Empire of Sin Review – Hard Game, Speakeasy

Empire of Sin Review

The order was given. My trigger men were going to hit the safehouse of a rival gang. I had with me my lucky bat and two of my best guys, both of them armed with tommy guns (or Chicago typewriters if you’re feeling vulgar). We entered and all hell broke loose. One of my guys was left bleeding, so I sent his buddy to go bail him out… or I tried to.

See, it turns out my guy had a sweetie, a girl he was seeing. And that girl was an enforcer for a rival gang. My boys were outnumbered, and that made the whole difference. Doesn’t matter how lucky your bat is, sometimes complex human emotions get in the way of a good gang takeover. And that’s a pretty big thing to say when it comes to a video game!

You’re Here, You’re Family

Empire of Sin is a complex strategy game from Romero Games. In it, you take on the role of a bigwig gangster trying to conquer the Chicago underworld in the prohibition era. I know! Why aren’t there 50 games taking place in this era? Once you’ve picked your boss you will conquer the White City in a series of turn-based tactical fights, RPG quests, and shrewd management.

Romero Games is named for studio founders John and Brenda Romero, both video game legends in their own right. John basically invented the first person shooter, being on the teams that created Wolfenstein 3D and Doom (and Hexen and Quake!). Brenda has a similarly impressive resume, as a creator of the Wizardry games and most relevantly here, for her contributions to Jagged Alliance.

If you’ve never played it, Jagged Alliance is a legendary cult-classic strategy game from the 90s. In it, you command a squad of colorful mercenaries, level them up, manage their equipment, and send them to mow down troops in countries other than America. It’s also the closest thing to Empire of Sin in a couple of regards.

Top Shelf Idea

If your main point of reference to this kind of game is XCOM, Empire of Sin works a little bit differently. In XCOM your soldiers are interchangeable, customizable, and ultimately they are probably gonna die. Empire of Sin features dozens of colorful characters who you might meet every game. There’s the fat shirtless demolition guy in the suspenders. There’s the squirrelly con artist who likes to run when fights get tough. They all have backstories you can read in the codex and unique voice actors.

Then there’s the management element. Sure, you have to look after your base in XCOM but in Empire of Sin, running a business is a little bit more complicated than that. You’ll have to develop and protect your various schemes (and legal businesses!) by increasing the quality of the product or experience. If video games are a series of meaningful choices, you won’t lack for those. Bring in more customers by drumming up word of mouth. Or hide your business to avoid police attention.

The three parts of the game function pretty well! If you’re looking for a good turn-based cover shooter, you could find a lot worse. There are a ton of weapons, skills, and unique abilities to master. (I particularly like the ring master’s line tamer whip attack). If you want a tycoon game well, that part of the game is strong too. There are a lot of ways to tip your business into the black. And if you’re looking for an RPG, I was pretty surprised to learn that Empire of Sin has you covered for that.

You will often find yourself sitting down with rival gang leaders. Every combination of bosses has unique interactions and dialogue trees though blessedly, you can also skip these if you get sick of these scenes by your 18th playthrough. There are also different campaign stories, which are a blast. The game’s writing tries a little hard to be Peaky Blinders or a Guy Ritchie flick, but I like those things so the many F-bombs and long scenes where characters discuss their heritage worked great for me. I can’t wait to dive into a wiki and read tons about all of these people, and their real life equivalents!

Mixing Swill

Still, as much as I found to enjoy in Empire of Sin, the game was determined to kick my ass. There’s a lot to keep track of. I found games extremely difficult to start. If you don’t move fast enough, it’s easy to lose too much money to get a good game going (ain’t that just how it goes with capitalism?). You’ll also find the different parts of the game intruding on each other in unfortunate ways. Enjoying the RPG sitdowns? Then you better hope your speakeasies don’t get raided by a completely different gang. You love managing which establishment gets what flavor of hooch? Be prepared to slog through a street ambush because one straggler wandered too close to your casino.

I am the kind of player who likes a challenge, especially in a well constructed strategy game. But on the default difficulty, I could barely get my business moving fast enough to avoid a failure cascade. I would spend money to improve my businesses, and while the improvements were being made, my dudes would need to get paid, but my coffers were dry. This lowered morale, leading to lost fights, leading to more money lost, leading to losing those guys.

I fully acknowledge that this may have just been a me problem. Or maybe the game needs to be rebalanced, there are a lot of patches coming down. I switched to an easier difficulty and had a good time with it. But at times, the complexity of the interlocking systems in Empire of Sin feel like more than the game can handle. For every time a story emerges about love and loss as I described above, there are times when your speakeasy suddenly starts losing money and the game doesn’t communicate why. I’m sure through hours of play a pattern will emerge, but for now too much is too opaque and difficult. 

The promise of those complex systems coming together is too much to ignore. It’s not just the window dressing. I deeply believe that there are the bones of a good game buried here. And the fixes might be easy. Or they may never come. As it stands now, I had quite a lot of fun with Empire of Sin, but I couldn’t get a groove going. It’s hard to recommend before a bit of an overhaul. But stranger things have happened in gaming! And in real life. Remember when alcohol was illegal in the United States? That feels pretty crazy right now.

***A PC code was provided by the publisher***

The Good

  • Great use of the setting
  • Deep tactical combat
  • RPG dialogue is a hoot

The Bad

  • Management game isn’t much fun
  • Fights tend to drag on
  • The whole package doesn’t come together