It’s the 1920s and prohibition is in full effect. Mobs basically run Chicago and keep her ticking away from the eyes of the feds. From the likes of Al Capone to Stephanie St. Clair, the bosses are here to recruit new gangs. This is the premise of a new strategy-management game entitled Empire of Sin from developer Romero Games and Paradox Interactive, known for some of the best strategy games ever released. Does Empire of Sin walk among the best, or will it find itself among seedy folks in a back alley of Chicago?
I’m going to lead with this; Empire of Sin is a big game with a lot of mechanics to juggle. Similar to other Paradox games like Stellaris, you’ll find yourself thrust into a full-on strategy game within moments of booting it up. For the uninitiated, this is can be an overwhelming experience. Thankfully the tutorial does manage to walk you through many of the primary gameplay mechanics.
At the start of your game you’ll pick your character from a robust selection of mobsters. As for me, I went with ol’ Frankie Donovan, an Irish marksman. In your introductory missions you’ll be taking over a brewery, as well as recruiting a couple of colleagues to form your small starting gang. There’s a ton to learn in that first hour of gameplay, so be prepared to have that mindset of starting such a robust game.
I mentioned that the game breaks down into a few key features. At the highest level, you’ll be managing a good portion of Chicago. From neighborhood control, to distribution of your illegal swill, and hostile takeovers, the city map is set up rather nicely once you get used to what the iconography actually means and how to navigate about. It’s from this map view that you also can see the breadth of what this game offers. Neighborhoods alone feel daunting to manage, but with time, you’ll have to deal with at least 10 total areas from Little Italy to Chinatown and the South Loop to name a few.
On the next level of management you’ll find yourself more in an active state within one of those given neighborhoods. There will be impromptu missions, hostile takeovers on your buildings, and much more that spice up gameplay a bit. This is what I meant by just managing one neighborhood felt like it was daunting enough. This is also the stage in which you’ll be introduced to what appeared like a million stat menus and the full-on management selection of the title.
At the ground level, you’re in control of a mobster and any tag-along thugs you’ve recruited directly in a semi-open world sort of a way. If you happen to engage in a hostile takeover or combat you’ll find yourself in a turn-based X-Com styled battle.
Combat will happen quite frequently in the game, in that you’ll either be defending your properties or attempting to acquire more by force. As a turn-based strategy battling system, this definitely is on the lighter side of strategy, although the game does its best to employ many of the tried-and-true mechanics of this specific genre. You’ll find you have multiple weapons and firing mode options that take up a turn, and you can also provide overwatch or just hunker down and stay safe as well.
Where this area falls short is that you won’t find the AI depth that X-Com or other competitive titles excel at. More often than not, the thugs that were against me would just come rushing out of cover to melee me with a low damage hit, and thus resulting in a shotgun blast to their face when my turned cycled up. In general, I just found the actions of these combat phases to be far clunkier than they should have been, and it made for a reasonably easy experience. That being said, should one of your cohorts perish in combat, they’re toast forever in the game. You’ll find in one of the menus a relationship roster that outlines all of the possible colleagues you can hire at various stages in the game providing you have enough cash. This is a rather cool system as some members work well with certain others, but don’t jive with another cast of the characters. This creates a certain dynamic when pairing up a squad to go ransack an opposing thug’s territory.
This brings me to the stats and management in general. There’s honestly an overwhelming exposure to the game’s inner workings and subsequently the ability to influence and manage a fair bit of it all — from setting your brewery output, prices, and upgrading your swill content, to micromanaging each character’s full load out and ability progression tree. That being said, once you overcome the stat-heavy screens, you’ll find much of it is fairly pointless, or secondary in usefulness at best. I will also say that it’s also pushing the legibility limit in handheld mode on the platform as well in places. The contrasting gold text against darkened backgrounds is thankfully the saving grace here.
When not encumbered with staring at the stats and management screens, you’ll actually find that Empire of Sin sets a pretty reasonable thematic world out in front of you. It’s not entirely devoid of life, and cars will putter around the neighborhoods while rival gangs mull about on the sidewalks. Paper, and small bits of trash litter the wind just like a page out of a noir novel. The characters are charming, although a bit too much of the classic stereotypes of that era.
Voice overs are pretty clever, ripe with catchy one-liners that become heavily repetitive in certain areas of the game, especially when confirming a move action. Mob boss sit-downs and negotiations also build nicely onto the theme of the game, and change the pace for a brief minute as you boldly navigate a choose-your-own response and hope those character stats remain in your favor, lest be shot on the spot! Overall, this game is less Boardwalk Empire, and maybe more classic Dick Tracy (I sure do miss my Dick Tracy super-secret watch from my childhood now).
My main problem with the game is that I simply wanted more time in that world, and less time worrying about menus and revenue share concerns. I know I’m maybe against the grain on that knowing that it’s primarily a management strategy game, and more so coming from the reputable Paradox, but I felt that the management world and the boots-on-the-ground world just were disconnected more than I had wanted.
In terms of performance, I wasn’t overly marred with problems. The game does suffer from some performance hits in more bustling gunfights, and I did have some awkward save game problems a few times, but for a larger magnitude game like this, I would expect some hiccups. The controls aren’t entirely straightforward, and typical of a normally PC-centric genre, you’ll find a lot of subtle controller mappings that are just straight challenging to remember on the fly, and thus you may find yourself lost in menu-land like I did time and time again, trying to recall where it is to adjust this or that.
Empire of Sin builds the foundation for an engaging 1920s prohibition era world for you to tinker about in and ultimately create a bustling empire if you can stay in tune with the game’s mechanics. I wish I would have seen a bit more depth in areas like the free-roaming third person, and even the turn-based combat situations, and less depth in the stat-heavy menus. It’s certainly a tough balance to juggle, but there’s a really solid concept here to build from I believe. As it stands, I’d actually love to see a slimmed down version of the whole game, more akin to a Sid Meier’s Pirates where I could run around and do the shooting gangster bits, while just high level managing and expanding my empire with some basic trade mechanics sprinkled on top.
Empire of Sin Review
- Graphics - 6.5/106.5/10
- Sound - 6/106/10
- Gameplay - 5.5/105.5/10
- Lasting Appeal - 5/105/10
Final Thoughts: MEDIOCRE
Empire of Sin wants you to be the Mob Boss in all of Chicago. From managing relationships, to hostile takeovers, running an underground economy, and with an X-Com inspired combat system layered on top for action moments, this game has all the right makings for a top-notch prohibition management game. However, the menus are cluttered, heavy, and an unnecessary time sink, and the combat is just too light with clunky opponents, making the whole experience a bit awkward for me to really love.
Alex has been actively gaming since the release of the Nintendo. Turning passion into profession, he’s spent just over a decade in game development, and is currently the Creative Director at a studio.