The year is 1910, but in this waterlogged version of history the sprawling city of New York has been overrun by more than business moguls and industrialization. In the world of EMPYRE, NYC has been overtaken by a massive flood that has rendered most of the city uninhabitable, with only the tallest skyscrapers offering reprieve from the sea. But, in the famous words of Dr. Ian Malcolm, “Life, uh, finds a way.” Various city states have popped up in the wake of destruction, but they’re all facing an ironic problem: though they live in a veritable waterworld, something’s gone wrong with their stores of drinkable water. It’s up to you to go get things running again.
EMPYRE starts with a conversation between a lieutenant and four characters, one of which you get to pick to be chosen for the mission to fix the fresh water reserves and who will act as your player character for the campaign. The four choices are fine and seem fairly different, but I really wish I would have been able to make my own character. My character’s identity, the combat-specialized military man Thaddeus, didn’t seem to have any impact or interaction with the plot, so I don’t see any major reason why I couldn’t distribute stats and pick a look myself.
Glitchy From the Start
The very first opening cutscene, consisting of some slow-zooming newspaper stills, was a choppy mess that had both the visuals and voice over trudging through a constant stutter, which wasn’t exactly a great way to make a positive first impression. I immediately rebooted to make sure it wasn’t my PC running strangely, but it did the same thing the second time too. Unfortunately, issues like this were fairly pervasive for me throughout the game. Moving the camera around the map felt sluggish, making it a pain to look around and survey the surrounding area. In fact, it seemed as though all of the game’s animations were running at a low framerate, making any movement seem awkward and choppy. It wasn’t rare for the camera to abruptly jump somewhere when a menu or dialogue box popped up. There were a few times when characters weren’t in position at the start of a scene, and they quickly moved where they needed to be after the camera was already showing them. None of these are game breaking, or really effect the actual gameplay at all, but they are annoying issues that shouldn’t be present in a finished game.
Animation isn’t the only area in which the presentation falters. Visually, from both a user interface and environmental perspectives, EMPYRE’s looks left me wanting. I understand that earthtones are fairly par for the course in the apocalyptic genre, but browns and grays pare with uninspired environmental design to keep things rather uninteresting to the eye from start to finish. For every small area with something to look at, there are a dozen other generic, empty rooms to walk through. The sounds design doesn’t help, either. Much of the game is overlaid with repetitive, droll music that, while invoking a turn of the century feel, do so in a way more reminiscent of a bad hotel elevator than the Big Apple. After the first half hour or so I was annoyed enough to search the settings for a music volume slider. Ambient sounds fair a bit better, their only offense being some strange timing and usage. I’d sometimes hear the hustle and bustle of a crowd, for example, when in an unbusy building.
EMPYRE’s high point is its combat, but it’s more of a “not low” point than something truly noteworthy. Unlike similar games such as Wasteland 2 or the recent Shadowrun games, EMPYRE uses a pausable real-time combat system instead of one using turn-based action points. It functions relatively well, and managing your party’s position, weapons, and items had it’s moments. Continuing the trend established in the rest of this review, though, it wasn’t entirely rare for commands to not register, causing me to pause and re-issue, but when thing were working smoothly there was fun to be had. I also liked that when clicking on NPCs and enemies in the game, I was often given a short bio that gave insight into things like the various factions operating in town. I felt that worldbuilding was lacking in the game, so these little nuggets of info were nice to see, even if I wish the information they were presenting was more fleshed out and prominent in the actual narrative.
EMPYRE: Lords of the Sea Gate is a game that I really, truly wanted to love, but ultimately let me down in more ways than not. Glitches aside, it doesn’t do anything offensively bad, it just doesn’t really do anything all that cool either. I love the idea of a pseudo-steampunk turn-of-the-century waterworld, but the game fails to use that creative setting to tell a meaningful story or explore much of the world’s possibilities. With a serviceable but unremarkable story, basic writing, and combat that doesn’t often outreach “fine,” this is a title that's destined to slip silently down into the murky waters of time.
The setting is cool in concept, functional combat that rewards positioning and item management, background info on NPCs gives much-needed world lore.
Stuttery movement and presentation, unreliable combat UI, drab environments, uninteresting dialogue.