Romero Games takes us back to the roaring 1920s in a game that requires you to be as ruthless as Al Capone, playable in the game, but smarter than his accountant and more proficient with Excel as you try and make your way to the top of the criminal underworld. They have delivered a deep, sometimes overly complex game that will have you spending more time in the management screens than on the battlefield.
The 1920s in the US was a heady time. After the war rapid industrialisation led to obscene wealth flowing into the cities, but a newfound puritanism in response to the rush to hedonism led to the outlawing of alcohol. We now know that criminalising alcohol only served to create an opportunity for the mafia and other organised crime to swoop in and fill the need for alcohol, thus fuelling gang wars, high crime rates and murders in the streets. Empire of Sin drops you smack in the middle of this war-torn period and says to you, “go ahead and build an empire”.
For fans looking for a simple X-Com type game I have good news and bad news. The good is that the battles are definitely squad and turn based and play almost exactly like X-Com with percentages to hit and cover to protect you. There is also a management metagame where you must manage your finances, your gangs and the rackets you have taken over and established. The bad news is that latter is a complex simulation filled with screens of info that you must get to grips with in order to succeed. On top of that you have various factions to compete against all trying to build their own empire. Thankfully, you get the choice at the start of the game of how big the game world is that you will operate in and how many rival gangs you are going to face off against to make things more manageable.
Gameplay is divided into two distinct phases, the management of your empire and combat. Management is complex, very much a GUI over a spreadsheet of upgrades to rackets, management of income and expenses as well as your gang members amongst other minutia. Helping you in this endeavour are your avatar character traits. You get to choose between what seemed like 15 avatars including Al Capone and each has boosts and penalties to various traits such as lower detection rates by the police or more income from a specific racket.
Despite this the management aspect can be overwhelming especially for players who have never played in depth sims. In some ways it reminds me a lot of the Football Manager series in that you cannot be focused on one single aspect of your game, you must keep an eye on the income generation of your rackets, the quality of the alcohol you serve, the security at your rackets and the moves been made by each gang in the game amongst many other things. Add on top of that recruitment of new and better soldiers into your gang as well as upgrades to their skills. It is a lot to keep track of and to prioritise and you will feel lost at different times, but if you take your time and pay attention during the tutorials the game is manageable.
Adding to your to do list is the diplomacy options that you have. As you grow your empire and encroach on territories held by other gangs you will raise your profile with them. You will be invited to sit downs with the bosses of the gangs through the game and during the meeting you can either form tentative alliances with them or antagonise them and go to war. Early on the game I decided to play nice because I did not have the manpower or resources for a war. This brought some benefits such as cheaper alcohol for your speakeasies. It also brings headaches such as subtle threats and extortion requiring you to pay up or refuse which could lead to war before you are ready. You must time your stands against these extortion attempts to the second as go to early and you could lose. Diplomacy adds a level of authenticity to the game as one wrong move can lead to war.
Of course, war is the central premise of the game. Empire of Sin follows the tried-and-true isometric battlefield rules of the squad and turn based genre. Each of your squad will have special skills and weapons and knowing how you use each team member effectively to compliment each other is the key to success in the battles. In addition to that you must take your time and survey the battlefield to ensure that you maximise cover and lines of sight. Battles are never visceral, but they can be tense especially when you are in over your head and outnumbered and you have made tactical mistakes in positioning and use of special abilities. Thankfully, the game eschews the infuriating XCom miss on 98% “feature”.
The game scales across console, including the Switch, and PC due to being built in Unity. As such the game is very stable at least on the PC version running at a 60FPS on the highest settings. But there is a trade-off as the game does not standout graphically. The character models are detailed yet bland and can look like wax statues. The art direction though is not a simple case of purchased, generic assets and the team has put in a lot of effort to evoke the 1920s in the design of the building, environments, and characters. The only slight gripe I have with the game environments is that the cities and streets are too clean and neat, it looks a bit too sterile.
For anyone fascinated with the 1920s in the US and the effects of prohibition on their cities, Empire of Sin is a good introduction to that era. For fans of complex simulations and tactical combat you will find everything you could ever want in this game sprinkled with a little bit of that 1920s magic. While the game can be a bit overwhelming with its screens upon screens of management info it is still a fun game that challenges you grow your empire and tighten your iron fisted grip on the city’s underworld.
Empire of Sin is available on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.
Empire of Sin was reviewed on PC, you can purchase it here for £34.99.
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