Originally scheduled for a launch in the spring, and then in the fall, Empire of Sin by Romero Games has finally been released. It’s out for consoles as well, but we’re playtesting it on a PC.
Empire of Sin was first announced in the summer of 2019 and we got to go hands on with it and talk to Brenda Romero about the project as well. The blend of X-COM style turn based combat with the ability to build your criminal empire during the age of prohibition seemed like an exciting one right away, so it’s been a long wait for us, seeing as how well over a year had passed in between our first hands on session and booting up the review code for the game.
During our meeting with Romero, she mentioned Sid Meier’s Civilization as a source of inspiration for the game, and it shows. Each campaign playthrough starts with your choice from a roster of gangsters, from famous ones like Al Capone to inspired by Romero’s own relatives and a few (we presume) fictional ones. They all have their own unique characteristics that translate to an optimal playing style, so it’s not a trivial choice to make even though it’s tempting to go with Capone it might not be the best choice for you.
Each character comes with their own perks/strengths and weaknesses, and they all have unique backstories to uncover as well. Since Capone’s more of an established character in the era of prohibition, you’ll have an easier time making money with the alcohol you produce – at least while starting out. You can also use your crime boss in combat, where they’ll bring unique abilities and strengths to the battlefield – often an indoor location where you take down a rival.
Empire of Sin doesn’t follow a scripted narrative though – instead offering you a sandbox that starts and ends when prohibition does. Chicago is your playground, and your ultimate goal is to control as much of the city as possible. As in a game like Mafia III, you do this by taking control of various rackets around the city, bringing a steady income to your empire with the ability to expand it with a few investments. Seizing a racket can happen through violence, or you can negotiate your way towards one and broker a deal – one that in a gangster-filled city is only good until the bullets start flying.
Besides the combat, Empire of Sin isn’t turn-based – everything happens ‘on the fly’ so at times the pause button is your best friend as you contemplate your next move. Sit back and idle, and you’ll quickly see a rival empire targeting some of your more profitable rackets, either out of ambition, despair or a lust for revenge.
You’ll also find out that one of the prices you pay for success is that you’ll attract the unwanted attention from cops who aren’t on your payroll, and sometimes you’ll want to hire a gang of mercenaries to do some dirty work for you when you’re starting to feel stretched a little thin. And even though there’s isn’t a main story to follow (like in Mafia III), a lot of your actions are surrounded by little story elements that focus on the characters you meet and recruit – giving everything a bit more personality while you’re building your empire.
Besides smaller mission-based encounters you’ll sometimes also engage with big street fights, which can feature multiple gangs all facing off against each other and possibly also has cops thrown in for good measure. While many of the smaller encounters/battles feel a little generic, like a gangster-themed approach to regular turn-based gameplay, these big battles are where Empire of Sin really comes into its own. It’s also where all of the feuding between rivals, the stories, the empire management and turn-based gameplay come together, but unfortunately there aren’t enough of these moments.
In a great game, the end result is more than the sum of its parts, and what I just described is the moment where Empire of Sin showcases its ability to provide that. Too many individual aspects of the game lack that specific shine though, as many smaller confrontations feel too formulaic and the narrative is always interesting but never to the point where you can’t wait to find out more. What doesn’t help is that, prior to launch, the PC version of the game also had its fair share of bugs, both visually and in terms of gameplay. While a day 1 patch is here to take care of many of that, it does show that the earlier delays weren’t for nothing and the game still ended up needing to be rushed out the door in time.
I’m sure that, over the next few weeks, the game will receive further polish and become better than it was at launch. Whenever I got really invested in one of the game’s many different mechanics, a balance or technical issue would take me out of the experience again – making the highlights where everything gels together too far and few between. Let’s see what the future holds – with Paradox behind it as the publisher I have good hope this will be an excellent game to come back to.