“The Donovans are attacking you. You have a 74% chance of winning”. To the casual passer-by, the kind that might be strolling down these Prohibition-era streets moments before yet another outbreak of gang-related violence, these might sound like decent odds. But spend a few hours in Empire of Sin‘s Chicago and it becomes obvious how vastly it overestimates the threat.
See, in the game’s turn-based combat system, gang leaders act first. Their special power – available immediately – has the potential, when carefully deployed, to take out multiple lackeys in a single turn. A conflict framed as moderately challenging ends, in fact, before your enemies even have a chance to react. Regularly.
Before a certain ennui sets in – as it dawns on you that the actual chances of winning most low-level skirmishes rarely drop below 100% – there’s excitement to be had in your first steps towards building the titular empire: discovering the turfs and dispositions of rival gangs while establishing your presence in the city through brothels and speakeasies, first in your immediate neighbourhood, then slowly expanding outwards.
There’s personality there too, with each kingpin featuring their own skillset and backstory, a colourful array of lieutenants embroiled in individual side-quests, and the American 1920s vividly con-veyed through detailed environments.
But it’s not just the lack of challenge that erodes your interest as surely as your enemies’ influence on the local underworld. Empire of Sin’s entire management layer reveals itself as an irrelevance early on. Neighbourhood prosperity – a crux for the morally ambiguous narrative – offers little competitive advantage. Why spend time and resources upgrading and protecting your rackets when it’s more effective to simply keep expanding, eliminating any competition in the process?
Not even the police, which could have been leveraged as a deterrent to overly belligerent approaches, seem willing to step in. The game, at odds with its own genre’s primary attraction, offers no reasons to shift strategies at any point, no incentive to adapt.
Nevertheless, there’s something that will force you to reload frequently, though not exactly by design: Empire of Sin is plagued by bugs. Weapons vanish from your inventory. Missions restart the moment you finish them. Skills refuse to activate.
On one occasion, a corpse discovered by Chicago’s finest meant one of my lieutenants had to spend some time in jail. Only she would still tag along for the occasional scuffle, at least until the game, as if confused by her inexplicable presence, froze during her combat turn.
Even if some of these issues are fixed through subsequent patches, Empire of Sin seems to be clashing with itself on a more fundamental level, trading intrigue and consequential decision-making for the dubious joy of continuous, barely resisted expansion. Despite a promising start, its narrative of criminal ascension is a nonchalant stroll rather than a tense clawing of your way to the top.
Working out the nuances of different bosses’ special powers, and experimenting on how to effectively utilise each in battle, never stops being fun, even after several playthroughs. However, by the end of that half-hour process, any possibility of being challenged for the rest of your run is eliminated.
With nothing ventured and everything gained, there’s little appeal to Empire of Sin past a first, exploratory playthrough.
Genre: Turn-based tactics /Management
Format: PC (tested) / Mac / PS4 / XBO / Switch
Developer: Romero Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release: Out now