The year is 1911, and just a few years prior in 1899, the oceans rose, flooding coastal cities. Cities that once housed millions became sunken wastelands, but not New York. The city that never sleeps, ever resilient, banded together and not only survived, but thrived. Forming their own governments, the residents of New York rebuilt their city by using the rooftops of sunken buildings. But with water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink, fresh water is the currency of the day. As gangs, both political and territorial, vie for the precious resource, suddenly the fresh water pumped into the city has stopped. Your mission starts simple enough – find out why before the warring factions of the city tear it apart in desperation.
Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates has, hands down, one of the most unique settings I’ve seen in an RPG. The Neo-Victorian steampunk setting means a blend of early technology and fantastical whiz-bang machinery, and the flooded semi-real world New York landscape lends an air of familiarity and authenticity.
The selection of the main character is largely a selection of your combat approach preferences. Lok is your front-line tactician, Thaddeus is your cutlass/pistol combo fighter, Beatrice is agile and able to dodge incoming fire with ease, and Alva is your stealth/espionage archetype. Each one represents a different play style and a unique way to experience the world of Empyre.
On paper, Empyre is a tactical RPG. Not unlike classic games such as Final Fantasy Tactics, Commandos, or the more recent (and spectacular) example, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (our review), this lets you tackle complex combat sequences in the calm of a paused state, and unleashes it once you press space bar. You can have up to five characters in the field at a time as the story folds them in and out of your party.
There are a lot of great ideas in Empyre. Enemies are smart enough to use defensive tactics, they’ll employ things like laudanum (a real-world mixture of opium and morphine!) to heal themselves, and they’ll gladly flank and surround you for an old fashioned beatdown.
In practice, the controls in Empyre can be a little obtuse, and that puts a damper on the adventure. You have just as much chance as pulling a weapon, putting it away, pulling it again, and putting it away again as you do actually firing it. It’s frustrating to watch your characters with firearms flail away with their fists rather than using the pistol in their jacket to take out enemies. There’s a small window that shows what moves, attacks, skills, and other actions which are queued up for each character, but the developers left tooltips on the cutting board. As a result, there were moments when my queue box showed non-stop attacks, but my character had a thought bubble with a gear in the middle. I’m not sure what any of that meant, but I know my guy happily stood there and took his lumps without response or complaint.
Going up levels grants access to upgrades in half a dozen areas. Firearms, guile, reason, melee, finesse, and physicality soak up skill points, and perks can also be selected for additional skill bonuses. In practice, much of these influence dialogue options like threatening or coercing a person through conversation, or they may bump some additional percentage points into your ability to dodge incoming attacks. Worse still, the fights range from woefully easy to infuriatingly hard at a moment’s notice. At one point after the tutorial I found myself with a stick, a knife, and my bare fists facing a whole crew with pistols. Needless to say, getting stuck behind these moments tarnish Empyre’s otherwise excellent premise.
I don’t often do direct comparisons in my reviews, but Empyre Lords of the Sea Gates is hamstrung by from the same problem that Divinity: Original Sin suffered from — ambition. The game wants to have a crafting engine, but it was too stingy with parts to make it useful. It wanted to have deep and complex dialogue, but much of the nuance boils down to the occasional stat-driven dialogue menu options. It wanted to have characters that mean something to the player, but without voiceover work, it can be hard to connect. Empyre is a sea of potential that just never quite comes together. That said – unlike many products that fall into this category, the team at Coin Operated Games’s continued efforts to shore up these things could make it match their lofty ambitions. In short, they were aiming for something akin to Pillars of Eternity, which is admirable, but fell just a bit short.
Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates
Real talk? I’ve tried for weeks to get into Empyre: Lords of the Sea Gates, but the clunky controls, obtuse UI, and incomplete concepts made it impossible for me to engage. The concept and setting for Empyre is top shelf, but the gameplay came out a little water logged.