Although excitement around steampunk has waned over the past few years, there are no doubt many intriguing stories, games and other media still to be mined from the genre. By far the most captivating element of Empyre: Lords of the Sea is its premise, which moves the conceits of Neo-Victorian Steampunk to New York in 1911. Rising sea levels have drowned the city, overwhelming the infrastructure and triggering both a desperate shortage of potable water and the emergence of several distinct city-states within the larger metropolis. As a player, your task is to fight the powers that be, thugs, corruption, gangs, criminals and mechanical failures and get the water flowing again.
The developers have clearly done their homework about the historical turn-of the-century New York and its famous residents, criminal elements and power centers. Players will travel to a number of real-world locations and encounter figures from the American history. While there's an attention to detail in the machinery and environments, there is also a general blandness in the grey and brown color palette and interchangeable loading docks and factories that dominate the game.
In fact, despite its genuinely intriguing premise, Empyre is characterized by a general lack of engaging character and strong, compelling elements to give the player an emotional connection to the world or reason to play. While the main squad members - each with some basic starting specialties - can be leveled up and outfitted with a variety of often unique weapons and fanciful steampunk-inspired devices, none of them has much of a backstory or personality to care about. While most RPGs give the player a blank canvas and opportunity to grow and shape their protagonist, Empyre rather abruptly and perfunctorily makes the player to choose a character in the first scene. The game's presentation isn't helped by its exposition-heavy writing and dialogue, and often maddeningly repetitive musical score. It's tonally often at odds with the mission and environment and has no musical connection with historical musical styles.
Mechanically, Empyre is a hybrid between an isometric pause-and-play RPG and a turn-and-grid based game. Whether you choose to play a weapon specialist or a stealthy sneak, the combat usually comes down to using explosives, healing or other restorative items long enough to survive the fisticuffs-favoring encounters. Weapons don't really feel very impactful or exciting to use, but pausing the action to move and position squad members and using the environment adds some tactical enjoyment and variation to combat. The ability to fully rotate the environment would be useful but it isn't a deal-breaker in planning the moves. Zooming in only draws attention to the characters' fairly limited and awkward animations.
It's unfortunately easy to focus on what's lacking about Empyre, but the game's premise and setting are sufficiently original, and its combat is engaging enough to warrant a look. Perhaps given a larger team and a longer development process, some of the empty spaces could have been filled in. Some voice work, more attention to craft compelling characters, and a more nuanced and branching story in which the player could feel more important, would all help elevate the game to another level. If Empyre: Lords of the Sea was a novel, I'd say it was a promising first draft.