Impire by Paradox Productions and Cyanide Montreal is a relatively new RTS game in which you play the part of one Baal Abaddon (or however it’s spelt), an evil and powerful demon summoned into the mortal realm on a mission of world domination. It has a feel reminiscent of the old Overlord games in which you play as the forces of darkness in a comedic world where you go around killing all the good guys and feeding them to your minions.
The majority of the game plays out underground where you build your base. Unlike the majority of RTSes where you build buildings above ground, Impire has you hollowing out a dungeon where rooms play the part of various buildings and you connect them all together through a manually placed network of tunnels. It’s a neat system which is unique enough in the world of RTSes (I won’t say entirely unique because I am aware that some other games out there share a similar system, however I have never played them so I can’t really compare) and something I genuinely approved of. I felt that hollowing out some massive underground dungeon full of traps and monsters would be a pretty awesome mechanic which could make for a lot of fun watching adventuring and meddlesome heroes exploring and then getting brutally murdered.
The game’s soldiers are Overlord-esque minions in various forms, from damage dealing warlocks and healing priests all the way to the heavily armoured tanks of your overlords (a slightly confusing name given the comparison at the start methinks) and with them you then go into each mission of the campaign with some new nefarious purposes. Overall it sounds like a game which could be both humorous and great fun, unfortunately it also only “sounds” like a game which could be those things.
While hollowing out an underground dungeon is fairly novel at first you quickly realise how restrictive it is, each building and corridor has a surprisingly large radius around it in which nothing else can be built. While most of the levels have enough space for you to build every building you need or want it also feels, at times, a bit enclosed and hemmed in, not quite the sprawling dungeon I was hoping for. This is, I understand, in part due to the ladder system in the game.
As a dungeon of evil, full of wealth and materials, your base after a certain level becomes a target for adventuring heroes. While at first it will only be one or two occasionally coming in through the front door, once your dungeon reaches a high enough level they will start using ladders as well. The ladders in the game appear every now and again (with increasing frequency depending on the dungeon’s level) and after a minute or so heroes will enter. If you are quick enough, and unfortunately in my experience I am usually not, you can destroy all the ladders and the heroes enter via the front door. Otherwise they can enter through any of the ladders in your dungeon OR the front door. This completely random and continuous appearance of ladders makes it impossible to make your base defensible in any way. Sure once heroes have appeared you can get your minions to them quickly by using the teleport spell, but otherwise there isn’t much you can do. The game offers you a number of traps you can use, but with a large dungeon and completely random entry points there is very little point in using them because there is so little guarantee of the heroes ever even going near them. As well as this the ladders are just incredibly frustrating, at higher levels you will be dealing with the appearance of some ladders and then heroes once every few minutes and it just gets so annoying to have to change the focus from completing the mission to getting rid of the stupid do-gooders. It is quite possibly a deliberately annoying thing, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying. And there is no way to prevent it either, it’s a pain in the neck.
The combat of the game largely revolves around your squads, you can place up to four of your minions into one squad and have a maximum capacity of five squads (with an overall maximum population for soldiers at about 30 by end game). Putting soldiers into squads allows them to be teleported quickly around the map and they will fight better and interact with each other. It’s a neat system but the downside to it is that it makes using your other soldiers incredibly frustrating. If you max out your population you will have a fair proportion of your soldiers not in squads and this means there is no quick way of teleporting them around (each has to be teleported individually through a menu) and they will not interact with each other at all. So, for example, building priests outside of your squads is pointless because they won’t heal any of the other soldiers.
This lack of interaction between the non-squaddies also causes problems with the variation of your troops. By end game my squads tended to be composed of a tanky overlord, a priest for healing and two random damage dealers (perhaps a warlock for her high damage or a shaman for his stun or a scout for it’s poison). Outside of the squads, a lot of these choices are pointless. Priests won’t heal others so they are out, tanks that don’t actually tank for others are pointless and a lot of the damage dealers are too squishy to be of any use. So despite a fair range of soldiers, the majority of my non-squadies always ended up being Champions; a class of soldier which had a fair amount of armour and health and damage and so could kill things and didn’t have to be replaced too often.
This made a lot of the soldier choices feel pretty superfluous, and actually this carries over into the buildings of the game. A fair few of the things on offer just seem so pointless. The training room, for example, allows you to capture heroes for your minions to train on, but I have never used it because it just seems easier to train my soldiers by getting them to kill the heroes in the first place.
The game’s materials are divided into mushrooms, materials and treasure (each used for different things) and there are a number of ways of getting each. However, the easiest way is to send your squads out into the world to raid places, which after a few minutes will regenerate and be raidable again. This also means that a number of the ways of getting materials and treasures seem pretty pointless too (for example, you can capture heroes and ransom them which is again something I have never tried).
One of the things I dislike most about the game though is it’s pacing. Each mission is quite long and slow and they are all exactly the same and follow the same pattern. There’s also no way to speed things up to get through the missions faster. It’s a lack of something I decided to term “escalation”. In Starcraft 2 say, you always start of getting materials slowly but rate of getting them increases as the game goes on and the better players are faster are increasing the rate. In Impire there isn’t really any way, or indeed point, of increasing the harvesting of materials or increasing the rate of unit production. While in Starcraft by end game you might have multiple points of unit production, in Impire I hardly ever felt the need to build more than one of ANY building.
I feel I should mention that the look of the game is pretty acceptable (if not all that impressive) and the story has it’s moments of amusement, like I was hoping for. The use of “DEC points” as your in-game research is also quite good because there is only a limited number of points which can be earned every level and so it forces you to choose which upgrades you want: do you choose to be able to build the tanky overlords or do you choose to have your minions all regenerate health? It makes for some personal customisation of play style I approve of. But really even mentioning these things I did like puts me right back on the path of criticizing the game. For example while I quite enjoyed the short cut-scenes and “mock-evil” feel, I absolutely hate the voice actor for Baal whose voice now grates on my nerves like the ridiculously stupid noise the game makes every time you open the “management mode”. “WHOOSH! Oh you want to zoom back in for just one quick second and then back out? WHOOSH!”
Overall, I felt that Impire was something which just missed the mark. It had a lot of good ideas, especially the dungeon master design and the mock-evil main characters, but it also only just failed to deliver on each of them. It’s a game which I feel could have been something really awesome and fun to play (which you can actually tell from my first impressions of the game) but in reality it becomes all too samey, too slow and eventually just plain boring.