I didn't have many expectations besides hoping that it would be a fun knockoff of that classic imp-enslaving, dungeon-carving romp, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is far more than that. After a half hour of commanding my horrible little beasties, I was left with the sense that Cyanide Studio is developing something potentially quite unique, while applying mechanics and features we are still comfortably familiar with.
Developer: Cyanide Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Released: February 14, 2013
The premise is simple, yet quirky: Players take on the role of Baal-Abaddon, a mighty demon summoned from the Bottomless Pit. Unfortunately, the inept sorcerer who summons him, Oscar van Fairweather, imprisons him in the body of a diminutive imp. So begins Baal's journey to reclaim his former power -- and hopefully his imposing, muscle-bound, demonic form -- through building a foul empire beneath the ground.
The first mission sees Fairweather commanding Baal to ruin a fellow sorcerous classmate by killing his minions and robbing him. It seemed like good, wholesome fun to me. Before I could go charging in to cause a ruckus with my little winged imp overlord, I had to begin construction on my first dungeon. I had a retinue of worker imps to command, whose jobs can range from building, resource gathering, and running various rooms that I would build down the line.
Zooming out gives a more tactical view of the dungeon, with creatures represented by simple icons. Hovering over them brings up a window that reveals exactly what they are doing, complete with all the noise they are making -- they are a loud bunch. The window essentially shows you what you'd be seeing if you were zoomed right in, which turned out to be rather convenient.
I assigned them the task of mining and mushroom gathering (Who doesn't like fungus?), and eventually decided to build a spawning room so I could summon some combat-ready minions. Seeing my workers go about their business was quite delightful, to be honest, as they are an extremely animated bunch. My wee beastie in my spawning room was working very hard at stirring a cauldron with questionable contents, and he'd intermittently bugger off to a bookshelf for a spot of light reading. I had no time for voyeurism, however, as I had an army to construct.
Though I was creating units individually, no man (or imp) is an island, and for troops to be effective, they must be placed in a squad. This is where it started to feel a wee bit like the second Dawn of War title and its expansions. Squads are made up of up to five units, and they can work both in tandem, or be given individual orders.
These battle-hardened demons can complement each other, and can even pull off special attacks or abilities -- there are over 200 perks -- when teamed up with particular chums; so there's no small amount of strategy involved in putting together teams of monsters. I was even able to send my squads above ground, to go on raids on the surface and complete mission objectives that cropped up from time to time. At one point, I sent them to hassle a stable-boy, and another scenario had me ordering my troops to burn down a ballet school. No doubt it was a ballet school training heroes to be fleet of foot.
I had complete control over my squads, but there's a plethora of behavior settings available that allows players to customize their minions routines. Yves Bordeleau, Cyanide's studio director, talked me through the range of actions.
"You can switch to guard, patrol or follow Baal. You can say, when you find a hero, 'Oh, no, don't kill him -- bring him to the training room, bring him to the prison, or bring him to the sacrifice pit.' The way we made the squad-based menu, basically, you can say, 'Okay, that squad, I want it to hunt heroes with materials, and then bring it to the training room.'"
In the first mission I was limited to three types of imps: one tough, one fast, and one magical. Eventually, players can summon different creatures all with their own unique abilities and strengths. Baal himself can get stuck in during a fight, as well. He can claw and snap at victims, on top of being able to cast a variety of spells. It's a good thing too, as not long after I had created my first squad, we were being invaded by a party of heroes. Luckily, heroes aren't too adept at handling a lightening strike to the face, and I fried them with glee.
As dungeons level up, more and more heroes will appear, including imposing Paladin fellows who present a significant challenge. They won't just come through the main dungeon entrance, as Yves pointed out. "Later on you have ladders that will appear and heroes will start dropping in. It get's crazier: at one point we have waves of heroes incoming, by the main dungeon entrance and ladders, but luckily ladders can be destroyed."
Bolstered by a bunch of squads, I moved Baal and company in the direction of Fairweather's enemy. Other than his spell-flinging abilities, Baal came in quite handy because he appeared to be the only one capable of manipulating levers. Maybe they were levers designed in the Bottomless Pit? After a few scraps with some enemy imps, we finally reached the end of the dungeon and came face to face with a Guardian. Bigger and badder than most of the fellows I'd dispatched, he may also be known by a certain colloquial term -- he was a boss.
It wasn't just that this chap had more HP or dished out more damage; his life could only be ended by figuring out his patterns. It was very much a traditional boss battle, which I guess was only odd because I was playing a dungeon-building strategy game. After taking a spot of damage, the hulking brute would flee to one of four tables in his room and consume a bunch of mushrooms lying there. These were, unfortunately, life-giving mushrooms.
Thankfully, the medicinal fungus could be destroyed before the mean monster reached the table, thus I ordered a couple of my minions to constantly beat up the helpless growths, while the rest of my team concentrated on the big fella. This paid dividends, as we managed to slay the beast in time for tea.
Yves wants this to be a challenging game, and took inspiration from a few tough titles when designing the boss encounters. "Not each level will have a boss like that. We have a few mini-bosses, and a few very big bosses. Each of them have different strategies. I'm a huge Metroid fan. We kind of got inspired by Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania -- it's really like these old-school games with these wicked patterns you have to discover... this is not an easy game."
There are two factions in Impire. I only played the main one, but at one point in the campaign, players will be introduced to the Soulless, a nasty bunch that Yves introduced me to when I interviewed him. Their ranks are filled with the undead, like wraiths, vampires, and zombies. Even their imps are undead, stitched together from dead imps, with ominous glowing eyes.
The Soulless dungeons look different too. Their demesne is filled stain-glass windows, and many other trappings typically associated with cathedrals and churches. They also have some different mechanics, as Yves pointed out. "You cannot heal the Soulless by having them eat at the kitchen, because they are dead. So, instead, you have to sacrifice a minion in the extractor. So you extract the souls out of your own minions, so you need to have a balance between your workers and your fighting units."
Along with the standard faction, the Soulless can be played in multiplayer scenarios too. Multiplayer looks like it might be tons of demonic fun, combining the dungeon management from the campaign, with central battle areas, separating the different players, filled with NPC enemies.
Yves brought up the multiplayer menu and described what they are trying to do with this mode. "As in single-player, you have your dungeon to manage, but then you have the common battle area in the middle. So basically, all the four players, or two, or three, will have their own dungeon, [but] you cannot see the dungeon of the other player. You have the common area, for instance in King of the Hill, so you manage your dungeon, then you send either Baal or your squads in there. The way we constructed the game enables us to have almost endless possibilities of gameplay."
I asked him how many maps they were starting with, but the figure hadn't been decided on at that point. DLC with more maps and modes are being planned, however. "Some of them will be DLC... we have plans for that, like adding new mods. We were even talking about doing a Tower Defense mode, there're a lot of possibilities for the set-up that we have."
It seems like Cyanide Studio is trying to pull off some interesting things with Impire, both in the single-player and multiplayer modes. In my short playthrough, I encountered quite a bit of complexity that I never expected, and with the large list of perks, special abilities, overworld raids, and interesting unit controls, there looks to be a lot more depth than I previously anticipated. It won't be long before you can see for yourself, as the game drops later this week.
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