Being an evil dungeon lord has its perks. Simpering minions eager to do your bidding are in abundant supply, piles of treasure make great home decor, and you never have to wait too long before a new gaggle of doe-eyed do-gooders come charging into your realm to be gutted and looted. Impire's strategic dungeon-sim revival channels the spirit of the classic Dungeon Keeper series well enough to wrap you into its diabolical fold for a spell. Micromanaging the inner workings of your subterranean lair gets off to a promising start, but the honeymoon phase quickly fades away once you realize just how inflexible and shallow this haphazard homage really is.
Summoned into the service of a wizardly egomaniac bent on wicked world domination, Impire's demonic but diminutive protagonist begrudgingly gets to work at carving out a nefarious niche in the underworld. From the get-go, Impire sets a goofy tone with cheesy tongue-in-cheek humor and campy story encounters. It puts a lighthearted spin on the fact that you're tackling missions that include pillaging villages, poisoning innocents, and brutally punishing anyone who gets in your way. Despite some decent voice acting, story vignettes tend to drag on past their welcome, but you bump into some memorably quirky characters along the way to keep things moving along.
Lording over a sprawling underground domain divides your focus between gathering resources above and below the surface, building out your dungeon with unique rooms and winding corridors, and amassing squads of impish warriors to carry out your will. The early emphasis in most missions is on beefing up your infrastructure to support raising an army powerful enough to survive plowing through the rest of the stage. As you gain resources from your toiling workers, slain heroes, and raided settlements, you can construct additional support dwellings to increase your dungeon's power and functionality.
Each level has a broad range of peripheral achievements to push toward, and spending the skill points earned from meeting these goals lets you cherry-pick which units you can recruit in a given stage. When you're not tending to the evil homestead, you fend off parties of invading heroes, push deeper into the catacombs to explore, and send your own raiding parties to the surface on resource gathering missions, all of which keeps you pretty busy.
Impire sometimes teeters on the brink of being an enjoyable game, but the ham-fisted implementation of some crucial elements keeps it from hitting any kind of comfortable stride. For starters, dungeon building--one of the most important aspects of the game--is limited and feels far less rewarding than it should. While you're given a lot of room to dig about in the beginning of each level, there's not much point to sinking a lot of time into designing anything elaborate. Once you plunk down a new room or corridor, you're stuck with where you placed it, and the general flow of gameplay does little to reward creativity in how you expand your realm. You're frequently pushed toward connecting your hallways to preexisting pocketed rooms filled with foes and treasure. Once you've grabbed all of those goods, it's then onward into your foe's pre-carved domain to explore and battle. The tail end of each stage forces you to inevitably abandon your building efforts and just charge forward to slaughter or be slaughtered. Progressing towards that epic tipping point should be fun, but it's a process that's made largely aggravating by lots of minor issues.
Wrestling with the interface is a big part of the problem. The troublesome camera never lets you find a sweet spot to get a good view of your dungeon. Getting in close for an adjustable isometric look at the action doesn't help when your units always mob together in combat, resulting in a jumbled, chaotic blob that makes targeting enemies and issuing commands a complete mess. The screen feels cramped even when you're looking at your dungeon from afar, and having to zoom all the way out to a top-down view to trigger the building and summoning menu is a real pain. Transitioning between levels of zoom is finicky too.
Variety isn't an issue, considering the numerous melee, missile, and support units you eventually get to populate your forces with as you expand. Managing them is, however. Instead of being able to quick-group your forces and assign them to number keys like in other real-time strategy games, you have to pay exorbitant amounts of resources to unlock squads to sort them into. Even then, you can put only four units in a squad, and there's a limit of five squads maximum. That's less problematic than the AI behavior. Units get hungry and won't fight if they get too weak, but they also won't go eat on their own either. You have to make them chow down manually. In battle, they attack nearby foes automatically, but they're also prone to wandering if you don't manually set them to stay put within their individual unit menus. It's a lot to juggle at times, particularly since you're frequently cycling new green units into your squads to replace fallen troops.
The worst is when Impire spreads your attention way too thin and then demands you jump around between vast areas of the map to deal with dire situations that arise simultaneously. At various times, you're juggling to gather resources by sending squads to the surface in overly simple but necessary point-and-click raid missions that tie them up for minutes at a time. Meanwhile, you're restocking your squads with fresh units and pushing with your remaining forces into the fray against large groups of foes as you explore away from your home base.
During these tense and extremely inopportune moments, the game often announces that ladders have appeared randomly throughout your home dungeon. Ladders that, if left unattended, soon ferry groups of heroes into your base to wreak holy havoc while you're scrambling to deal with five other problems at once. This scenario happens far too often. Trying to stamp out all of these fires while struggling against the interface and camera is as dizzying as it is frustrating. There's a quick-teleport option for each squad, but constantly divvying up your limited troops is like putting a Band-Aid on a leaky dam.
Interface issues aren't limited to the gameplay. Setting up games is a muddled process at best, as is resuming saved games. Impire saves automatically only when you beat a stage, and if you click the button to start a given stage rather than load from your previous manual save, it erases the save, forcing you to start from the beginning of the stage. Multiplayer matches offer a little variety from the main campaign with standard King of the Hill and Capture the Resource maps, if you can find friends to play with.
Impire's intentional and playful riffing on Dungeon Keeper could have been spun into a positive thing, especially since there hasn't been a new entry in the series for a long time. It's a good-looking game that has a few thoughtful ideas hidden in its many folds, but the repetitious gameplay is overwhelmed by niggling problems and puzzling design choices that gain traction the further you push. After the first handful of hours, the fun already starts to fizzle.'