Coatsink is fast becoming one of my favourite independent developers.
From Esper to Gang Beasts to my personal favourite Shu, the UK-based studio has nothing but stellar titles under its belt. The latest addition to its roster, the Gear VR exclusive Augmented Empire, is no exception, being a standout title in the Gear VR's catalogue.
Set in the city of New Savannah, Augmented Empire takes place in a near future where citizens are graded depending on their social status. Good citizens ascend the ranks to achieve elite status, treated like royalty. The rest, however, end up living in squalor. At its core, Augmented Empire is a story of rising above the class system and about taking back the power from the wrong hands and giving it back to those who rightfully deserve it. It's also a tale of friendship, trust, camaraderie and loss. And robots. There are definitely robots.
"Augmented Empire's storytelling is brilliant from start to finish. It's clear a lot of work has gone in to crafting believable - and likeable - characters, and it's really paid off."
It's probably best described as a story driven turn-based strategy with light RPG elements. That sounds like a bit of a mish-mash of ideas, but everything works together like a well-oiled machine. From the safety of your secluded hideout, you take the role of a guide in charge of gathering together a team of six characters and helping them carry out an important mission. You'll track and control the actions of your team through an augmented reality diorama that sits in front of you.
The main character in your ragtag bunch is Willa, a young woman who was set to be the youngest ever resident of New Savannah to ascend the ranks to be a level 10 citizen. Not anymore. After a turn of events, she winds up in the city's slums, and in a bid to get back her former status, she agrees to help your cause.
Being a title that's exclusive to Gear VR, Augmented Empire's gameplay is understandably very simple. It's compatible with the new Gear VR controller, but most players will likely be using the headset's built-in touchpad on the side of the device. You look at what you want to interact with, then tap the touchpad. It's responsive and intuitive - although your arm's likely to ache a bit after holding it up to the side of your face for so long.
The combat is the meat of Augmented Empire. Short exploration sections and narrative cutscenes both add to the experience, but it's the turn-based combat that's the main event. It's very simple - again, thanks to the Gear VR's controls - but it certainly uses it to its advantage. Selecting a square will move your team mate there, and selecting an enemy will attack them. You can also click on a team mate themselves to choose from a range of special attacks, buffs and defences. I found the battles to be very easy for the most part; simply focusing on attacking enemies, without even needing to worry about getting in cover, has been enough for me to win each match without any real issues. It doesn't stop it from being immensely enjoyable, however.
Augmented Empire's gameplay is broken up into chapters, with the end of each chapter taking you back to the hideout. From there, you can see what special abilities - known as augments - your team members have equipped, upgrade them, install new ones, and buy useful items - grenades, medkits, etc. - from the store. While all this is a nice touch and makes you feel like you've got some control over the game, it's mostly unnecessary. Each location has enough items dotted around that you'll never need to buy any medkits - and it's rare you'll take enough damage to ever have to use them anyway. Being able to install new augments is pretty cool, but I didn't really use these much in battle. Some characters have some nice options, but most of the time, the standard attack is more than sufficient.
"If you have Gear VR, Augmented Empire should be a priority title to add to your library. The work that's gone into creating such a deep and wonderful world is astounding, and the simple yet thoroughly engaging gameplay is some of the most enjoyable turn-based combat I've played in a long time."
While the combat may be the main event in terms of gameplay, it's Augmented Empire's narrative that ties everything together. The storytelling is brilliant from start to finish. It's clear a lot of work has gone into crafting believable - and likeable - characters, and it's really paid off. It's bolstered by stellar voice work, delivered by a cast of surprisingly high-profile actors including Nick Frost, Doug Cockle and Kate Mulgrew. Even the villains of the game are hard to despise thanks to being so well written and acted. It's a nice surprise - and a sign of what a quality product this is - that every line of dialogue in the game is voiced. It's a rarity, especially in what is essentially a mobile title, but it goes a long way in immersing you into Augmented Empire's gloriously intriguing world.
And what a gloriously intriguing world it is, too. Being a Gear VR title, the game's graphics aren't exactly cutting edge, but as far as the technology allows, what Augmented Empire does delivery is tremendous. The entirety of New Savannah has been meticulously designed with a cyberpunk feel, and with so many different areas to visit, the world feels alive with character. From plush jazz lounges atop the city to murky subway stations adorned with grime and graffiti in the depths of the slums, every area is a joy to explore, leaving you wanting more.
My main problem with Augmented Empire isn't actually a problem with the game at all. It's the fact that it's in VR. I've loved every moment I've spent with the game, and if this was on PC or console, I'd have likely hunkered down for an afternoon and binged several hours of the game in one sitting. In VR however, that's just not an option. The uncomfortable nature of the headset means I'm tired of using it after less than an hour and reluctantly have to leave my progress for several hours until I can bear to strap my face back into Gear VR again.
Although, if the main complaint is that I couldn't play as much of it in one sitting as I'd have liked, then that's a pretty good complaint to have, I'd wager. If you have Gear VR, Augmented Empire should be a priority title to add to your library. The work that's gone into creating such a deep and wonderful world is astounding, and the simple yet thoroughly engaging gameplay is some of the most enjoyable turn-based combat I've played in a long time. Coatsink has done it again, and now I can't wait to see what else these guys have up their sleeves.