Nearly a year after its initial announcement, Paradox’s next big grand strategy game is now available, this time taking a look at the rise of the Roman Empire. The game brings with it some fun war mechanics, a ton of playable countries, and an actually decent learning curve. However, it does have some problems, most notably when it comes to its UI and non-war mechanics.
Actually decent learning curve. Despite being a strategy fan for most of my life, I have never actually played a Paradox grand strategy game. As such, I was originally intimidated by just how complex Imperator: Rome looked. There are icons everywhere, tooltips that are pretty much just walls of text, and I had heard that Paradox was not the greatest at putting together a good tutorial.
Fortunately, I had absolutely no trouble getting into the game, with just the tutorial and one run after it being enough to get acclimated. Instead of opting for a more traditional tutorial, Imperator: Rome basically has you play through the tutorial as if it were an actual match. You’re presented with a list of tasks to complete and basically thrown into the game, with very little hand-holding along the way. This works because the tasks are ordered in such a way as to slowly introduce you to the various parts of the game. It doesn’t overload you, instead leaving you with the freedom to experiment on your own. It was definitely effective, as I pretty much had the hang of things after just a few hours.
However, that is not to say that the game is overly simplified, but rather that it is just easy to pick up. To master it is another question entirely, one that I am still making progress towards.
Sheer variety of playable countries. Imperator: Rome has a lot of playable countries, far too many to have tried before making this review. It reminded me a lot of a strategy game I reviewed a year back, Nobunaga’s Amibtion: Taishi. In both games, if it’s on the map, you can play as it. However, in Imperator: Rome, it goes beyond just that. That’s because here, there’s more to picking a different country than just its location. You also have to take into consideration its type of government, starting stats, and susceptibility to weather.
For example, when I tried playing as a Scandinavian tribe, I not only had to deal with an extremely low population, but also the harsh winter that crippled my army every year. When I played Macedonia, I had to deal with some troublesome neighbors on top of having to juggle a monarchy, making sure that new heirs came from royal blood. When playing Rome, I had to make sure that my decisions would make it through the senate before I could do anything.
There’s a lot of options here and it makes for a pretty nice amount of replayability. It also serves as an additional difficulty level of sorts. Whereas Rome is relatively easy to play as, a small tribe up in the north is not, so those seeking a challenge definitely have plenty of options there on top of the game’s regular difficulty settings.
Fun war mechanics. Given that this is a game about conquest, having fun war mechanics is a must. Fortunately, Imperator: Rome does pretty well on that front, providing a variety of mechanics to help improve the warring experience. For example, one of the largest is the game’s character system, which has you balancing loyalty, character traits, and corruption not just within your government, but with your generals as well. On top of keeping your generals in check, it’s also worth making sure that the troops underneath them don’t grow too loyal to any specific general, so as to avoid potential civil war issues.
Aside from the character system, there’s also a bunch of cool troop management mechanics. You’re able to choose which troops go in first, which make up the flank, the composition these troops take, their attachment to other troops, and even their level of independence just to name some. Granted, the entire combat system comes down to dice rolls, but there are so many factors that go into it that you can easily spend a bunch of time trying to maximize your army’s efficiency. In fact, this is where I had the most fun with the game: constantly tinkering with my armies and slowly consuming the map.
On the topic of consuming the map, there are also several mechanics there worth noting, one being the siege mechanic. Instead of just steamrolling cities like in other strategy games, you actually have to spend a decent amount of time sieging each city you take. Again, these sieges draw on many different factors, like fortification level, starvation, army size, and duration. It can be a bit troublesome at times, but if you’re on the receiving end, it can provide some valuable time. It’s kind of a double-edged sword in that sense. On one hand, you slowly whittle down the city in order to take it, but on the other, your army loses troops and the enemy is given time to gather reinforcements in another city. Regardless, it does make the act of taking cities a bit more satisfying.
Outside of that, I also enjoyed playing around with the many mercenaries available on the map. Given that you have some money to work with, you can wage entire wars using nothing but these mercenaries. They are nowhere near as reliable as proper armies, but they can sometimes turn the tide of war in your favor. In fact, some mercenaries can even be hired directly in enemy territory, forcing said enemy to retreat back home to defend it.
All of this combined makes for a pretty fun conquest experience. It’s not the most complex system I’ve seen in a strategy game, but it’s definitely better than the average.
Helpful map filters. Another thing that Imperator: Rome does really well is showing rather than telling. By this, I mean that a lot of the information you need to make certain decisions is readily available through the different map filters the game provides. Instead of staring at a list, these map filters allow you to view the same information visually. There’s eighteen of them total, some of which are more helpful than others, but all of which can definitely prove helpful in certain scenarios. For example, the diplomacy view proved very useful when I was at war. Because countries can have so many ties to other countries, it oftentimes becomes hard to see just who is an ally and who is not, a problem resolved by applying this filter.
Outside of that example, I personally made heavy use of the political, trade route, opinion, and unrest filters. In fact, I pretty much always played with the political view active over the game’s default territory view, as it made it much easier to see national borders at a glance.
UI issues. For a strategy game, Imperator: Rome has quite a few UI issues that make the experience harder than it needs to be. For example, one such issue has to do with the game’s lack of help when locating certain areas on the map. To be specific, there were several moments where I needed to know where a certain city was, but the game would not direct me towards it, so I would have to search manually in order to find it. This is easily exemplified with the “sue for peace” menu. Any city or territory that is NOT already highlighted in the list will also not highlight on the map when hovered, making it really difficult to see where exactly the game is referring to. It’s not just this menu though, there are several areas in the game where a similar behavior can be observed, especially with the random event popups.
Another UI issue has to do with the game’s tendency to use first and last names interchangeably. For example, many of the game’s random events will give one name in the possible choices, but have the other name listed underneath the character’s portrait. As a result, I oftentimes had to double check which effect would apply to which character, especially when there were multiple characters involved in the event.
Outside of those, there’s also the lack of a character search feature, the inability to filter characters by trait, and the confusing province outlines that are oftentimes hard to tell apart from regular borders. I imagine many of these issues will be fixed in future patches, but as it stands, they are quite annoying to deal with.
Lackluster non-war mechanics. I’ve seen several describe Imperator: Rome as a “map-painting” game, which unfortunately is a very accurate description. That is because, outside of conducting war, there really isn’t a whole lot to do. That’s not to say that there is nothing outside of war, but rather that everything else just pales in comparison to it.
Take for example the diplomacy system, a staple mechanic in a lot of strategy games like this. In Imperator: Rome, the only way to directly improve your relations with another country is to either send them money or to press the “improve relations” button, which consumes a little bit of your country’s oratory power in exchange for a gradual relations increase. It’s a very barebones system and just feels out of place given the more fleshed-out war mechanics. In fact, even the game recognizes this. When you’re going through the tutorial and reach the diplomacy part, the game pretty much tells you that you can just skip it outright and conquer the country instead.
Outside of the diplomacy, the whole civil war system is also equally as barebones. A lot of the time, an entire civil war can be averted with the press of a single button: that being the bribe button on the offending character. Sure, it adds a bit of corruption, but I found that most of the time, that corruption would fade by the time another potential civil war arose.
It’s not just these two systems though, the religion and economic systems are also pretty lackluster when compared to the war mechanics. Given Paradox’s track record with their grand strategy games, I feel like these systems were intentionally left as such to leave room for future DLC. Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of those playing until that happens.
Waiting game. This is more of an extension on the previous point, but I also feel like its a problem worth discussing on its own. The problem here being that, if you are not at war, you will be spending a lot of time waiting around for stuff to happen. I’ve played through a couple of runs where I opted to go for a more pacifist route, just to see how far I could take the game’s non-war mechanics. I found that, despite the fact that you can easily top the leaderboard doing so, the journey to that point is pretty noneventful. In fact, I would oftentimes be browsing Reddit or reading while I waited for stuff to happen.
For example, there was one game I played where I focused on maxing out my country’s research. I improved my relations with my neighbors, reached the game’s cap of 300% on research efficiency, and quickly propelled my country to the top over the next few in-game decades. However, the next century was just spent waiting around, by which point I was nearly 140 years ahead of every other country with regards to technology. Despite the fact that I was technically winning in terms of score, I found myself starting up another game due to just how boring that run became.
The game not only needs to improve upon its non-war mechanics, but could also definitely use some more events to keep the experience fresh. As it stands, it is just not as fun to play when you’re not at war.
Game stuttering. It’s pretty much a given that in most strategy games like this, there will be a bit of stuttering, especially later on in the game. Imperator: Rome is no exception to this, with a pretty decent amount of stuttering that only gets worse as the game progresses. Really, if you play at anything that isn’t 1x speed, you will get a bit of stuttering when moving around the camera in real time, unless if you have some super-beefy system. However, even then, I have a CPU that far exceeds the recommended and the game never really used more than 50% of it, so I don’t know if it’s just poor optimization or not. Granted, most of the time I spent actually moving around in the game was when it was paused, but the issue should still be noted regardless.
Lack of control settings. For being a relatively complex strategy game, the lack of control settings was a bit disappointing to see. Not only is there no option to disable camera edge-scrolling, but this is a 2019 PC release that completely lacks rebindable controls. I even poked around in the game’s external config files just to see if I was missing something, but there was nothing there. While most of the controls are satisfactory as is, there were still a few I wanted to change personally and I imagine this could also pose potential accessibility problems.
Imperator: Rome may have its issues, especially when it comes to its non-war mechanics, but its still a pretty decent take on the genre. The war mechanics are fun to play around with, the learning curve is actually not overwhelming, and the sheer variety of playable countries definitely lends itself well to replayability. Even so, the game does have some UI and control issues, a stuttering problem, and if you do not actively engage with the war side of the game, you’ll find yourself waiting around a lot. Now, while I do like the game, it may definitely be worth waiting for Paradox to clean it up and maybe release a DLC or two. As it stands, there are quite a few areas in the game that feel like they were purposely left simplified to leave room for future DLC.
You can buy Imperator: Rome on Steam here.
I was provided a review copy of the game in order to write this review. Read more about how I do my game reviews here.