Click here to view the Flare: Empyrean Campaign (PC) description page for reviews, guides, screenshots, and more information.
Review by tankMage (December 2018)
More than a Clone?
One look at Flare: Empyrean Campaign and most classic ARPG fans will know right away what title this open source game is attempting to emulate. In its current form, Empyrean feels generic and half finished… but it is also a work in progress and a few good updates could elevate this title to greatness. I look forward to the day when I have to return to this review, raise the score, and explain why Empyrean is so awesome. As it stands there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on this project before it reaches that point, though it is still worth downloading and trying.
In a word, everything about this game is very basic and it feels more like a alpha than a finished product. There’s a very small selection of… well just about everything, which makes the game feel barren. With that said, there are some really good ideas floating around in Empyrean, such as useful equipment drops and you’ll never see an enemy drop the usual RNG crap (like Axes of Fire Resistance) that plagues most ARPGs. Empyrean also has scrolls, which are consumable items that actually have practical uses and bosses drop their own unique items. There are also a number of secrets that players who carefully explore the game can find and even a hidden dungeon.
The concept behind this game is cool and original. Your character was exiled from Empyrean, the last bastion of humanity, and sent into a world ruled by monsters. Exiles rarely live long, though it is possible to return home by signing the “Book of the Dead”, which requires special ink and writing implements that can only be acquired by completing a gauntlet of dangerous tasks. Sounds a hell of lot better than “save the world from the evil bad man” to me.
Unfortunately, the Flare team didn’t do a great job presenting the story and the intro cutscene looks more like a college student’s PowerPoint project than the beginning of an adventure. You’ll have to click through each panel of text to read it, which robs the introduction of its thunder. A simple bit of scrolling text and some dramatic music would have been enough to make the intro more exciting. The same goes for the final cutscene, which was presented in the same manner as the intro.
The game’s narrative is vague and disjointed throughout the rest of the adventure, which actually works to its advantage. The state of the world of Empyrean speaks for itself as the player explores monster infested ruins and interacts with humans who are barely clinging to life in a hostile environment. This “show rather than tell” approach kept the story from being boring and the few bits of expositive dialogue that the player comes across feel natural rather than forced.
Open Game Art did the graphics for Empyrean and they did a great job, though this did not save this game from having problems in the graphics department. Those familiar with the old Baldur’s Gate PC games may get a sense of nostalgia from the art style, because Empyrean has a similar hand painted look to it, howbeit more crisp thanks to modern technology. Each weapon and armor piece has its own graphic, there are a variety of effects for spells/skills, and the environments look great. Too bad there’s a very noticeable lack of variety as far as graphical assets go and there’s a tremendous amount of recycling of just about everything.
Many of the enemies were generic skeletons, zombies, and spiders, which gets dull very quickly. Even worse, there was little variety to the enemies and you’ll end up fighting the same things throughout the game without so much as a pallet swap half of the time to at least give the illusion of progress in some cases. This also applies to the environments, which were often beautifully drawn, but repetitive. The player will go through so many caves, forests, and temples that look almost exactly the same that the game becomes a blur. At least everything looks nice and with any luck some new visual assets will be included with updates.
For the most part Empyrean’s UI is a traditional point and click system, but the Flare team made it highly customizable. Players have the choice of using a controller or mouse and keyboard. Not only that, but they can map the keys however they like and play the game using their very own setup. Oddly enough, I had trouble with the controls at first, since I experimented with the default WASD movement and a joystick. In the end I settled with old school Diablo controls, but it was great to be able to set the keys up the exact way I wanted them.
With that said, the user interface is not as responsive as it could be and players may notice the occasional snag when trying to move around or attack. I also find the controller interface to be very buggy, so much so that the controls would freeze up after a while until I restarted the game. I’m not exactly sure why this happened, it may have been compatibility issues with my controller, a bug, or the result of me not having the settings worked out properly, but it is a potential issue.
Music and Sound
The music is really good, but like everything else in Empyrean, there’s not much of it. The five or six tracks I counted set the tone of the adventure very nicely with their dark, brooding melodies. They are also reminiscent of music from older ARPGs, which was a nice sentimental touch. You can tell there were only two voice actors, but there’s so few vice clips that it’s not an issue. Some of the sound effects had a rather thin, almost tinny quality to them, while others had quite a bit of depth and all of them were maybe a bit too much like those used in other ARPGs.
The problem with Empyrean’s gameplay is not so much a matter of quality as it is a matter of quantity. Most people will complete the adventure in about five hours. Completionists looking to collect all the unique items, do all the quests, and finish the game with each class may get thirty to forty hours out of it, which is nothing compared to the hundreds of hours I dumped into Diablo II, though thirty hours isn’t bad for a free game. It’s probably a good thing Empyrean is so short, because the only things players will have to fight are zombies, skeletons, minotaurs, spiders, and wyverns. Couple that with the repetitive environments and you have a game that would become really boring after a while. In fact the repetition wears on the fun factor after the first three hours.
Empyrean is also going to be too easy for most veteran ARPG fans. I died a maybe five times on my first playthrough and most of the deaths were the result of the ridiculously bad character build I tried to get away with or my experiments with various control configurations. This also brings us to another problem with Empyrean that haunts most RPGs: Class balance. It became clear after using each class that the Warrior was not only the most durable of the three classes, but also nearly tied with the Ranger as far as lethality goes. This left the Magician at the bottom tier with neither power nor survivability.
One of the best features of this game is its equipment system which is the first one I’ve seen in an ARPG that makes sense and doesn’t shower the player with useless shit. Each class has its own equipment set that boosts stats that are actually relevant. The Magician’s gear boosts magic, the Warrior’s stuff makes him more tanky, and the Ranger gets bonuses to evade from his armor. All of the weapons get a simple damage bonus. The trade-off is there isn’t a lot of customizability to the normal equipment, but this is offset by unique and set items, which offer all sorts of bonuses. Uniques are dropped exclusively by bosses, so players can concentrate on collecting them if they wish instead of hoping the RNG is on their side and waiting for things to randomly drop. The drop rate for uniques is still very low, but they are usually worth the effort.
Once again, a lack of variety plagues the equipment selection. Players are limited to a “Sword and Board” Warrior, a regular bow for the Ranger, and the usual staff for the Magician. Some two handed weapons for the Warrior and different weapon options for the ranged characters would have made character building more interesting. With any luck we will eventually see a greater variety of weapons and armor, since the developer seems to be working on a bunch of new features, including a crafting system.
The various short quests smattered around the game are mostly very simple, but they added a lot to the adventure. Players will have to explore thoroughly to find all of the quests and acquiring certain quest items will even unlock a special dungeon. The secret dungeon was not particularly difficult or interesting, but it gives players who really like Empyrean a little extra something. The level design was a bit troubled, though more in the sense that the game feels disjointed, because there is no clear connection between many of the zones and the player is simply taken from one area to the next via a magic obelisk. Combine that with the fact that everything looks the same and it’s easy to get lost or forget where you are at times. There is a nice handcrafted feel to the environments, however, and players will notice cool touches here and there that give the game much needed personality.
Combat in this game is so-so, mostly thanks to the repetitive monsters. You’re going to know what to expect from most creatures about a third of the way into the game, which makes it easy to react to most situations. Ranged characters are able to pick most enemies off from a distance without aggroing their buddies and it’s even possible to cheese certain bosses by shooting from a safe position where they cannot reach you. On the plus side, boss fights also present tactical challenges to the player depending on his or her class. A mage that is easy to kill as the Ranger may not be easy to fight as the Warrior and vice versa.
Finally, I’ll talk about the skill tree and skills in general, which could use a lot of tweaking. The Magician has the worst tree in my opinion, because his AoE attacks don’t have enough range to actually be useful and his fire spells don’t inflict any kind of burning or extra damage, making them marginally useless when compared to ice or shock. Interestingly, shock and ice synergize with one another, allowing the Magician to critical slowed targets more often with a shock spell. It would be cool to see these ideas built upon, because they could make playing as a Magician more impressive and rewarding. The Ranger and Warrior have very plain skill trees (just like the Magician) aside from a few abilities like the Warrior’s throwing axe or the Ranger’s caltrops. Players are also given only 19 skill points to spend and that’s only if they get to the max character level of 20, so you’re probably going to stick to one or maybe two skills throughout the game. This isn’t unusual for ARPGs, since it’s often most efficient to build around a single skill, but the devs seem to be onto something with the ice/shock synergy and the skill system feels half finished as a result of them not fully capitalizing on the concept.
Yeah, I was really hard on this game and I didn’t enjoy picking it apart, because I like it. I also really respect the fact that Empyrean is open source, so anyone can enjoy it as well as make their own mods. As I mentioned before, there are updates in the works for this game and I’m going to pay close attention to what’s going on with the project. I’d also really appreciate any news on new mods for the Flare Engine, so feel free to share any news in the comments. For now, the book will remain open on this game and the “C+” I gave it will hopefully become an “A” over time. Empyrean has potential and I encourage anyone reading this to give it a try.
Flare: Empyrean Campaign is open source (free) so there’s nothing to lose by trying it out. In fact, this game is probably a good choice for people new to ARPGs, because it has all the basics in place and isn’t very difficult.