Emperor of the Fading Suns
Far in the future, humanity has expanded throughout the universe. Cultures have flourished throughout the galaxy, but peaceful moments are often stained by strife and contention. This is such a time. The emperor, eager to take the authority of the powerful church into his hands, has been assassinated, and chaos ensues. For four hundred years of darkness and disunity, the empire has been divided into five noble houses that struggle to restore the imperial leadership. As the head of one of the noble houses, it is your destiny to attain the throne and unite the fragmented empire under your leadership. You will have to use cunning, technology, trade, and war to silence your rivals and bring the universe under your domination. Along the way, you will encounter other houses, rebel factions, the Merchant League, and the all-powerful Universal Church.
First of all, think of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS) as a combination of (MOO2), and the Spanish Inquisition. It is a turn-based space strategy game that involves trade, research, diplomacy and battle in a conquest for the throne. To spice up the mix, you have to deal with various rebel factions and a powerful church in the midst of an Inquisition. As such, turns are filled with a combination of resource management, interaction (threatening, persuasion, bribing, begging, etc.) with other factions, exploration, trading, and research, and war is not the only way to resolve problems. I found this to be an intriguing balance -- one can proceed through the game with almost no fighting and much diplomacy, or all fighting and no cooperation, although neither strategy will prove entirely successful.
You start out at an unstable peace in the empire, with forces on your own planet and on the imperial capital planet. From there, you do whatever it takes to get elected as Regent, after which you can elevate yourself to the status of Emperor, if you survive. You can customize your guild, balancing positive and negative traits to your liking. This is a rather interesting way to do it, since you can add as many positive traits (such as enhanced research or more powerful military units) as you want, but you must also choose negative traits (poor relations with the church, lower morale, etc.), allowing you to create guilds that can be very well-rounded or very off-balance. As the game continues, you can declare wars and negotiate truces when the chances present themselves, as well as constantly struggling to get the votes of other royal houses and groups to propel you towards Regency.
As the game goes on, a couple of problems tend to stir up the mix. First of all, the computer starts to take longer with each turn, until finally you've got time to go get a donut or grab some snacks (or maybe catch an episode of Seinfeld) while the computer is taking its turn. In addition, the game starts to get overwhelmingly long and painful if you aren't careful, and this can spoil the whole fun. I'm not one to complain about a game being too long or too big (that's usually not a problem), but in a game of this size, there should be a little more variety, new elements, or computer-animated movies (not!) to string the player along for just a little while longer.
Unfortunately, this is the Achilles' heel of an otherwise good game. While the AI is not horrible, it is certainly not very good. The computer is not bad at holding a defensive position, but in many cases it is too passive to present a real challenge. In a game of this size, with multiple cities, planets and systems, it is understandable for the computer to be somewhat hampered by the scale of the situation. However, the AI is not flexible and proactive enough to pose a threat to most strategy gamers. SegaSoft is aware of this problem and is promising to address it in future patches, so cross your fingers.
The graphics are par for the course in the turn-based strategy genre: sufficient, but somewhat short of the mark. While the colors and interface are rather straightforward and well-done in most cases, and the artistic style is rather distinctive (in a good way), there is little flair to the game graphically. In particular, the combat screen is about as detailed as that of Civilization II. A series of little icons line up in boxes and either do damage, take damage or are destroyed. While this does not really detract from the heart of the game, it does not enhance it either. There is practically nothing in the way of animation, but the focus is typically elsewhere in games of this type anyway. When it comes down to it, EFS does have the graphics it needs, but little more.
The in-game special effects are not all that special, but the in-game music is quite good. In fact, the in-game music, rather moving orchestral pieces, is very fitting to the dark, classical struggle focus of this game. In addition, the musical tracks are rather long. Unfortunately, there are not many of them. Overall, the audio in this game is noticeably better than other turn-based strategy games, but it could be improved.
While multiplayer games are supported, they are somewhat limited. The only two modes are rotational (playing on the same computer) and email (I send you my turn results, you process them and send me your results, etc.) While this means that you can play out long (very long) struggles for the galaxy over long distances, it also means that you cannot jump onto the network with a friend and play simultaneously. This comes down to a matter of preference, but it would be better if there were a few more multiplayer modes, particularly simultaneous.
So far, SegaSoft has been rather responsive to player feedback. A patch for this game (currently version 1.21) can be found here, and you can expect to see a version 1.3 patch (with several enhancements and bug fixes) in the near future.
Microsoft Windows 95, 486/66 CPU or faster, DirectX compatible video card, 40 MB hard drive space, 2X CD-ROM drive or faster
Note While the game will run on a 486/66, in later turns the CPU calculation can take quite a while, even on a Pentium. SegaSoft is currently looking into this issue and has introduced minor fixes to this area, but a 486/66 is certainly on the low end of playability at this point.
While the trend in computer game manuals has been one of downsizing, there is no reason for turn-based strategy games (the most technical of the technical) to follow this trend. Unfortunately, the manual for EFS is, while in some means sufficient, certainly lacking in detail and depth. There is a certain degree of help provided in the game, but it is no substitute for a serious manual. While the documentation is better than many, it is certainly insufficient for this kind of game.
Emperor of the Fading Suns is a very fun game; it will be enjoyed by many a serious strategy gamer. In fact, I can already see many of its fans fuming over this review. In spite of the epic story and depth, the game, when it comes down to it, will alienate the average game player. It has a steep learning curve, weak AI and not enough eye candy for the typical real-time strategy gamer. However, if you enjoy turn-based strategy games and like to have a great deal of control/management detail within a game, this could quite possibly be your game. This is a good game that could have been a little better, but it is certainly good enough to have a dedicated following and SegaSoft seems determined to continue to enhance it. Try the demo -- if you like what you see, go for it. If not, well, you've probably got other games to play anyway.