Why are we fighting, again?

There’s nothing I love more than a game that tells a great story as part of the overall experience. Then again, there are times when you have to admit the developers are probably doing players a favor in skipping that part and cutting right to the chase. Take, for example, Empire War (Out Now for $2.99, Lite), where it’s clear that there’s an empire, and a war, and where the not-quite-natural-sounding tutorial at least communicates that there’s a hearty blend of Tower Defense and Castle Defense behind the name.

Empire War could be mistaken for a Warcraft-style RTS just by the look of it, but its battle mechanics are set firmly in the Castle Defense tradition as experienced time and time again by iDevice-owning genre fans. Each of its fifty campaign levels kicks off with some breathing time for the player to set up one or two soldier barracks and as many defensive towers as resources on-hand allow. Different troop classes can be dispatched across a no-man’s land with the goal of taking out enemy barracks at the opposite end of the field, and towers are for defending the player’s barracks and main fort from enemies who break through to the player’s side. The player’s troops harass enemies and attack bases of their own volition, but the player directs storms of arrows and cannonfire from his or her towers manually — a real boon to interactivity.

While a live tutorial gets the player started with the rock-bottom basics, I quickly found myself swimming in finer elements I had no clue how to handle. Some questions on the Empire War beginner’s mind will include: Why can’t I build more advanced towers? What are these “Farms” I’m supposed to be laying down? Why can’t I dispatch such-and-such a soldier class yet even though it’s on my menu? It takes some head scratching and attentive exploration of the game’s upgrade menus between levels to answer these questions. The “Farm” isn’t a building at all but rather a nebulous representation of the player’s gold production capacity; upgrade it and you’ll be able to hire soldiers more quickly on the battlefield. A wide range of advanced towers exist, but the player must fully upgrade the basic arrow and cannon classes before these open up — and by the way, all those upgrades have to be made with “Cubits,” a resource that the player receives in very small increments as a reward for completing battles, and which must be budgeted on troop upgrades as well.

You might guess that these “Cubits” provide an In-App Purchasing hook, and you’d be right. Don’t close out your web browser just yet, though — I’ve always sensed that IAPs are a self-defeating mechanic in the Castle Defense genre for the way in which they loosen a game’s difficulty, and that’s especially true here. Empire War comes recommended to seasoned Castle Defense veterans looking for a challenge that’s well above average, because the tiny amounts in which the upgrade resource is disbursed makes for battles that get satisfyingly dicey.

Sans IAPs the player will routinely complete two or three battles without being able to purchase a single upgrade, so forget busting through enemy waves with highly advanced super soldiers! He or she will have to carefully dispatch heavy knights and long-range troops in such a way that they’ll proceed to the front in unison, compensating for one another’s shortcomings vis-à-vis a range of enemy classes. Should the main enemy base summon up a giant boss unit, this creates an immediate emergency that the player will have to manage through efficient use of the defense towers; a few Hero units are also at the player’s disposal if lots of gold can be sacrificed in a pinch. With wise troop and tower management, Empire War is one of the harder genre offerings out there but far from impossible, victories achieved inch by inch over the long haul. That should make this title of great interest to jaded gamers in search of pure challenge and gameplay depth over story, innovation and polish.

While I have plenty to nitpick about when it comes to Empire War‘s relatively murky translation and shallow tutorials, I certainly can’t complain about its interface. The opening tutorial will have players freaking out over whether or not one can slide the battlefield around as needed, but worry not — every required functionality kicks in once the tutorial is complete. Shortcut buttons let the player dispatch troops from home base while still keeping an eye on action in enemy territory, and tapping on entire packs of soldiers reveals individual health bars that help the player judge which troop categories should be next on the production line. I only wish there were some way to pinch-zoom, just to get a look at the character sprites; while miniature to the eye, their level of detail and animation quality are Retina-worthy. The game is also quite friendly to external tracks, should the player wish to augment its limited soundtrack with epic tunes from an iTunes playlist.

Empire War does an admirable job of serving up extra content in the form of two pure Tower Defense modes, which provide an additional 24 battlefields and dedicated leaderboards. Sadly, the player loses manual control over the towers here. The Road defense mode, at least, makes up for it with strategic considerations that will be immediately familiar to fans of Holy Moly! Dragons. Here, towers must be placed along a circuitous path in positions and combinations that most efficiently wear down enemies rushing past; a tower that fires poison arrows and a tower that slows enemies down with an ice spell can be devastating if placed at the start of the course, but these will let enemies slip right by if placed too close to the end. A Field defense mode is much more of an acquired taste — it’s similar to Road defense mode but far less structured, making it feel random and too easily lost before the player even figures out what to do exactly.

iFanzine Verdict: Definitely one for challenge seeking Castle Defense fans who appreciate depth and don’t mind figuring out gameplay mechanics on their own. Those who are only casually interested in the genre will find Empire War‘s shallow gameplay explanations and less-than-perfect text quality much more difficult to overlook.

[xrr rating=3.5/5]