When you're Báal-Abaddon, an unstoppable hell demon with a nasty temper, you expect to rule over a vast empire of loyal subjects. You don't have to earn it: Iron-fisted rule is your birthright. But when a rather stupid sorcerer conjures your spirit up from the depths and summons you—minus your fearsome demonic powers—into the not-so-imposing body of a three-foot-tall imp, you have to settle for an Impire.
Paradox Interactive's demo of Impire begins with poor Báal-Abaddon coming to terms with his new stature in a drawn-out conversation with greedy sorcerer named Oscar van Fairweather. I start skipping through the conversation because there's no voice acting yet, and Oscar likes to ramble; Developer Cyanide Studios calls this build "pre-pre alpha." I get the gist anyway: I'm a rather pathetic imp now, stuck in a pitifully small dungeon, and expanding my underground realm (and murdering a whole lot of decent folk) will hurry along the restoration of my demonic prowess.
And then, for a few minutes, I'm basically playing Dungeon Keeper. Impire isn't ashamed of its roots in classic strategy design, and its dungeon management will be a familiar experience for Dungeon Keeper fans. I create a few minions to mine food in a Fungi Farm, then dig out a few rooms, like a barracks and a kitchen, to train up some diminutive warriors and keep them fed.
Even this early in development, Impire has character. When I order minions to build, they don't hollow out the entire chamber by hand—they dig a few blocks into the dungeon's wall, drop a large bomb, and scurry away. When the bomb explodes and the dust settles, a fancy new room awaits.
The game also looks great. The stone walls and cracked tile floors of the dungeon look grimy and uneven up close. My imp wears a permanent conniving grin, and even the minions are surprisingly detailed when I zoom the camera in. Instead of the efficient zoomed out top-down perspective, I find myself keeping the camera close to the action, mostly to enjoy the eerie lighting that gives each room its own flavor.
After an early round of building, Impire becomes more about combat than dungeon keeping. Managing resources and carving out new rooms feels like the housekeeping I'll end up doing between battles. Cyanide says Dawn of War II's squad system served as inspiration for Impire, and I agree that there's a strong resemblance: I can assign up to four troops to a squad and send them into neighboring dungeons and caverns.
Interacting with units—both to handle dungeon construction and micro squads in combat—lags behind Impire's graphics and lighting. This is a complex game to learn how to play in a few short minutes, but pulling up a critical build menu with a long right click is easy to forget about when other menus are mapped to the function buttons. And there are a lot of menus: objectives, construction, tech tree, and squads, to name a few.
I want hotkeys to jump to my squads, but there aren't any. I spend a lot of time hunting around the UI to find the commands I'm looking for. With some polish to the interface, underlying mechanics should shine through more clearly, which will hopefully make Impire a more intuitive game to learn.
What I play is barely a peek at what Impire will supposedly offer, including campaign co-op and dungeon-on-dungeon throwdowns in modes like King of the Hill and Capture the Flag. Cyanide and publisher Paradox set Impire in the fantasy world of Ardania, adding a fun meta layer of worldbuilding to Báal-Abaddon's evil aspirations. If you've ever played the Majesty series, you're now going to be coming at the same world from the monsters' point of view.
When I finally build up two squads of troops and send them up to the surface, I can raid half a dozen places on a world map to score loot for my dungeon. Of course, that works both ways. From time to time, heroic knights will waltz into the dungeon and start casually murdering minions. When one shows up on my turf, all my troops are off sacking my neighbor's dungeon. I made the mistake of relying on minions to keep things running back at base. Now they're toast.
I hastily train up a few new units and send my Imp to slow down the armored knight. He gets his ass kicked. Whoops.
The new troops deal with the problem, sending the goody two-shoes knight to meet his maker, but Báal-Abaddon's temporary humiliating defeat (he respawns a moment later) makes me eager to see beyond the first 30 minutes of Impire. Báal can level up as the game progresses, specializing in magic or melee combat or command abilities. Mining resources and expanding will also increase the dungeon level, opening up access to features I didn't see: new chambers, units beyond simple fighters and archers, and traps to deal with invaders from the surface.
Paradox plans to release Impire in the first quarter of 2013; that gives the development team time to improve the interface, which needs more consistency between mouse commands and keyboard shortcuts. Half an hour is barely enough time to understand a game like Impire—I was just beginning to experiment with microing my squads when time ran out—but the combination of dungeon management and Dawn of War II-esque RTS combat is already fun, six months ahead of release.
The prospect of co-op dungeon building has me amped to play more. I just hope that the finished campaign ends with the ultimate reward: Báal-Abaddon gets his fearsome powers back, rules the underworld as he rightly deserves, and eats Oscar van Fairweather for breakfast. Or, at least, uses him as a footrest.