As a recent convert to RPG-style games, I am still somewhat intrigued by the various innovations developers come up with to make them slightly more real-time. To be fair, it is possible that more interactive RPGs have existed all along and it has been my own ignorance of the depths of the genre that caused me to see them as nothing more than multiple choice tests and remain blissfully unaware of a form of RPG that allows for more real-time activity on the part of the player. Empyre: Lord of the Sea Gates is a case in point. The developer, Coin Operated Games, describes it as “a top-down isometric RPG that takes place in a Neo-Victorian New York circa 1911, in which the entire city is flooded by rising oceans and the citizens must learn to live in a new reality where there is water everywhere, but none of it possible to drink.” That alone would not have piqued my interest, but a quick google revealed the existence of a 56-second trailer on YouTube. Said trailer demonstrated the means by which the player, having made severe tactical mistakes during their planning of their turn, can pause the motion and rectify, or at least mitigate, any regrettable decisions.
They go on to say that “the game’s authenticity reflects scenes from New York during the 1900's, while tying the storyline to current day themes such as global warming and the rising of the oceans,” words that were obviously intended to pique the interests of folks, such as myself, that find the early 20th century to be an utterly fascinating period of history. We were learning to fly, we were learning to have brutal, inhumane wars, we were beginning to industrialize our country, and we were just starting down the path of an unbreakable dependency on technology. Like, for example, having water delivered to us at the turn of a knob.
As I proceeded through the tutorial, I was able to get a rudimentary understanding of the control inputs required to solve simple use cases, but I still wasn’t sure what was going to happen out in that great big bustling city. The tutorial did prepare me with one essential fact beyond the usual how to sneak around, how to throw a grenade, etc., in that it informed me that the top-down isometric view isn't omniscient—just because any given room appears empty, it may not be. The task was to find my character’s sister and say goodbye, but I couldn’t see her anywhere—I had to go room to room looking. It may have been the case that her location was displayed on the little radar screen, but I may not have been sophisticated enough to use it yet. It did seem much easier to find people later in the game, so the fault was most likely mine.
Regarding the actual style of gameplay, I would describe the fundamentals as “turn-based until it isn’t.” That sounds a little odd, or at least it felt that way to me, but it actually works quite well. The “turn-based until it isn't mode” is used in combat scenarios to allow for a more tactical approach to managing individual members of your team. This kind of turn-based mode is different from the more traditional “plan it all out, hit the ‘go’ button, then scream in anguish as your opponents moot your carefully laid plans by doing something unexpected.” In Empyre’s turn-based world, you can pause the action and change your player’s actions in response to the immediate situation, whatever it may be. That’s a pretty big deal when the AI goes in different directions than you had planned for.
Also sheltering under the “turn-based until it isn’t” umbrella are the many periods during which you aren’t in combat but have long distances to cross. With a team of up to six characters, moving each of them individually would be extraordinarily burdensome. In travel mode, the team travels as a bunch, although individual members would sometimes abstain from entering rooms or meeting people for personal reasons. It never seemed to make any difference one way or the other when that happened, but the reasons given by the team member did tend to support the storyline.
As a quick aside, it’s worth mentioning that certain characters refusing to meet with various NPCs was often necessary because many of the names (and locations, for that matter) used in the game are historically accurate. It would hardly be believable to have Mary Todd Lincoln meeting John Wilkes Booth for tea on April 15, 1865, right? It’s like that. It points to a great deal of research having been performed by the authors of Empyre while writing the game. I appreciate the effort. Nothing breaks the mood like historical inaccuracies, much less historical impossibilities.
As we were leaving the building to start our quest, we passed by a vending machine. My experience with these machines as I made my way through the game was that they weren’t especially well stocked, but this particular one was chock full of healing potions. Buying up the entire stock ended up being as good a decision as choosing to play in easy mode was.
With preparations and goodbyes accomplished, it was well and truly time to go out and experience Waterworld circa 1911. The game did a very good job of keeping me on track, even when accepting side quests. The actual RPG elements, as I understand them, were pretty thin on the ground. I don’t remember ever having more than two, maybe three, choices on the occasions where I was asked to make a decision of some sort. Many were just asking if I would rather perform a side quest or pay a bribe. There were also occasions where I was to choose between making a thinly or thickly veiled threat to get an NPC to do my bidding. Some of the choices seemed to simply be asking if I wanted to trigger a combat or not. In general, I opted for "not." That didn't always work out, but as an overall strategy it served fairly well.
While I may not have been interested in combat, combat was certainly interested in me. It was unavoidable. All of that healing potion came in handy; it was the crux of my combat strategy. Being able to pause the battle and chug down a bottle of life-saving potion was generally the only way for my characters to survive my innate incompetence in planning battles. It was not at all unusual for me to be close to death, pause the battle, edit my plan to include running away long enough to drink a healing potion and/or reload/change my weapon, and jump right back into the fray. My enemies never learned to use this tactic themselves. I'm just lucky that way!
I also learned to not become overly dependent on team members as the makeup of the team changed quite a lot. Characters came and went as we proceeded on our quest. Of those that stayed, many were not cut out for a lot of fighting. I usually just gave them weapons that I had outgrown or had been replaced with more capable implements rather than waste a good weapon on an inexperienced/untalented fighter. I quite often had to combine two or three of the weaker players to fight one bad guy. If any of them reached the end of their strength and passed out, it was just a matter of waiting for them to recuperate before moving on. I could have just left them on the sidelines, but giving them moderate fighting experience allowed them to level-up to a point where I could actually benefit from having them along. Typically, or so it seemed, that’s when they would leave the group.
There were some frustrating aspects to the gameplay that served as learning moments. For example, when you are about to enter a combat scenario that will require the use of stun grenades, it is critically important to ensure that the character that is carrying stun grenades doesn’t just have them in inventory but also that they are placed in one of the slots that can be accessed during a fight. Once the game shifts into combat mode, the character’s inventory screen is locked. It’s equally important to make sure that the character carrying the stun grenades has the specific “use grenades” skill. If not, those grenades are no more useful than cheap jewelry.
On the softer side, away from tactics and fighting and trying to find your way around the city, is the dialogue. It’s read only—there is no voice acting—but it is well and cleverly written. I wasn’t made to care about the plight of the thirsty, although there were plenty of reminders about it, but I wasn’t exactly tripping over dead or dying NPCs. There were a few bodies floating in the ocean, but those appeared to be victims of too much water, not too little. Or they were victims of violence. If their experience was anything like mine, there were plenty of ways for them to end up dead and floating.
All in all, I think Empyre does a very good job of providing other traditional RPG aspects, like inventory management, experience gathering, team leadership, and turn-based combat, in an easy to use and nearly transparent way. I never felt like I was being forced to micromanage every single aspect of every single thing. There is enough of a story to provide an adequate explanation for doing what needs to be done without becoming a slog to get through. The art is absolutely gorgeous and the references to real world, historically accurate buildings and places adds a degree of authenticity. Most importantly, though, it was fun.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.