Think of a B-word that describes both a sword and people
“The circus is here!” a notification in the top right corner of my screen tells me. Travelling from settlement to settlement, improving the overall mood of my population. It’s one of the random events that sporadically occur in the Tower Defence/Grand Strategy hybrid Empires In Ruins. Sometimes it’s rude graffiti about your mum that increases the chance of an uprising. Sometimes your commander treads in poo, and gets a luck bonus for a few turns. This time, it’s the circus.
Each turn, the circus picks a new settlement in my empire from the battlemap, moves there, and cheers everyone up. A happy populace, the game tells me, is less likely to support rebellious activity against me. Usually, keeping each settlement fed and well occupied keeps dissent low, but sometimes, a random event like this can influence it either way.
The thing is, there’s a counter in the corner that tells me the next riot is fifty-four turns away. So, while it’s nice to imagine the potato-sack clad populace laughing at a harlequin’s juggling maces or whatever, it doesn’t really mean much for the choices I’m going to make for my empire.
I’ve used this as an example because it’s emblematic of my main issue with Empire in Ruins strategy layer. On normal mode, and for the first few hours at least, there’s no tension to it. You feel like you can waste turns, or rush through them to get a building or upgrade finished, with very little consequence.
A grand strategy should, at least occasionally, make me want to take a sharp breath and steel myself before pressing the ‘end turn’ button.
Peanut butter and Marmite
I can understand this, in part, because having you lose battles before you’ve even started them – due to resource or population management – would detract from the tower defence that makes up the other half of the game. Everything you do on the map feeds into the tower defence. Researching new weapons and upgrades, scouting before you invade to get an idea of the odds, upgrading settlements and recruiting commanders to provide bonuses, levelling up the stats of the main character, and making light story decisions on whether to be a massive prick, or simply a regular prick.
And when you get to the tower defence? It’s fine. It’s a solid, enjoyable bit of tower defence with some light RTS resource collecting, and also bears. You can upgrade individual stats on towers like range or fire rate, upgrade them to whole new towers, rush waves for extra gold. It’s well thought out. Another solid, enjoyable bit of tower defence is the ten-year-old free flash game Don’t Touch My Gems! This isn’t a slight on either – Don’t Touch My Gems! is a masterpiece. But there’s something about the uncomplicated, self-contained joy of tower defence that feels fundamentally at odds with mechanics that tie progress to decisions you make in an almost completely unrelated game.
It’s all a bit much at first too, information wise. Granted, the game is in early access, a tutorial is coming, and in place of a tutorial are some well-written info pages and some neat design that teaches you the systems by assigning you gradually more in-depth objectives. Still, it’s a lot, especially when you’re getting all geared up to shoot some bears. If you’re not down for the strategy layer though, there is a lengthy arcade mode.
The low-hanging fruit
Empires in Ruins main draw, at least at present, is its writing. In campaign mode, the story is told through chapter screens and regular pop-up text conversations after completing certain objectives like taking control of certain territories, building x farms, and such like. The protagonist, Sergeant Hans Heimer, is a brandy-swilling, mutton-chopped misanthrope, coming across something like Geralt of Rivia doing a Bojack Horseman impression. The writing is crass, dark, and made me grin a lot more than I was expecting. It does, occasionally, mistake the low fantasy of something like Game of Thrones for cheap cruelty.
Remember how Thrones’ best character was a man with dwarfism, and so much of the pathos and humanity in the show focused on his uphill struggle to be given the same respect as other men because of it? The engineer who does your upgrades in Empires in Ruins is also a dwarf. Hans Heimer makes some dwarf jokes. It’s all a bit juvenile, and a bit too easy. This aside, It’s great to see a genre usually so self-contained and streamlined experimented and iterated with so much ambition, but I’m still not sure if the pairing of the two adds anything to either side, rather than just compromising on the strengths of each to make room for the other.
It’s also worth noting than I ran into some scripting problems at the start of the third chapter. Didn’t break the game, but did cause a bit of a mess.
Again, it’s in early access, so I’ll score this one right down the middle for now, with an extra point because I’m still intrigued how the starring Sergeant seems to have got his hands on an infinite supply of cigars in medieval Europe. I’d still cautiously recommend it if you’re the exact sort of person who loves the cross-section between tower defence and medieval bastardry. If not, it’s one to keep an eye on through early access.
[Reviewed on PC]