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05 March, 2015

Exclusive: How Empyrios Offers Tactical Squad-Based Combat at its Purest

I love turn-based combat. Maybe it’s the tabletop gamer of my youth speaking, or maybe I just like having the time to work out the best strategy for my squad based on troop positioning and turn order. The frequent and happy mixture of this game mechanic with great sci-fi and fantasy elements certainly doesn’t hurt either. Whatever the case, I’ve had a great line-up of turn-based titles to pick from in recent times, from the strategic nightmare of XCOM: Enemy Unknown to the wonderfully deep and story-driven Banner Saga.

This is why I was very happy when, in July 2014, Creoterra - a small indie studio in Toronto comprised of Joe and Brandy Woynillowicz - announced its upcoming strategy-RPG title Empyrios: Prophecy of Flame. Empyrios promises to focus on tactical, squad-based combat. Players pick from two factions (Mystic Covenant or Shadowlord Pact) and build squads of units from the four races available to each faction – each ofering five character classes (mage, warrior, support, etc.). Your squad is then thrown into battle against another squad in one of 50 detailed and unique environments.

As with many of the great titles in this genre, Empyrios also carries RPG elements. Your squad members will gain experience through each battle and can be upgraded and customised between battles. Moreover, you will have access to a whole range of units, which can be swapped out for inactive squad members, allowing you to mix and match to create your ideal dream team.

As Empyrios is primarily combat focused, I was very excited to hear that, besides a campaign mode for each faction, the game will also include a multiplayer mode! Multiplayer tends not to be the primary focus (or any focus) for many turn-based combat titles, so I am looking forward to the chance to test my squad building skills against other players.

Before we get too excited though, I should remind you that while a lot of work has been done on Empyrios so far, the game is not yet released. Recently, Creoterra announced how it has been improving the game - notably adding iOS to the existing support of PC and Mac (with cross-platform support no less). It's also added writer Mike Waterston to form a six person team able to expand and improve the campaign dialogue and storyline.

I took this announcement as an opportunity to chat to Creoterra’s producer and engineer, Joe Woynillowicz, who happily took the time (and some new screenshots) to talk about Empyrios and some of its core gameplay mechanics.

Turn-based strategies and RPGs have seen something of a revival in the past year or so since the glory days (for me at least) of Heroes of Might and Magic. What were your influences and what is unique about the experience you are creating?
Well I certainly had a wide range of influences that encompassed both video games as well as tabletop games. In regards to this genre, I would say Might & Magic, Pox Nora, Age of Wonders, King's Bounty, Final Fantasy Tactics, Ogre Tactics, and Advance Wars were among many influential games, but also many titles outside of the genre such as Ultima, Shadowbane, Asheron’s Call, and of course the D&D games built on the infinity engine like the Baldur’s Gate series, Icewind Dale, and of course Planescape: Torment. Tabletop and card games such as AD&D, Warhammer, Android: Netrunner, Summoner Wars, Legend of the 5 Rings, HeroQuest and many others were also great influences.

With Empyrios I wanted to create a game with a rich dynamic story that can be played from the viewpoint of either faction, along with having really tactical battles with a clean HUD and gameplay - I’m not a big fan of digging through menus. Multiplayer was also something I wanted to make sure we executed really well, having stats, leaderboards, tournaments, etc. It seems to be a rarity in turn-based tactical games.

Your website says that the core of this game is turn-based tactical combat between two squads. How will battles work; are your units deployed into an environment or is your squad already exploring the environment when they come across enemies?
In multiplayer or practice mode you start on the selected battlefield and deploy your units in the formation you’d like before the start of battle, so those modes are quite straightforward. When you are playing through the campaign you are exploring and choosing where to do battle, although this is done through the world map rather than just wandering through the actual environments. During the campaign you will see all of the locations currently unlocked and available on the world map, as well as which locations have events occurring. There will be many times when you will have to choose to show up to one event over another, which will affect your guild’s reputation with the various races and characters, as well as having lasting changes on the story.

As a follow on from that, what gameplay elements stand between battles? Can we expect an interactive world map (as in Heroes of Might & Magic) or are we looking at a more static base where you can manage upgrades (like XCOM: Enemy Unknown)? Why have you gone for method you’ve chosen?
In between battles we decided to concentrate on two aspects and make sure that we really nailed them. First off, there are two campaign stories to play through - one for each faction - which actually play differently depending on choices you’ve made and battles you’ve won or lost. The campaigns are quite deep and as I mentioned they are dynamic in that things in the world will change based on choices and battle outcomes.

The second aspect is a focus on building your guild and characters rather than base building or other such aspects. So you’ll be building your guild though recruiting characters, levelling various classes, and specialising each unit and squadron differently through the use of the talent tree and items. Therefore your main focus is on building up your guild personnel, and having a roster of characters that can be swapped in and out of your active squad. So I would say that guild progression, interaction, and story are the core components outside of the actual tactical battles themselves.

One of the things I really like about what I’ve seen so far is the beautiful environments. You mention that the 50-or-so environments each require a different strategy: can you elaborate on how your environments affect battle strategy? Are there certain abilities which will effect the environment and hamper or damage enemies? Some gameplay examples would be great.
Thanks for the comments on the environmental art: we’ve been building it out for longer than I’ll admit (measured in years), so it’s really nice to receive good feedback and compliments. For starters each environment actually plays differently depending on which side of the map you are starting on. This was part of their core design, so going into battle on a map may require a completely different strategy from the last time you played in that location.

Beyond that there are ranged attacks that can fire over rivers, props in the environment, and other places where movement is restricted. So even if your unit is standing in an area that looks protected, you need to be aware of your surroundings otherwise you might catch an arrow or a fire bolt from across the river! Some classes are also able to place hidden traps, so you have to be watchful of where certain units have been as you won’t know if they’ve set a trap or not.

I’m excited about the variety of units and races that you’re including in the game. Are the four races available to each faction mutually exclusive or can you mix and match from different races to create your dream squad? Will different races become available as you progress through the campaign, or are they all there from the start?
Considering our main focus was on story and building your character roster I felt it was important to have a wide variety of races and classes and to give players a lot of choice and freedom in creating their squads. So on that note you are able to recruit any of the races and classes within your faction.

In multiplayer or practice modes, all of the races are unlocked right from the start and you are able to build your roster from any class in the faction you’ve chosen. When playing the campaign you actually start with only a few characters and will unlock others as you continue play. Once you’ve achieved certain goals, earned a certain reputation, or hit various parts of the story you’ll be able to recruit from a much wider variety. There are also special units that you are able to recruit who are characters from the story, and who are slightly more powerful than the generic unit type, although less customisable. So you’ll have to decide whether the trade-offs are worth it.

You describe Empyrios as a strategy-RPG and talk about the ability to customise units: are we going to see units carrying over from one battle to the next such that they become individual characters (to the player, not necessarily the campaign) in their own right? If so, will we be able to customise our characters to make them more individual (e.g. by giving them a name)? Will this be the same for multiplayer?
As the main component of the game is to build up your guild and reputation, all of the units carry over between battles and earn experience, items and levels. Not only the characters you are using in your current squad, but any that you have recruited or built up are available in your guild hall. So you’re always able to swap characters in and out of your current roster and customise it for whichever battle you’re going to fight in next.

This concept also spills over into multiplayer as you build up a guild hall of characters. You can swap builds anytime you are not in battle, and save various builds (i.e. a damage heavy squad, a protective/tanky squad, a squad that plays better in tight quarters, etc).

As for personalisation, we just recently added in the ability to name your characters in the campaign. We also have custom guild banners and emblems that you put together to show your guild pride, as well as your guild’s colour. During both the campaign and multiplayer you’ll be unlocking various team colours, emblems, backgrounds, banners and achievements, as well as personalising units with their talent tree and items.

The team at Creoterra is pretty small: what drove you to form and the start work on Empyrios as a project?
For the scope of the title we’re an insanely tiny group, which is why we’ve actually been in development for years on this title. We wanted to make sure we hit all of our objectives and kept to an extremely high quality standard. The core ideas of Empyrios actually came prior to founding the company, and once I had a small working prototype on paper, I just knew that it was something I had to build out and explore.

You’ve recently announced the inclusion of a writer to your team to beef up campaign and dialogue. Why did you feel the writing needed improvement and how do you envisage this will shape your vision for Empyrios?
Well as a game where the campaign is heavily focused on the story, and having many dynamic paths and components, I think we really hit what we wanted to mechanically. I wanted to make sure that the players were invested in the story and really enjoyed playing through, hopefully even multiple times with different builds. What we found was that our overall ideas were working quite well, but our actual written story, lore and dialogue definitely needed to be bumped up a notch. We didn’t receive any extremely negative feedback on the writing itself, but it was something where we realised we could make a huge difference with by adding a writer and spending the time to go over the entire campaign system. I really want the campaigns to play out like you’re reading a great fantasy book to go along with all of the guild building, character customisation and dynamic battles.

Empyrios: Prophecy of Flame promises us tactical turn-based combat in single and multiplayer, plus a good helping of unit customisation, a wide range of environments, two polished campaigns and multiple story arcs depending on your in-game choices, victories and defeats. As a fan of the genre, what more could you wish for? I, for one, am excited to see whether Creoterra can deliver on their promise when it releases in the near future.

Richard Burchfield

Buy It on iOS:
   - XCOM: Enemy Unknown
   - Banner Saga
   - King's Bounty: Legions
   - Heroes of Might & Magic III HD
   - Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of Lions
   - Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition
   - Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition

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