EMPYRE: Lords of the Sea Gates melds classic steampunk with a post-apocalyptic, turn-of-the-century New York City. Nearly destroyed by a massive flood in 1899, much of the city’s people have endured and thrived, transforming the once concrete jungle into a collection of city-states lined by canals and run by some notorious characters. Players will find themselves befriending mafia bosses and getting into many unsavory situations, but you have water crisis on your hands, and you’ll do anything to prevent people from dying of thirst. This isometric RPG combines a unique world with easy-to-learn combat mechanics to create a flawed, but decently fun experience.
The art style in EMPYRE is spot on with the traditional steampunk imagery, making full use of brown and brass colors, and muted tones alongside the occasional pop of color. The comic book style cutscenes are beautifully drawn in a style that differs from the graphics, but uses the same color pallet to evoke the same mood and tone.
These moments, however, sometimes only offer one or two frames with changing dialogue underneath them, which still works. Yet, given the amount of text that already appears in the game, it would have been nice to have a few more frames during the cutscenes just to add more camera angles. But that’s just a personal preference; I want more of what I like. Other cutscenes, like when you are leaving Tammany with Bigsie for example, have just the right number of frames that portray a good mix of conversation and action.
Moving into the story of EMPYRE, it’s pretty linear, with the expected mandatory quests that expand the story from beginning to end, cluing into the inner workings of the world. There are side missions for earning more ductets (currency) or the ability to interact with random NPCs to buy rare—but optional—items, as well. I’m assuming you can use these items as bartering tools later if you are trying to trade other NPCs for better weapons or other health items—a system I never quite figured out how to use, so I avoided it all together, as well as most of the side missions.
An interesting world-building feature includes the discourse sheets and the scandals sheet, the first which keeps track of every line of dialogue uttered between your characters and other NPCs (in one gaming session—the log disappears after you exit the game), and the second which gives bite-sized breakdowns of every important location and person mentioned in casual conversation throughout EMPYRE. While I didn’t find the discourse sheets useful, the scandals sheet definitely helped put everything into historical context.
While it’s easy to be amazed with how the world of EMPYRE world has been crafted, the characters fall flat. There are noticeable differences between their dialogues from time to time, so you would be able to differentiate between speakers if their name was blocked out, but there isn’t much in the way of their interactions that fosters an emotional connection with the player—and, as I mention later in this review, you are introduced to so many characters that there isn’t enough dedicated time spent to getting to know a select few in depth. As a result, every character, even the main characters, are throwaways.
While there is the option to trade items among team members, there isn’t an option to trade a partial of multiple of the same item in your inventory; trade all 100 bullets, or none. The only way to get a needed item into the inventory of another character without sacrificing what’s in the inventory of that first character is to either purchase it from a NPC or trade with an NPC. This is particularly frustrating in the beginning of the game as you add more characters to your team. They start with no blood tonics, so they have no way to heal themselves immediately after a strenuous fight.
I often found myself sharing the wealth of blood tonics from one character with a hearty inventory to the rest of my team, passing them along from one person to the next. It’s worth noting here that, while you can trade items between your team members during a fight, you cannot equip any new items, so this makes it even harder for your low-on-health characters to recover. This didn’t cause any significant issues for the most part, but there are times in the game when you will be ambushed, leaving zero time to prepare. One instance of this involved picking up a random botanist just before piling into the zeppelin. He is added to your team and seconds later you are fending off raiders, leaving your new botanist with nothing to fight with but his fists.
However, there are times when a character will permanently leave your party as part of the main quest, and you’ll have the option to keep all their items and spread them among your current party members. This kind of event happens every so often, so it’s convenient when you need to get a player some blood tonics or bullets when their supply is depleted. While it’s nice to not forgo buying additional supplies, these unexpected moments of characters exiting the party seem to happen for the sake of making combat harder, or for the more logical reason of rotating a slew of characters, but sacrificing character development in the process.
There were a few odd glitches that popped up every so often throughout EMPYRE. Sometimes, while moving the whole party together, the characters won’t move as a unified unit. Occasionally, one or two splinter off and take the long way around a building only to meet up with the rest of the crew at the same point. You’ll also see your selected character reach through walls instead of walking around to retrieve an item, and it might take a few clicks of the mouse for a party member to react to a command.
In all, there are several mechanical issues that make the game annoying to play on occasion, but not enough to break the game altogether. Those who are looking for compelling characters and a rich story might be disappointed, but those who like simple, mafia-type adventures and steampunk might be satisfied. EMPYRE: Lords of the Sea Gates is an easy entry into the isometric RPG genre for newcomers, but has enough interesting features for those familiar with the genre to consider checking it out.
For more information on EMPYRE: Lords of the Sea Gates, check out the official steam listing. A copy of the game was provided by the developer.