrella and chastises a playboy member of the party of having too much fun in the red light district. What’s also quite interesting is how characters come and go from the party through the course of the adventure (after helpfully first giving you all their possessions).
One bugbear I had with Empyre is how unbalanced it is in terms of skills and their usefulness. For example, you can sneak around stealthily and launch debilitating surprise attacks on foes. But the opportunities to do so are incredibly scarce. Most stages start with some sort of staged encounter where you have a brief chat with some obstructing baddie, and automatically combat starts without you getting a chance to do any sneaking. Either that or the level will start with no-good-niks simply staring attentively in your general direction, making stealth similarly impossible. I don’t see why the developers included a stealth mechanic if it’s borderline useless.
New Yorkers are a Trusting Bunch!
You are able to gain certain positive outcomes in some situations by having a social specialization such as “Threaten” or “Charm” but during the New York bound portion of the game – which is easily a solid 6-9 hours – I could count the number of times I actually got to use these skills on one hand. I was able to use the threaten skill to intimidate some striking workers and scare away a cowardly gangster, but that was about it. Likewise, I had my sneaky thief-like character repeatedly take the lockpick specialization in the hopes I might find a lock to pick, but I couldn’t find a single locked door or chest in all of New York City! Any New Yorkers in comment section please tell me if you guys are so laid back about your security arrangements!
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.
Fiddly Firearms and Fisticuffs
Since stealth is very seldom useful, and opportunities to resolve problems non-violently are very scarce, Empyre heavily focuses on combat. What’s most unique and potentially interesting about Empyre’s combat system is also what makes it most annoying. Battles require you to queue up your character’s actions many steps in advance. Though this allows you to make more granular, detailed battle plans, it also forces you into doing a lot of babysitting. For example, if you want your character to dash to cover and shoot your adversaries, you’ll have to click where you want them to move and then individually target each enemy in the order you want to kill them. If a character runs out of queued actions then they’ll just stand there like a lemon. Likewise, if a character is ordered to fire on an opponent but line of sight is broken then they’ll just stand there pointing their gun the the intervening wall fruitlessly.
Since action occurs in real-time when you’re unpaused, and you can have up to six characters in the party, it’s easy to forget about characters who have run out of queued actions. I couldn’t help but wish there was some sort of option to set the AI’s behaviour to prevent a lot of tedious micromanagement in the less challenging battles
This Violence is Vexing!
There are some other rather counter-intuitive feeling mechanics. Each of your characters has a “nerve” meter that depletes when they’re in danger. Upon depletion of their nerve meter, a character will enter a state of panic. However, instead of running for cover and cowering in fear like in the rather excellent X-Com games, panicked characters will simply stand stock still in front of incoming club strikes and gunfire. Not only does this break immersion, it’s also something of a fiddly annoyance rather than an interesting addition to the gameplay. There are also still a good few little bugs and niggles to hassle you such as how sometimes bandaging doesn’t work out of combat, even though the animation plays.
What’s most vexing about Empyre’s combat system is how frustratingly staged and static some battles feel. There were more than a few battles where I realised the AI was obviously programmed to stay rooted to the spot behind some cover. So winning was simply a matter of moving just into range, firing off some shots, moving out of range to get healed by a doctor’s handy bandage, and then popping back in again to finish them off. Since some encounters have the AI programmed not to pursue you, you’re in no danger of them incapacitating your entire party and giving you a game over.
The best fights in Empyre are the ones where you’re defending some sort of position, as this creates more active engagements the AI can actually handle. Better still, it means you can actually skillfully deploy traps. I had particular fun having Rivka lay down some paralyzing caltrops in narrow corridors. There are other cool little mechanics that I also really liked, such as how Rivka can use her handcuffs to lock up and incapacitate enemies who’ve been hit with a stun grenade. I was also pleased to notice this mechanic had been polished up since I played the preview build.
The Gears Are Rusty But Still Turn
Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates is a clunky adventure with some underlying charm shining through. Like the rusty cogs and gears around its flooded New York, the mechanics feel creaky and unpolished. Not only is the core combat system undermined by its cumbersome, unintuitive interface, it’s also not fully well realised as a role-playing game. Opportunities to use many non-combat skills, and to properly roleplay your character through conversations are as dry the the blighted Big Apple’s water supply. Still, if you’re willing to wade through its flaws, Empyre is a unique, well-realized setting that’s worth exploring.
Final Verdict: 3/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Coin Operated games, Work Shift Play Inc. ; Developer: Coin Operated Games ; Players: 1 ; Released: 4th October 2017
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy provided to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.