When a VR game goes the additional steps to make everything not only feel and play great inside of a headset, but also have lore-appropriate explanations for quirky gamified caveats like a third-person top-down camera angles, I really appreciate it more. In the case of other similar titles like Dragon Front it made sense to have floating masks in the sky given the fantastical setting, but Landfall never really did a very good job of making sense of why you’re a floating face above your army. Augmented Empire from Coatsink (Esper 1 and 2 and A Night Sky) might be one of the best explanations for a top-down view VR game I’ve seen yet.
From the comfort of your futuristic cyberpunk hideout your table actually converts into a digital recreation of the field that your agents are in during missions. If they’re exploring an old manor, that’s what you see on the table. Sort of like you’re peering down inside the building at action figures, or into a dollhouse, except you’re looking at actual assassins and cybernetic agents that do your bidding. This not only helped make me feel like a tactical mastermind that was actually connected to the world in a believable way, but it also helped the core game itself — a turn-based tactical strategy game in the same vein of XCOM, The Banner Saga, Fire Emblem — be more fun to play.
As you can tell from the trailer above, the hand-drawn aesthetic of the art and animated scenes is wonderful and makes me wish for a full animated series of some kind. The story is quite involved and features incredibly high-quality voice acting across the board with over 10 hours of gameplay throughout 26 missions. There are six different characters you get to control and 60 different environments to explore.
Augmented Empire takes place in the year 2058 in a divided city split into a strict class system which contributes to rampant crime in the lower districts. The story is full of intrigue and neo-noir style espionage with plenty of interesting characters to keep you going. It’s honestly one of the most involved and fleshed out tales we’ve seen in a mobile VR title to date. At first glance the combat could lead you to believe it will be another shallow rinse and repeat mobile VR title, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
You can play using either the Gear VR touchpad, a bluetooth gamepad, or the Gear VR controller. Since you can’t point and select units using the Gear VR controller like you would a pointing device, I usually played with either the headset’s own touchpad or a gamepad.
For a studio that has made its name in the VR scene through short, experimental experiences, puzzle games, and silly brawlers, Augmented Empire came as a bit of a surprise. There is enough thoughtful commentary on class systems, poverty, and the “elite” society here to fill more than a fair share of TV show episodes or book pages. The writing is quite good, the voice acting is solid, and the narrative is delivered very well. Fans of Fire Emblem and Banner Saga that are craving a more sci-fi leaning experience will find a lot to love here.
However, there really is a lot of that story shoved at you. If you’re looking for something that’s a more pick-up-and-play style adventure with short fights that you can drop in and out of then this probably isn’t going to be a game for you.
If you’ve ever played a tactical turn-based strategy game before then the gameplay itself won’t have a whole lot of surprises. Every map is tile-based, so you move units from square to square and hide units behind objects in the environment for cover. Over time you upgrade your individual characters to get new, better abilities and powers that are all unique to each character. Since everyone you control is a named character in the game there aren’t any throw away party members.
One insanely addictive piece of the gameplay is the way attacking and reacting works. With each shot you take there is a timed bar that appears, similar to the bar used when reloading your gun in Gears of War. You click to shoot then the bar fills up and you have to time it just right. Land in the range and you can get a hit, land in the sweet spot and you get a critical hit, but land outside the range and you miss entirely. On a similar note when someone is shooting at you then you can negate damage or dodge it entirely if your timing is just right.
Augmented Empire is a rare treat for a mobile VR game in that it offers a ton of content, a compelling narrative, and cleverly designed encounters that really challenge you while maintaining a fun and well-designed gameplay loop. The story can drag down the action every now and then with some minor pacing issues and gameplay is a bit uninspired, but overall this is one of the best tactical games we’ve played in VR to date — mobile or otherwise.