I have a lot to like about this 1920s gang sim. It’s a complex and detailed game about romantic time. And, as you can imagine, there are fedora hats, fur coats, flapper gear gangsters, tommies, brass knuckles, and baseball bats. Those winding old cars and delivery trucks run down cobblestone, often rain-wet streets. And behind the mundane façade of everyday life (grocery stores and laundry shops), illegal industry is barking. Speakeasy jumps with music and laughter, and the brewery foams to catch up. And you can see everything in gorgeous details, from the smoke from cigars to the glow from lanterns.
Perhaps more importantly, you can quickly get close to the people you control, which infuse your game with personality. You can find out which gang you are hiring, like Big Fat Gibby Willard (his name!) Running around in trousers and braces but without a top and exposing the slack upper half. He was great until the police officer died in the turmoil we had. And now-yes-he is dead forever.
But there are many other gangsters I can hire, I can’t afford all of them. And they all have their own stories, their own ridiculous names, their own traits, and their own features. Some people love each other, others hate each other. Some people are more drunk than sober. Some are courageous and some are timid. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m not sure for sure, but some people oppose you as moles. And you will get to know the people you hire like a family.
You can also find out about other bosses. Sit with Al Capone and Angelo Genna, their real names at the time, and some of the constituents, and others isolated from elsewhere in history. Take Elvira Duarte, which I played, as an example. She is an older woman who ran a criminal empire in Mexico at about the same time, and is also associated with John Romero, the husband of game director Brenda Romero. Elvira has a great ability to spray hallucinogen powder onto the enemy’s face for effective mind control, but other bosses have the same exaggerated ability. It’s a game setting that pops with this kind of romanticism, even though it’s clearly supported by a lot of homework.
Another important thing about Empire of Sin is that it’s also a kind of city management game. Crew around the streets of Chicago, not only take part in XCOM-style turn-based combat, but also hijack buildings and turn them into illegal rackets. The types of rackets you can own are Speakeasy, brothels, breweries, casinos and hotels. You can buy them or get them from someone else, and once you get them, you can upgrade their various aspects.
To make this easier, you can zoom out from the street level to a simplified building-level view to see at a glance who owns what and what each building is. You can go back further to get an overview of each of Chicago’s districts, their activities, and their owners. And the stats, ledgers, and graphs pages emphasize this and help you emphasize where you are strong and where you can be better.
Are there too many gangsters in payroll? Do you offer the right type of alcohol for the prosperity level of your neighborhood? Can you produce it by the brewery or do you need to buy it from another gang? How about your brothel and Speakeasy? Are they full? Maybe it’s worth investing in word-of-mouth advertising? Alternatively, you can open a nearby hotel to earn a bonus. The customers there are gathered in your racket. But be careful not to be too suspicious. Otherwise, the authorities will knock and other gangsters will.
Expand undisturbed for a while. You can enthusiastically follow some of the journal’s missions, perform companion quests, and get to know the people around you. You take over the racket occupied by several thugs in your neighborhood, carefully fine-tune your poor empire, and milk all the cents from it. I feel that progress is calm and easy to manage.
But as you grow, more will compete for your time, and it’s here that the game begins to lose shape. The more buildings you take over, and the more they are, the less you can pay attention to each one unless you value a thorough manager. There are overview screens to help with this, but you will be prompted to select upgrades or click on each individually to open and close them to lower the suspicious level. And it takes time. A lot of time.
Then allies start talking about war. This is great because you can attack enemy buildings during the war without being told by other factions. The downside is that the building is attacked. When attacked, it travels across towns to control defense (when it directly discovers how effective a security upgrade is). These battles are usually very boring. Often they are very one-sided and few to many, but you still have to carry out the above conclusions in one painful turn at a time.
Combat is decent, but lacks excitement and can be annoying. You may place your character in a place where it should not be misplaced, or you may order it to do something unintended. High stakes battles can be very costly. Early weapons can be quite weak, and encounters can feel a bit pulled out. But as you improve your team’s equipment and unleash more abilities, things get more interesting. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for standard swamp guard battles. It’s an oversight that you can’t autocomplete them and you can’t stop interrupting what you’re doing.
It’s doubly frustrating because there’s so much to do. The layers that make the game unique will almost start cannibalizing each other as the game progresses. Suddenly a companion wants to talk to me, but I can’t because another gang sits down and I want to join their war. And someone is attacking my bar. And all the while, I couldn’t optimize my empire for years. I don’t even know what I own.
But apparently, according to the graph, I’m the biggest gangster, and strangely, I feel like I’ve never seen a part of another neighborhood. So I tested my clear ranking and attacked my rival Safehouse. This is difficult. And it’s a really tense, exciting fight, and for some reason I win.
Then I think I could probably undertake other safehouses if I could. So I started it one by one. And every time I win, I add their entire empire to my own. No matter how much money is being invested, the weapons I bring from the boss are incredibly powerful, so I no longer have to worry about optimization.
I can’t stop. Other gangs want to be seated, but they can get lost-they are next. And now that I see the real end-Chicago’s domination-I don’t need to do any more quests. Everything else falls on the roadside until the final battle is won and Elvira Duarte is crowned Queen of Chicago.
I feel like I’ve done something equivalent to a tan crash. I haven’t seen anything in other neighborhoods, but somehow I won. And all the bargaining, trading, synergies-the nuances of a strategy game: I haven’t done that for years. I haven’t seen anything in the police, nor have I seen the Investigation Bureau. I’m sure you should have it. But I think this happens when you give control to the randomizer and instruct the player to do it their way. It also happens when you start all factions at the same time.
It would have been nice if other factions could get off to a good start and steal the empire while trying to find a foothold in the city. It would have given shape and climax to the campaign, valued the search for optimization of my empire, and gave me a spectacular final battle to conclude things. As it was, Al Capone was sent off by someone in a few days, and no one really had the opportunity to establish himself in something special.
On the other hand, it may be very different next time. And it’s exciting. The next time I play, Al Capone could be a historical figure I know as him, and all other gangsters may start farther and give them more time to build. Maybe. Big Fat Gibby Willard may not be shot in the park. I may have a completely different team of gangsters. I will be another boss. I will try something more difficult. And I’m at the mercy of variables and hope they land in a slightly more interesting way. That’s all you need, so throw the dice once.