Empire of Sin

Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: Strategy
Publisher: PLAION (EU), Paradox Interactive (US)
Developer: Romero Games
Release Date: Dec. 1, 2020


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PC Review - 'Empire of Sin'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Dec. 15, 2020 @ 1:00 a.m. PST

Empire of Sin is a character-driven strategy game set in 1920s Chicago. Players build their own ruthless criminal empire as one of 14 distinct bosses vying to run the seedy underworld of organized crime in the city.

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Empire of Sin is set in the 1920s America, when alcohol is banned and prohibition is in full swing. You control of one of a large cast of potential crime bosses and set out to take over the city. That's about all the plot you get. Each boss has a backstory, quirks, and interactions with other bosses, but those are largely window dressing. You choose whether you want to play as an Irish mob widow, a beast-taming circus leader, or a fellow whose name happens to be Al Capone. Each has a unique set of attributes that influence how each game plays out.

The primary goal of Empire of Sin is to take over the entire city, and to do that, you need to build up your empire. You start out with a safehouse and a few basic fronts. Income is divided into money and alcohol, since prohibition is in full swing, and your task is to make as much of both as possible. Primarily, you do this by buying and upgrading businesses over time. You need to balance the appeal, profit and safety of each business to ensure success. You can go for high-risk casinos, which make the most money but have the biggest potential to go bad, or you can opt for safer and more reliable speakeasies.

Perhaps somewhat unusual for this style of game is that the interface is done in an RTS style. You manually move your boss and lieutenants around the map, during which time you might run into risks of being accosted, find hidden treasure stashes, or meet new gangs and get to know them. There is only one speed in the game, so it's best to keep your people moving around the city constantly so you're not sitting on your rear while waiting for profits.

Combat is done in the now-traditional X-COM style. It has all of the trademarks: multiple kinds of cover, overwatch, and an action points-based system. Each boss has a unique fighting style that grants them special moves to turn the tide of battle, and you can recruit from a number of pre-defined henchmen who have specific skills and gimmicks. The game has permadeath but isn't quite as lethal as X-COM, so you probably won't die in one hit unless you accidentally leave your character out in the open with a bunch of enemies around.

As you play, you'll obtain notoriety, which is a mixed blessing. It levels up your boss to give them better stats and abilities, but it also means you're more likely to attract attention. It's important to gain notoriety, since the power boosts are better than the attention. There are even missions that you can complete to offer extra notoriety, bonus loot, or chances at bonuses. The more attention you get, the stronger you are.

On paper, all of this sounds good. The issue is that pretty much every part of the game is filled with such poor balance and design that it makes it almost impossible to enjoy. Take the overarching concept of empire-building. In theory, you need to play the long game by slowly whittling down your opponents while building your empire. There are game mechanics in place for this, and it seems to be the intended way to play.

Or you can drive to the leader of the enemy faction's safehouse and shoot them directly in the face. This gives you instant access to every property they own, as well as tons of money and gear. As you can imagine, this makes it easier to shoot the next guy in the face and repeat.

You might think, "It's balanced out by enemy safehouses being strong," and to some degree, you'd be right. Enemy safehouses are stronger than anything else, but the game's balance is all over the place, so I was able to win using just my boss. She went in and used her ability to bounce a bullet around the room, which did enough damage to kill over half of the enemies in a single turn. It was a tough fight since I was outnumbered 10-to-1, but it lasted until my special move recharged, and then it was just cleanup. If I had brought one strong character with me, it won't have lasted that long; I learned that while destroying more safehouses. There are less powerful bosses, but it's just a slight fluctuation in power rather than anything significant.

Money and alcohol are very important in Empire of Sin, so it's disappointing that the game economy doesn't seem to care about either. The cheapest alcohol (swill) can be manufactured and purchased for rock-bottom prices. Then you can trade it to one of the many "smaller" factions in the game disguised as whiskey for what seems like infinite free profit. If there is a penalty for this, it was so small as to be nonexistent. Rather than trying to balance various businesses, the smartest thing to do was to build a bunch of breweries and have them pumping out swill as quickly as they could.

A lot of systems in the game don't seem to work. Police basically seemed like set dressing. They never raided any of my businesses and barely responded to war-in-the-streets gang violence. Characters act randomly, being angry at you and then friendly to you in the span of a second. I had one gang leader make a deal with me, break it before my character was down the street, and then call me right away to ask to make a deal. I am not entirely clear what a "clean" game of Empire of Sin is like because in each game I played, I ran into the exact same issues. Even if I assumed any of the systems did work, it was so easy to throw money and swill at problems that I'd have to intentionally avoid using those things to assure danger.

It's a shame because the makings of a fun 1920s X-COM are here, and if I had only encountered a few noteworthy issues, it wouldn't be as big of a deal, but every gameplay mechanic seemed prime to break within moments. It really feels like a title that was rushed out in an unfinished state with the idea that patches would eventually make it functional, but that doesn't excuse releasing it in this state. When I booted up the game, I was feeling very positive toward it until a few hours in. Then it became clear that I couldn't get past the game's serious issues.

The presentation is one of the few aspects of Empire of Sin that I can't find serious fault with. Visually, the title nails the 1920s aesthetic. The characters are slightly exaggerated and cartoonish in a way that fits the game's tone. There isn't enough variety of combat environments, but it's relatively easy to ignore. The voice acting is mixed, with some genuinely good performances mixed with awkward stereotypical accents that should have been left in the 1920s.

Empire of Sin has potential, and I look forward to revisiting it after six months of patches that will hopefully address some of these issues. As it stands today, the game is buggy, poorly balanced, and blatantly half-finished. The initial strong presentation quickly fades to frustration as playing correctly is a fool's errand and cheating the system is the only way to play. That might be appropriate for a Mafia game, but not for this title.

Score: 5.5/10

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