Impire tries awfully hard to be a fresh take on the dungeon-management genre, but somehow fails to inspire despite an arsenal of modern characteristics.
It is the journey of a demon named Ba’al, summoned – to his dismay – into the world of Ardania at the behest of Oscar van Fairweather, a graduate in Demonology meddling with powers far beyond him. In the summoning, Ba’al has been incarnated as a small and thoroughly nonthreatening imp – a far cry from his previous existence as a great and powerful demon – and his motivation in the game is to regain his power. Oscar enlists Ba’al to construct a dungeon, and the demon slowly grows in power throughout the game.
Prepare to spend many hours building your dungeon, amassing your army, and sending parties out on raids to nearby areas. The raids are very non-interactive, and involve sending out your forces and waiting for them to return with loot, all the while protecting your dungeon from invading heroes, who irritatingly drop ladders into your domain in random places at random times. As involving as the whole process sounds, it requires surprisingly little overall strategy, and even less creativity in the execution of Ba’al’s evil plans.
To understand why this is such a damaging shortcoming, it helps to be aware of Impire’s somewhat overly hyped conception. Prior to release, attention was heavily focused on its self-attributed kinship with Bullfrog’s 1997 title Dungeon Keeper, a quite detailed dungeon-creation sim in which players fought off invading heroes whilst building their dungeons from scratch. I’m sure you are already feeling mild déjà vu; Impire‘s premise is, superficially, identical. Dungeon Keeper went deeper with its simulation sophistication, however. The aim was to build the most efficiently-designed evil base, keeping your troops fed and occupied, else fights would break out between rival demonic species under your control. It was a lively, characterful and entertaining game with an impressive level of detail. Impire set out to pay tribute to Bullfrog’s iconic title, whilst injecting the experience with more humor, a wider variety of environments, and a stronger strategic element. This was plainly evident in the launch trailer, which was packed with hilarity and explosive gameplay:
Impire was to be a successor of sorts to Dungeon Keeper, with all the looks and playability of a modern game, but a character all its own. At a conceptual level, it could almost have passed for a remake, but the mechanics and storyline were to be unique, drawing players into a new experience that combined the joy of dungeon creation with a play style more focused on strategy than simulation.
Impire has succeeded in some areas. It looks good and it is most certainly not a shameless copy of Dungeon Keeper. Unfortunately, as an experience it feels needlessly limited. The dungeon, essentially a construction to-do list made up of pre-sized rooms, offers little in the way of imagination. A series of clicks results in a new chamber, but there is no satisfying process involved; no imps hasten to construct it, and there is no real achievement in having created it. Few rooms need to be built more than once, and there are no critical efficiency benefits of creative construction. Traps can be laid for the heroes that dare drop a ladder into the dungeon, but as the whereabouts of said ladder is entirely random, any precautionary defensive mechanisms are essentially a shot in the dark.
This brings us neatly to the game’s AI. Your own evil minions are much like quintessential lazy bodyguards; they remain in place unless told to do otherwise, and have no schedule or inclinations to challenge your management capabilities. Even troop logistics barely make an appearance; unless a squad is out on a raid, all troops are accessible pretty much all of the time. If an enemy should appear, you need only right click next to him and a squad of your choosing will magically teleport to the selected spot, ready to despatch the foe with often minimal fuss and fireworks. In peacetime, the minimal minion AI leaves even the grandest dungeon design somewhat lifeless, in contrast to the hustle, bustle and infighting that kept Dungeon Keeper players on their toes.
It follows that Impire is best viewed separately from Dungeon Keeper. Aside from the visual design and one or two important mechanics, it is no real successor to the legendary sim. It is a strategy game at heart; not particularly ambitious, but very playable. Rather than pine for a living, breathing dungeon of your own design, let yourself indulge in the spontaneous appearance of hostile heroes, passable animation, and the repetitive grind for resources.
If you can manage this, you will discover a likable, if limited, dungeon sim. A clear audiovisual vision has given Impire a charming atmosphere. In appearance it is one part Diablo, a dash of Dungeon Defenders, and an overcoat of appealing – yet never overdone – cutesy comic-book styling. The soundtrack is suitably epic, with a classic subterranean vibe evocative of a darker Fable. The core concept of the story is strong, the writing often witty, and the protagonist Ba’al endearingly determined to regain his demonic power.
Impire is a good-looking, characterful game, but ultimately it feels unfinished. The pre-alpha was running only a few months ago, and although the developers have made great progress in the interim, the question of what more time might have yielded weighs down its imperfections. The relatively minimal multiplayer is still in officially in beta, which does nothing to assuage the feeling that you are playing a work in progress.
Impire’s shortcomings are greatly exaggerated by its unspoken yet obvious claim to the legacy of Dungeon Keeper. As someone who enjoyed the classic game, I find it impossible to look past how badly Impire wants to be its successor, and how little it actually is. It evokes Dungeon Keeper, but makes such an effort to be unique and different that it ends up disappointing, lacking the very things that made Bullfrog’s seminal title so very memorable.
Perhaps without my preconceptions as a fan it would be easier to sit back and enjoy the well-crafted story, amusing characters, and appealing graphics. Unfortunately, all I really want to do at this point is leave the constraints of Impire behind and indulge in some retro dungeon keeping.
Impire, developed by Cyanide Studios and published by Paradox Interactive, is available on Steam for £14.99 in the UK and $19.99 in the US.