WW1 vet-turned-mob enforcer Hugh Miller has fallen head-over-heels in love with another gangster, Tammy Trucco. The next firefight they and the rest of my squad get into, Tammy eats a bullet; boom, dead. Reeling from that and a recent demotion, Hugh has had enough to outweigh his strong sense of loyalty and he quits my gang in a huff. It’s a dramatic moment that underscores what Empire of Sin does best: Well-written, complex personal relationships, both positive and negative, that develop between your crew of criminal soldiers and make this management and tactical strategy game work.
Hugh then immediately turns around and accepts a rehire offer, completely undermining the gravity of those events. That’s a great example of how Empire of Sin’s technical ricketiness gets in the way of just about everything it attempts to do well as you play the role of a mob boss in 1920s Chicago, building a criminal empire of illegal booze and gunning down the competition. It’s an ambitious and complex mix of genres with a cool setting, but the result is riddled with janky bits, quests that feel unfinished, unreliable balance, and a boatload of bugs. It just isn’t a good game.
For what it’s worth, Empire of Sin really embraces the Roaring ‘20s style, showing off Chicago streets that are initially fun to navigate and a roaring soundtrack of jazz mixed with some more modern pieces. The writing and weird cast of characters, both fictional and fictionalized alike, have a lot of charm. There’s even really delightfully over-the-top voice acting for nearly every character, littered with standout performances like gangster boss Frankie Donovan, aged Western sharpshooter Grover Monks, or the hammy duo performance of a gambling bookie and a button man. (They’re in love.) The charm wore off a lot quicker than I’d have liked, though.
The challenge here is to run a complex illegal empire while also balancing the chaotic personalities of criminals both in your gang and outside it. Like many of Empire of Sin’s ideas, it’s a brilliant concept: You have to keep a lot of violent people with poor impulse control both happy and alive in turn-based tactical RPG combat in the vein of XCOM. You direct your chosen gang boss around the city, doing missions with bits of flavorful dialogue to enjoy and controlling a crew of hired guns in battles against other gangsters. Those might be fights with rival gangs, groups of independent thugs, and very occasionally even the police or the Bureau of Prohibition’s agents. Interacting with the characters of the ’20s is where Empire of Sin shines, but the fights you’re doing to earn those stories quickly become rote due to mindlessly repetitive maps and poor, buggy combat AI.The tactical battles are built on good bones: Gangsters have a to-hit stat, hit points, and you find weapons with varied stats. Basic combat numbers are pretty granular, with health in the 50-150 range, so a thug might take two to four pistol shots to go down. It’s just enough randomness to make the weapon stats and upgraded rarities really matter. There’s also a half-or-full-cover system you’ll recognize from every tactics game since 2012, well implemented here, with angle of attack and distance mattering depending on what weapon you’re using: a shotgun does best from within two tiles, a rifle from seven or more, and a submachine gun is happiest somewhere in the middle. There are balance issues, like one-hit kills from sniper rifles and surprise damage from unavoidable dynamite attacks, but there’s fun at the tactical core.
It’s the maps that really kill the combat. They’re pretty, at least, thanks to locations like dim speakeasy interiors and luxurious gambling houses, but they’re chokepointed, poorly laid out, and offer very little tactical variety. Most fights end up revolving around a single corner or doorway as you set up a kill zone and watch enemies swarm into it – and many of the maps only have one or two of those chokepoints to fight over. The terrain is static as well: there’s no destruction, and no interesting ways for characters to get around. It’s an honest crime that you can’t vault over the bar counters into cover like in every gangster movie ever.
All of that goes on as you build up your network of illegal breweries, casinos, speakeasies, and brothels to get rich on the management side. To do that you have to stay out of the police force’s sight and try to one-up rival bosses in both business and territory control. The way it’s all executed, though, makes it little more than surface-level fun with no balance or depth: Alcohol out, money in, but you never make enough money to really feel like Scarface because upgrades and gang members are absurdly expensive. Of course, that rarely matters because the dominance of some strategies over others undermines what should otherwise be a wide-open sandbox game.
You can, in theory, play many ways, such as diplomatically catering to allies and placating opponents as you build up your empire, but those are never the best idea. Why would you wait for your cash reserves to build – and I mean literally wait, since the management layer is real-time and has a single speed – in order to wage a full-scale gang war when you can just directly attack enemies and take everything they have in one fight?
Empire of Sin Review Screenshots
Part of the issue with the strategy layer is that while the city is nice to look at, getting your characters to where you need them to be becomes a major chore. Your characters control in real time on the streets, and you order them around like units in an RTS until combat starts. They’re slow to react, slow to move, and frustratingly bad at pathfinding, requiring constant hand-holding. This makes attacking enemies building-by-building frustrating and boring: You move from place to place and attack, fight the same three or four guards on the same three or four maps, then take over the building.
While you’re doing this, enemy crews are attacking your rackets, subjecting you to an endless stream of boring defensive matchups between your hopelessly outgunned guards and big swarms of enemies. You, meanwhile, can really only afford to field one effective combat team. I have no idea where the other side gets their large bands of roving, well-armed, disposable muscle, but you’re limited to a few precious and expensive gangsters.
Fights might be more fun if you could afford more gangsters and more security upgrades for your rackets, but you really can’t. The economics are so poorly balanced that amassing any large amount of cash is really only possible once you’ve already built a huge empire of rackets, and even then you burn through it buying just a handful of incremental upgrades. Think spending $3,000 dollars for… +7% on a building’s income of $500. Woohoo, only 85 in-game weeks before I break even! That’s just a mere… hour and a half of my life. (One game speed, remember?)
The interface, by the way, is truly terrible for managing a huge empire. You can own dozens of businesses but there’s no single screen to manage them all at once. Instead, you get to sort through them neighborhood-by-neighborhood on screens that also have all your competitors’ businesses. To upgrade them, you must open a new screen for each business, one at a time. I eventually resorted to simply building new businesses, ignoring all upgrades, and hoping that quantity had a quality all its own. Thankfully, that worked.
So how do you win a gang war, then? How do you get rich? Simple: You just drive over to the other boss’ house and shoot them in the face. See, your units can teleport around the city by “driving” instantly to any discovered place. So you just declare war, teleport to the front door of the enemy’s safehouse, and assault it, bypassing any defense their armies of soldiers would have provided. Defeating the enemy boss in their HQ means you instantly take over all their buildings: Congratulations, your empire has now doubled in size and you got a really overpowered bit of unique gear to boot.
Sure, those safehouse fights can be hard, but the tactical AI is bad enough that with a decent crew you’ll quickly snowball totally out of the enemy’s control. Once you’ve got a grip on the mechanics, the only thing that’ll hold you back is bugs and bad game balance. Sometimes your characters will just up and vanish. Sometimes an enemy will turn out to have a really cool and overpowered special ability – like, say, mind-control drugs – or toss a bundle of dynamite that kills half your team before you can even act. Sometimes you’ll lose a fight to that power, reload the save for another go, and that same enemy just… won’t bother to use the ability this time.
The breaking point for me, though, was the cops. Not once was I ever harassed or attacked by the police or federal agents outside of a scripted mission. At one point I was literally slaughtering beat cops in the streets just to see if I could provoke a reaction of any kind. I could not. It’s as if the system you’d expect to control their behavior simply doesn’t exist.
For this review, I played four Empire of Sin campaigns. Two were fine enough, even enjoyable at times, but the management and diplomacy is boring in all scenarios. Of those, the shorter campaign on a smaller map was the most fun – on the larger maps, after I got strong enough I basically ran all of Chicago, but cleaning up was just a slog to the finish.
Those were the good runs. The other two campaigns were stopped within five hours by a game-breaking bug: One had every save corrupted, the other just soft-locked on any loading screen. Fifty percent of games being done in by bugs is not a great ratio. And all four were plagued with bugs like broken quests, disappearing units, and bonuses that seemed to do nothing.
It’s a shame, because the glimmers of a great game are here. Take your crew: The network of thugs-for-hire in your black book all have morale and loyalty scores, their own specific background traits, personalities, and relationships to the other gangsters. It’s the first game to implement this system so well since Jagged Alliance 2 (which I’ll note was also written by Brenda Romero). They get mad or worried when their lover is injured, and they won’t shoot a friend on the other side of a fight. They can gain new relationships in play, become alcoholics, or get syphilis. Gangsters can die permanently, too, which is fun to avoid once someone becomes integral to your crew. Push them far enough and they’ll leave your gang. But even with all of that promise, Empire of Sin’s many faults have pushed me too far.