What is one to do when rising sea levels create corruption and chaos in the streets of a fictional steampunk New York in the early turn of the 20th century? Go out and kick some tail, of course, in an isometric RPG that may not redefine how the genre works, but entertains nonetheless.
Empyre: Lords of the Sea starts out on the rooftop of a New York building, where the player is forced to choose their main character they want to play as, which for me was a gun specialist of sorts named Thaddeus. From there, the main crux of the story, which is water control and survival (and doing the right thing against evil a-holes), sets the player out on a journey to kick some butt and take names. First, the player must fight through the streets to get to a prison. Then from the prison they must go searching for some gang that has started cutting off water flow. It’s a race against time, but also features a variety of locales the player is thrown into that sets the tone for the rest of the game. It’s not a bad way to start the game, though some back story with characters and how bad things have gotten in New York would have helped add to bringing the world of Empyre to life a bit more. As of the start, it seemed like a steampunk Water World, minus the large budget and ridiculous outcome.
Empyre: Lords of the Sea is an isometric RPG, a clear nod to early games like Neverwinter Night and Ultima (google that, young folks), that contains half of a point and click mentality, when it comes to combat, and a heavy dose of strategy before you enter a room to take out the bad guys. I appreciated the fact that this game kind of had a turn-based backbone to it, as you can click on how to approach an enemy, then execute it. Essentially, you can click on how you want to strategize against them, as footsteps show up with highlighted boxes to move and then space bar to execute. Weapons and such are selectable and assignable before the fight begins, something that is not new to this style of game. As soon as the fight begins, though, you are stuck with what you have selected. If you’re happy with what you have, though, this shouldn’t be an issue. Just plan for the moment before walking into it.
While all of that sounds easy, there was a big learning curve with the controls at the beginning. The tutorial on how things worked was pretty much learn-as-you-go, which works on some levels, especially for smarter strategist than I, but was a bit of a rough/frustrating time. That said, as battle after battle happened, things became more easily understood, almost muscle memory-esque. I could move into a room stealth-like and execute what I thought might be the best way to take care of business. For the most part, the strategy paid off, at least at the beginning. As things progressed, I the A.I. for enemy/companion sometimes threw a curve ball into the whole process; sometimes for the best and sometimes for the worst, but at the end of the day both were decent to work with and against. I will say that more than once I had a useless companion character that was more of a human shield or secondary line of defense, than a partner to be reckoned with during a fight. As most games go, even games like the most recent Assassin’s Creed that came out on Friday, depending on a partner to help out sometimes is more of a burden than a help. Anyway, helpers/enemies aside, the gameplay was definitely not the usual way of doing things nowadays in isometric RPGs, but still worked in its uniqueness for Empyre: Lords of the Sea.
On the RPG side of the track it really falls in line with what you might be used to seeing. You can collect items, upgrade your character and group together with other CPU folks along the way. All of those things are very much intact in past and present RPGs. They worked well and were a strong part of the game. Assigning items to buttons and preparing yourself for unique fighting experiences helped when it came to strategizing and executing properly how a fight could potentially go. Stocking up on health items and constantly assigning better weapons and such to your character was a breeze, as well as part of the overall strategy. This is stuff you would find in a game like Diablo or more recent isometric RPGs. Get items, assign them to slots, upgrade characters and such isn’t anything new, but it works well within the given structure built.
That said, and if I had to pick something to be improved about the game, I think that Coin-Operated Games needs to add a bit more HCI love when it comes to the game’s GUI, specially the character and item selection screen. The version of the game I played seemed to have sepia tone color that drowned itself out when it comes to obvious buttons to push. It hard at times to tell what I could and couldn’t push. This sounds like a lame complaint, but when there isn’t much of a highlight (sometimes none at all), I’m not sure what the active area of the menu is supposed to be. Again, it might sound like a petty complaint, but that players should never spend more than 15-20 seconds in a menu before moving back to the game. Idiots like me need guidance with games like this. I do understand that maybe COG wanted to keep the steampunk feel with the color scheme, but don’t waste time for the sake of beauty. Always design something for the lowest common denominator, like myself.
Back to actual gamplay, the first mission entailed taking a large burly man with me to go take down a gang that was controlling water supply. They had choked the supply from a certain section of New York and they needed to be taken out and the water taken back. The man accompanying me on the adventure was a brute, but he was known for being such. He helped to get me where I needed to go and complete what we needed to complete. The adventure to take down the gang showed off how the game itself worked. It actually provided room for mistakes and was easily forgiving at the start. Players new to this genre, and this game, will certainly appreciate it. As the game progressed, though, it became steadily more demanding. That’s not a bad thing, in fact it’s an impressive way to do things, as you always want to challenge players. A steady arc of difficulty is how you want an RPG to be built and Empyre: Lords of the Sea didn’t disappoint in that aspect.
On the presentation side of the tracks, Empyre: Lords of the Sea has a unique style to it that is consistent through visuals, dialogue and story. The environments, which are large in scale, fit the bill when it comes to the time period created. It’s raw and gritty, as the industrial period of time in New York always seemed to be. Loads of people, loads of chaos and just a look of a nasty crowded city that was doing its best to survive. Visually, the atmosphere is perfect for what COG was trying to create. They sell it well.
That said, sometimes the areas were so vast that it was easy to get lost in them. For example, you’ll probably run into some trouble trying to navigate your way through the first building you start out with and out it to meet up with your first partner. If it wasn’t the for the small circular map on the upper-right side of the screen, which had color-coded dots on it representing people and objectives, I’m not sure I would have made it even out of the building. Thanks to that tiny map, I made it to my sister to say goodbye, made it to my burly man to get things started and made it out of the building to get the mission going. Visually, though, the game isn’t the most obvious when it comes to direction. This could probably be improved with a bigger map or a better system of telling where you’re supposed to be going. Not huge complaints here, but definite improvements that could make the experience much better.