Empire of Sin Review: Hardly the Bee’s Knees

I’ll say this up front: after a good amount of time with Romero Games’ Empire of Sin, I’m disappointed, confused, and a little bored. And I say this up front because any detached, objective description of the game sounds astonishing. There is no way for me to talk about a Prohibition-era gangster sim that melds a bootlegging business overlay with tactical turn-based (read: XCOM) battles and make that sound unappealing. It is — assuming you’re into simulation-heavy strategy stuff — simply too good of an idea.

The tactical battles are even predicated on your chosen boss character taking an amusingly hands-on approach. You will direct Al Capone (if you have chosen Al Capone) through the door of a competing speakeasy, tommy gun in hand, and swing music will play when you start shooting to bring up the hit percentages and cover icons of the combat menu that lets you direct your firing squad. The bosses even have their own goofy abilities, ranging from top-hatted undertaker Daniel McKee Jackson unloading a full pistol clip into some goon’s torso to tatted-up circus ringmaster-slash-mobster Maggie Dyer yanking characters across the map with a lion whip to stun them by punching them in the fucking face.

And all of that sounds wonderful. On paper, anyway. But Empire of Sin is too unfocused to really run with its concept, and is tragically bogged down by bloat and repetition in a game that’s alternately too thin and too ambitious for its own good.

Empire of Sin

Living in Sin

You start small in Empire of Sin, raking in cash from a speakeasy supplied by a small brewery while gradually expanding across the Chicago map into other business ventures (“rackets”) like brothels and casinos. Soon enough, you come into conflict with other factions led by some of the bosses you didn’t pick, who you can trade with, declare war on, form alliances with, or bully into paying you protection money. They’ve got their own goons and their own competing businesses that begin to pop up all over town, perhaps on that street-corner place for sale that you had your eye on until Sai Wing Mock bought it first and put up a casino.

Both you and the AI hire from a pool of voiced, named gangsters who all have unique character models, traits, and quests. They also have histories with other hired crooks, ranging from friendships (denoted by a green checkmark) to lovers whose well-being they care about (denoted by a heart) to enemies they refuse to work with (denoted by a red middle finger). These are the main characters you bring into battle alongside your boss, though each of your rackets also comes with generic, unnamed security guards to keep an eye on the place and provide backup in case of trouble. Furthermore, you can promote the named characters to supervisory roles or use them as moles, and they can grow more loyal or disillusioned the longer they’re in your employ.

Romero Games hardly seems blind to the storytelling potential here, with the named characters adding a more personal investment than is typical of the genre. It’s easy to imagine all the ways such systems might interact, with characters’ stats affected not just by what you’ve equipped them with but by which other characters they’re encountering and where they’re fighting, as well as how long they’ve been part of your crew. The list of modifiers looks complicated, but the game does such a poor job of drawing your attention to these variables and what they do that they read like a meaningless list of symbols that fade into the background of a standard tactical conflict. At the start, I never felt like I needed to engage with these variables since I had few characters and therefore little choice but to soldier onward regardless of who might or might not fall off the wagon if they spend too long in a speakeasy. I began to wonder why the game even felt the need to keep track of these things at all, much less why it was telling me about them like I could do anything about them.

Turn Down That Racket

A lot of Empire of Sin is like that, full of details that seem needlessly complex or extraneous because, if they actually are vital to how the thing functions, the game never totally sells the “why” or the “how” of it all. There is, for example, a robust system which allows you roam the map with your gang in real-time, complete with passing cars and people on the street. If noticed by rival gangs or generic muggers, you can be drawn out of this mode and into turn-based combat, which lays a grid over the immediate area while designating various objects as cover and potentially looping in any nearby cops on patrol. Other games that have done this, like Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden and its spiritual follow-up Corruption 2029, use this system to let you essentially maneuver your characters into an advantageous position for an ambush to power through often overwhelming odds.

But the positioning doesn’t matter nearly as much in Empire of Sin. The battles last long enough for your opponents to eventually reposition, and when entering hostile buildings, your party just clusters around the entrance anyway. There’s no particular reason to go to the trouble of setting people up in different positions around the street, and you get easily spotted in the process of doing so due to a barely-there, barely readable stealth system.

Initially, I thought that all the navigation and positioning might come into play when hitting an enemy safehouse that’s deep into enemy territory, behind a lot of guarded storefronts that are the opponent’s color. But the fast-travel system trivializes this entire process, letting you go anywhere you like by just calling a cab to, say, drop you off in front of Dean O’Banion’s place. And ignoring the fast-travel system only prolongs gang conflicts, thus increasing the chances that a rival boss will send some muscle to one of your brothels, where it’ll be your anonymous security against their anonymous security in some unskippable minor conflict. Some of the mechanics, like falling into alcoholism or getting a venereal disease, seem designed around the idea that you’ll post named characters as guards at one racket or another, but doing so feels like a waste of their abilities. There’s certainly a neat idea behind holding on to a growing number of precarious businesses, but having to babysit so many potential conflicts only grows more tedious as your empire grows larger.

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Empire of Sin

Sins of a Liquor Empire

As if to minimize any time spent managing individual businesses, there’s not a lot of granular control — eventually, you’ll have the same few rackets in multiple neighborhoods differentiated only by how much you’ve paid to level up attributes like security and/or how hidden they are from the cops. Even what type of alcohol you serve is determined at a neighborhood-wide level. But at the same time, things like your business’s draw and police presence are affected by a variety of factors that aren’t surfaced particularly well, leading to screens of numerical soup that certainly seem to add up to something yet appear difficult to influence in any meaningful fashion with the AI gunning each other down in the streets. The business angle is at once too complicated to just be the backdrop for some turn-based battles and too simple to function independently.

There’s also a notable lack of variety, despite the number of different bosses and recruitable characters. The early game can be extremely slow, leaving you without a lot of money and thus without a lot of options except to follow the more authored parts of the game through character-specific quests. But because your ability to hire a gangster is governed by money as well as one stat (notoriety) that goes up as you complete more of the game, you always start out with the same few potential characters and effectively eliminate the procedurally-generated possibility behind games like XCOM. While it’s undoubtedly fun to recruit, say, a crew of exclusively elderly murders with names like “Norah” and “Grover,” I have had far more distinctive, emergent experiences with totally randomized characters in other games than with Empire of Sin’s roster.

The game’s sit-down diplomacy perhaps best exemplifies the problems with scope. You can meet with other bosses in scenes that feature full voice-acting and close-up character animations, picking dialogue options for your own chosen character. These confrontations really sell the period detail and atmosphere the first few times, but soon the dialogue begins to repeat (Al Capone’s lengthy “free lunch” spiel being a notable offender) and you realize the AI is just offering the same thoughtless deals over and over again. A lot of effort, it seems, has gone into something that will only turn out a few different ways, which is also true of a game that keeps throwing various statistics at you but is ultimately just determined by XCOM-ing your way through different Chicago neighborhoods. There’s no elegance to any of it. Empire of Sin is a mess with decent ideas, with its systems at some strange crossroads of over-ambitious and underdeveloped.

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Steven Nguyen Scaife

Steven Nguyen Scaife has written about pop culture for Slant Magazine, Polygon, Buzzfeed, Rock Paper Shotgun, and more.

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