By Alec Meer on February 19th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
Impire is a strategy-management game about building an evil underground lair, from Blood Bowl and Game of Thrones devs Cyanide.
If I was mad, I would write this entire piece without once referencing Dungeon Keeper. I am not mad.
Make me a sandwich. Go on it, it’ll be easy: you know exactly what’s involved. There’s just one catch: the name and concept of ‘sandwich’ has become copyrighted. So you need to make me a sandwich which isn’t a sandwich, that instantly evokes sandwichiness but won’t result in the Earl of Sandwich’s lawyers paying you a visit. Of course, there must be bread, there must be filling, and there must be spread, but whatever you do don’t put them together in a neat little three-layer stack. Find some other way of doing it, won’t you?
Whatever awkward bread’n'cheese construct you came up with would be to a sandwich as real-time strategy/quasi-management game Impire is to Dungeon Keeper, the legendary Bullfrog title it makes no bones about being ‘inspired’ by. It’s Dungeon Keeper that’s trying incredibly hard not to be Dungeon Keeper, made up of all its components but apparently putting them together with the primary motivation of not making EA cross rather than because there’s an ingenious new game design underneath it. It’s kind of like opening someone else’s picture in Photoshop and flipping the image or inverting the colours so you can argue it’s your original creation.
Which isn’t to say that Impire is a disaster, or even a bad game. Its parts are fine, the sum of them perhaps is not. It feels as though it’s searching for purpose after the fact, as though it was made to a brief – be like Dungeon Keeper but not too much like Dungeon Keeper – and is now in the grip of existential crisis. It has its bread, filling and spread, which is to say building an underground lair, raising and training an army of fantasy monsters, duffing up heroes and accruing resources, but I’m not sure how to best describe the game these elements belong to.
I don’t really know what Impire is, or even what it means to be. Is it Theme Dungeon? Is it a real-time strategy game? Is it a lightest-touch RPG? While Dungeon Keeper’s answer to those questions was ‘yes, all of them, cocktailed effortlessly’, Impire is ‘uh, bits of them, just sort of there.’ It’s like buying a model aeroplane set from a car boot sale, but when you open the box you realise it’s full of parts from three different kits, there are no instructions and someone’s left a lollipop stick in there to replace a missing wing.
Here’s how a typical level of the game works, and I’ll do my best to demonstrate how it avoids being Dungeon Keeper while sounding and looking a hell of a lot like it. You are the malevolent overlord/architect of a vast subterranean lair, carving out caverns to house, feed and train a small army of unintelligent but aggressive monsters with which to visit chaos upon the heroes, royalty and rival evil overlords of this land. So far, so good. Here’s the first… well, I hesitate to say failing, because that presupposes copying Dungeon Keeper is correct, but in this instance I think Impire has made a mess of the key appeal of lair-building. You can’t choose the shape or size of the rooms (kitchens, monster bedrooms, training rooms, labs, that sort of thing – most are analogues of DK rooms, but then there’s only so many different types of underground chamber under the sun anyway. What do you want, a bidet? A sauna? Ping-pong tables? Sex-crucifixes? Actually, all those things would be infinitely more entertaining than the witlessly bland rooms Impire settled on).
All the rooms are pre-fab, dropped near-instantly into the precious few chunks of rock large enough to accommodate them, so all construction is a matter of necessity and Tetris-style gap-filling rather any sort of freeform design. The sole exception to this are the tunnels which can link rooms or open up access to the enemy-filled parts of the map, which you can build more or less where you want, but again you’re seriously constrained by having to leave space for the large, inflexible rooms.
The other negative effect of building being FarmVille-style click’n'place is that it neuters any urge to go watch the construction in action, to treat your rocky environment as a living place with sights to see and surprises to uncover. Instead, you’ll find yourself simply treating the whole game as an overhead map, a near-2D bird’s eye view in which you track icons and place a few squares, rectangles and circles wherever you can find a suitably-sized spot for them.
The same’s true of combat: a combination of the game’s murky, indistinct art and the requirement to have your homogeneous units grouped into a maximum of five squads of four (individual control is possible, but the game’s not really built for it, so it’s a total headache and unnecessary) means you wind up just watching numbered icons dart about from maximum zoom-out. When an enemy icon appears, you right click and teleport everyone over. Then you’ll probably send ‘em back to eat or train, then you’ll teleport ‘em to the next enemy icon. Monitoring health, level and ‘aggression’ (energy) all takes place in the squad menu window, unless you’re mad and would prefer to painstakingly track some tiny meters individually, at the expense of seeing whatever else is going on in your dungeon. Compounding this are ‘overworld’ missions, required to grab bonus resources or meet certain objectives, which really are just icons on a flat map. You don’t even get to see the battles: instead, you units return with their loot and casualties you shall never know the cause of. Edit – oops, I’m wrong there, there is a (characteristically fiddly and poorly explained) way to watch after all. Thanks to those who pointed this out
Net result: the 3D engine might as well not be there. Impire would have been far better off going down the Atom Zombie Smasher route, embracing the fact that it’s an interactive map rather than wasting all that time and effort on character models and lighting effects players will never look at. The other game it reminds me of in that regard is Republic: The Revolution, another example of the intricate 3D world being all but purposeless because the meat of the game was icons and bar charts. I don’t have any problem with playing a game that way – indeed, it’s often the case that I much prefer the purity of control over the pizazz of presentation – but again it’s hard to not feel Impire’s a case of game engine and assets first, concept and design second. Why is all that stuff, all that world and all those characters, in there if it serves no real purpose?
There isn’t much strategy to combat or success either. Again, all the DK mainstays are in there – levelling up units, unlocking brawnier fighters, mixing melee and ranged soldiers, casting big-effect spells yourself, intervening to get prized units out of trouble, placing traps to soften up heroes who invade your dungeon – but again a lot of it’s incidental in practice. What you’ll do, again and again, is fill your squads with the best units you can, teleport them to objectives, kill everything, replace any losses and repeat. I’m not sure I’d call it micromanagement as there really isn’t much that needs keeping an eye on, but it is heavily based on loops and routines, and mastery is a matter only of time, not insight or ability.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to reach a fail state, but you can waste a whole lot of time if you try to shortcut by doing everything with the starting units. It winds up being a bit of a grind, hauling your squad of uncared-about, easily replaced imps and minotaurs and shaman back and forth to fight and eat, because the idiots can’t manage themselves at all. Again, I’m bouncing off my expectations and unfortunate sense of entitlement in terms of a Dungeon Keeper-like game, and lamenting that Impire is not at all a living place. It’s a real-time strategy game in a constrained environment, with the pre-fab buildings and obedient marionettes that usually entails.
Treated in that spirit, and putting aside the disappointment that a dungeon I built out of toilet rolls in five minutes would feel more of me than would an Impire construction which took two hours (levels are long, or at least long-winded, often playing for time with banal sidequests and repeated objectives), Cyanide’s game does have the comfortable compulsion of reaching every branch on the tech tree. Even were it more plausible to rush through its long levels, I don’t think I would. There’s too much silent satisfaction in hitting every optional objective, filling my squads with the best-possible units and placing every type of room even though I don’t really need half of them. I kept on playing despite the sure sense that I’d seen everything, that I’d be repeating the same often dreary procedures again and again and that the cramped, ugly interface would present more of a challenge than the enemies ever would. I do so hate to stereotype developers, but naff UI does seem to be something of a Cyanide mainstay. Like Blood Bowl before it, Impire would sing so much more if its window dressing didn’t look quite so much like a 1993 version of Lotus Notes.
Again, though I don’t and probably never will know the motivations behind Impire’s creation, there’s that creeping sense that it’s putting far too much effort into being a Dungeon Keeper clone that isn’t a Dungeon Keeper clone, but not enough into into being something specific, something its own. That side of things it only does through its narrative, endless chatter and abominable humour. God, it talks. God, it talks shit. Why is it that the games least capable of comedy so often seem to be the ones which include the most of it? It’s a string of terrible characters making terrible puns in terrible accents, not to mention the cheap-game-standard that is repeating the same terrible catchphrases every time you click on a character. By level two I’d muted the damn thing entirely and was listening to some jazz records instead.
Hmm. Writing about Impire makes me realise I dislike it a lot more than I thought I did. I’ve given it so much time because I’ve been compelled to make all the numbers go up, but I can’t say it’s done anything that’s actually impressed me, either as a Dungeon Keeperlike or as its own real-time strategy game. I just don’t understand why it exists, other than because it might make a bit of money from Dungeon Keeper fans.
Oh, one really neat thing it does: a pop up picture-in-picture window showing the 3D action when you’re watching in map-mode. That’s an idea any and every management game could benefit from.
Impire is out now.