You know things are bad when you start to sympathize with hellspawn. At first I acknowledged my in-game avatar, demon lord of the depths Baal-Abaddon, only with the intended smirks and half-laughs warranted by his dialog. But in time I came to feel a kinship with him as we braved Impire’s clumsy micromanagement in search of hard-won glory. “Tedious,” he’d exclaim, and I’d find myself mouthing the words along with him. “Life: what’s the point, anyway?” he’d ask, and I found myself asking the same question about our progress. By the sixth hour, I was sure we were both in a place where we didn’t want to be, but no matter how repetitive or boring the circumstances became, I could take comfort in the knowledge that my new scaly friend and I were in this mess together.
Impire has a sound concept, at least. Much like Dungeons before it, this attempted spiritual successor to 1997’s Dungeon Keeper doesn’t take itself too seriously. In its lightest moments, it’s awash in pop-culture references, quips, and enjoyable voice acting that might have masked lightweight issues in a better game. Here, it’s simply not enough.
The theme of Impire’s story is hubris: after 40 years of failure, a bumbling conjuror named Oscar manages summon Baal from the fiery pits where he’s been merrily whipping sinners. In his competence, though, he summons the demon lord Baal as a cutesy and seemingly puny imp, and a disjointed but smirk-worthy story then unfolds detailing how Baal becomes too big to handle for this poseur. It all looks so promising at first — Oscar and Baal’s banter sounds like what we’d hear from a demonic Dwight Schrute and Michael Scott, and the tutorial bears the promise of an intriguing mix of real-time strategy and dungeon-base building seasoned with doses of teleportation and randomness.
In the grandest tradition of empires, however, Impire collapses on itself. Despite its visual charms (it achieves the right pitch of cartoony dungeon moodiness), it’s just not fun to play. Every level follows the same pattern of expanding your dungeon, battling off the heroes that force their way in, following the main storyline, and sending out raids, but the potential inherent in this concoction sours in light of developer Cyanide’s awkward balance of streamlining and micromanagement.
Bizarrely, the streamlining hamstrings the dungeon layout the most — key rooms, such as your treasure chamber, are already in place when you start each round. You can build a wide assortment of demon nurseries, storerooms, and the like, but you can’t do anything with them aside from rotating them before you lock them into place. Even their position means nothing, since you can teleport Baal and his minions into any hallway with only the tiniest wait for mana.
In the higher levels, on the other hand, managing your combat minions could serve as the Olympics for needless micromanagement. At first it’s merely annoying, such as when you send one of Baal’s spawnable workers to repair a room and he just sits there after he’s done unless you give him another command. Once the four-demon squads come into play, however, the process devolves into madness. Replacing a fallen unit invariably consists of wading through a couple of menus, enlisting him in a squad, marching him off to the training room for a level, and upgrading his weapons and armor individually. Multiply this times 20 in the higher levels, and you have a taste of what awaits you. That doesn’t even count the frequent trips these little buggers insist on taking to the kitchen to recoup their aggression after the simple battles, particularly (in one of Impire’s other innovations) when you’re busy fighting your way into another dungeon to fight a simple boss. Is it too much to demand that demons man up?
But wait, we’re not done! One of Impire’s main attempts at originality comes in the form of the two to four ladders that magically appear at random spots in your dungeons’ tunnels, allowing heroes to come in and trash the joint and steal your treasure. It’s a good idea, but it happens so frequently that it makes focusing on the main quests a chore in itself, and it doesn’t help that you need to select ladders to destroy them when you teleport in your combat units unless they’re set to patrol. Worse yet, ladders effectively make passive defenses like traps useless, since heroes can appear almost anywhere on the map. Some maps allow you to build a dungeon without many tunnels to minimize the risk, but even then, the treasure room is almost always positioned right by the front entrance.
Sometimes the battles against heroes grow even more frantic because your minions are off raiding objectives on the world above. This sounds exciting, but generally it amounts to clicking on an icon and waiting for a few minutes. On the plus side, you can watch the action of Impire’s mediocre combat unfold via a window, but I was usually too busy trashing ladders, teleporting units to fight invading heroes, and upgrading armor and weapons to bother.
Somewhere in all this you also have to find time to bother with your DEC points (an attempt to mix in RPG elements) so you can unlock new units and rooms. They rarely feel like anything other than filler, and any sense of progress evaporates upon the realization that your DEC points reset with each dungeon. Only Baal’s appearance and stats permanently changed over the course of his return to demon lordship, and the repetition continued at such a pace that I have a hard time distinguishing one dungeon from another in my memory.
To Impire’s credit, it takes awhile for these frustrations to gain momentum. While it’s still easing you into the pain to come during the first couple of hours, you can catch a glimpse of the good game this should be in the absence of draconian micromanagement and unfulling base building. It’s especially apparent in the multiplayer mode (provided you can finish without a crash), where you might even have fun battling it out in Team Deathmatch or Capture the Flag (er, dragon) in the shared dungeon that smartly keeps each player’s base inviolate.
It’s bulging with promising ideas that could be realized with a remastered version — or a long-awaited patch that may never come. My buddy Baal-Abaddon helped to teach me to make the best of Impire’s bad situation, but you don’t have to.