Not to sound like an old dude/hipster, but I was into steampunk before it was cool. The genre mashup always struck a chord with me, combining my love of westerns and sci-fi into a glorious cocktail of geek goodness. When it’s done well, steampunk evokes both nostalgia and wonder, the inheritor of the legacy of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in the canon of speculative fiction. When it’s done badly, it’s painfully obvious; as if the writer couldn’t quite figure out what to create and just threw things together in the unfounded hope it would all stick together. Which, upon mature reflection, is a pretty apt summation of Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier.

Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier is a sequel to 2017’s Empyre: Lords of The Sea Gates. It puts you in the shoes of a refugee from the Eastern US (presumably) sometime after the turn of the 20th Century. Nature seems to have turned against humans as sea levels rise and plants become both wildly aggressive and able to turn people into hybrid zombies. Some forethinking individuals moved out into the deserts of the Southwest, creating massive towers filled with automated servants called “mekanikals,” machines of loving grace who fulfill every need of the tower’s residents as well as defend against “plantum” incursions. But to get into the towers, you have to have a ticket, and as the story opens, your character just got scammed out of their ticket to the good life.

Visually, Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier isn’t terrible, but it’s definitely not cutting edge. The forced isometric perspective recalls games such as Baldur’s Gate and Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, though lacking a good deal of the detail and artistry of those games, particularly in the maps. Character models are decent, but considering the perspective players use, any fine details are likely to be overlooked just from sheer distance most of the time. Weapon designs (at least as far as their inventory images) seem to fall towards one of two extremes: either highly realistic and practical or wildly unrealistic and improbable. The UI definitely leans hard into the “steampunk” aesthetic, and visually speaking isn’t entirely useless. But there are serious problems, particularly in terms of contrast for “interaction points” in lightly colored environments and the lack of highlighting for key items which are very small. It’s hard to progress when you can’t see where you need to go or what you need to pick up. There’s just nothing that really stands out from a visual perspective, and that’s not a good thing.

Worst…supervisor…ever…

If you’re perhaps expecting a better audio experience than visual out of Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier, you’re going to be disappointed. There’s no voice work outside of the intro cutscene and the occasional groan from defeated enemies. There’s no particularly stirring music. There are sound effects, and all of them fall into the “middling” category. One is almost tempted to ask why they bothered to even include volume sliders if they’re going to have so little do.

So, now we take a look at Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier‘s gameplay and overall functionality. And this is where everything completely falls off a cliff. During character creation, I was playing with the buttons, seeing what everything looked like, and I found it deeply odd that clicking the “male” button brought up a female character image, and vice versa. This was just the start of the problems I ran into.

The control scheme isn’t just counterintuitive, it’s actively hostile, fighting players at every turn. None of the keybinds are what you would expect them to be and, despite being labelled, it feels clumsy trying to navigate. Speaking of navigation, transitioning to a new map area is a painful exercise because it requires you to advance a character dialog option rather than simply asking you, “Are you ready to leave?” and giving you a yes-or-no option.

“Clearly, tovarishch, you’ve moved up in the world. Not very far, but definitely up.”

Leveling up stopped dead in its tracks about level four or so because the player-made character can’t apply skill points unless a perk is chosen, and for some reason I either ran out of perk choices to make or the game just flat out stopped showing them.

Party management is non-existent. Ostensibly, you are able to control up to six characters, and yet I could not add more than two. Any attempt to do so just put me in a loop of “please join me,” followed by nothing. The transition to Act III required me to pick one companion to come with me, and there was no means of making the choice, which pretty much arrested any further progress.

Worse, inventory management is equally non-existent. Being unable to split stacks of ammunition and medical supplies makes for some deeply awkward situations where pickups have to be rotated through to other characters by keeping an inventory slot or two open. Puzzlingly, there appears to be slots for wearable items in the character sheet but there never seems to be any present for purchase or as an item drop. Combine this with item duplication glitches and you begin thinking you’d be better just running around naked and punching everything to death.

“Gladly. Would you like to rejoin that life headfirst?”

Combat is utterly shambolic. One hesitates to suggest the idea that they were going for a pausible realtime system similar to classic BioWare/Black Isle RPGs, but if that was the case, the execution falls completely flat. Characters can certainly move into positions and even get varying degrees of cover much like XCOM. But if you tell them to target an enemy notionally outside their weapon’s range, they’ll just stand there like slack-jawed mannequins until you order them to advance or the enemy AI remembers that it’s supposed to be attacking and moves in closer. It’s just one more deeply unsatisfying element in an already unsatisfying game. Adding insult to injury, certain maps appear to be in “perpetual” combat mode, where you have to move each individual party member around instead of the automatic conga line found when exploring outside of combat.

The greatest sin, however, falls on the writing. From dialog to scenario design to plot, everything associated with the narrative in Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier is terrible. Your companions are complete mutes while you’re navigating the maps, giving no indication of their hopes, dreams, or concerns about the current circumstances. There’s a small button you can click on to get them to talk, but there’s nothing which indicates they have a pressing need to talk to you about something. And if you do talk to them, they have nothing particularly interesting or revealing about themselves to say. Likewise, instead of open air “barks” which show overhead of NPCs in conversation, you have to click on a marked NPC to “listen in” on the conversation. Frankly, you’re not missing much if you decline to do so, but don’t worry. There’s plenty of awful conversations you’ll have to sit through as part of the story.

You can tell that the writers wanted to be touching on “big important themes” the same way that Bioshock and Red Dead Redemption 2 were shooting for. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear the high concept pitch for this particular title was “Bioshock meets Red Dead Redemption.” Which makes it all the more disappointing if that was the case. There are no grand themes to be found here. No deep lore, no engaging characters, no subtle worldbuilding anywhere in sight. The writing is trite, pedantic, and clumsier than a drunk acrobat trying to parkour through a lamp store. And from what I can tell, even hitting the roadblock of Act III, I feel like I was almost done with the game. There were no side quests as such, no “loyalty” quests, no faction concerns, only a series of objectives which all had to be completed before you can progress to the next badly written stage in the story.

End of the line.

There’s good steampunk, there’s so-bad-it’s-good steampunk, and there’s bad steampunk. Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier falls squarely into the third category. The failings and faults are almost too numerous to list, much less believe. Do yourself a favor and pass this one by.

Axel played Empyre: Dukes of The Far Frontier on PC with a code provided by the publisher.

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Liulfr
Liulfr
4 months ago

I can confirm that it is indeed a bad game.