Tropico 6 Review
Age is just a number when you're in a sunny paradise
They say few things in life are certain, except for death and taxes. This is probably also true for the citizens of Tropico, the long running strategy game that lets you take control of a tropical island and create your own slice of heaven, even if it means fudging a few election results along the way. The series began way back in 2001, with this being its sixth iteration. The franchise has swapped out developers multiple times and yet it somehow always remained the familiar charming, entertaining city management game, and the latest entry is no different.
In this city management game, players assume the role of a dictator El Presidente who hopes to guide his small but ambitious tropical slice of paradise in the Caribbean to financial and cultural glory. As in the past, and as in other games in the genre, players will start out with just a few available structures, be they homes, plantations, mills, factories, radio stations, banks, and so on and so forth. Over time you'll gradually unlock new structures that either offer new services or provide better quality of living / better job satisfaction to the citizens. You'll place roads, ensure your industry is working efficiently, and keep your finances afloat. The controls are about the same as any other city building sim, and they work well for the most part, though it'd be nice to have more zoom flexibility – after a certain (low) point, you get zoomed way out to the maximum distance.
Tropico 6 has a few new structures to help further expand gameplay variety, though none of them are gamechangers. For example, you can build a literal pirate cove and conduct raids, which bring in additional bonus resources or citizens, or, later on, sabotage the world superpowers, and even amusingly steal world wonders. Most buildings can be upgraded to keep them relevant as you progress through the eras, but you can no longer adjust the prices to charge the citizens at establishments or for housing. Instead you can only adjust the building upkeep costs, which dictates how citizens view its quality and thus affecting their happiness.
Another new element is the fact that you're no longer limited to just one island. The game now offers maps with multiple landmasses, and while their total land area doesn't much exceed the previous entries, it gives the maps a bit more diversity. You still can't do much with the water, but it does mean you can now build bridges and ports to connect your islands' infrastructures together, and a few buildings need to exist one per island. On the subject of transportation, there are new options here as well, such as tunnels through mountains and bus stops, giving the game more flexibility in how you interact with the environment. Sadly, there is still no terraforming, so you'll often run into annoyances of being unable to build because the ground is slightly uneven.
As is tradition, your income will largely depend on resource exporting by ship, which only happens every so often, meaning you'll often have deficits between export runs. Trading is done automatically, but you can also choose specific import and export contracts to maximize your island's development, and the game helpfully shows which offers are most cost beneficial to you. The menu system, in general, is fairly well laid out, and should be instantly familiar for those who are acquainted with the franchise. Buildings are separated into categories, and resource maps let you easily locate best places to build. For those who are new, the game includes a set of fairly thorough tutorial missions.
Another unique element of the franchise remains with the fact that each citizen can be viewed as an individual, with their own needs, happiness levels, job and home quality. You can watch them go to work, get food, sleep, and so on. If you want, you can get them arrested – you are El Presidente, after all. This level is simulation remains both enjoyable, and at times frustrating. Because each citizen is simulated, you have to wait for them to go to work, go home, rest, and account for their travel time. As such, you'll probably spend most of the time using the game's maximum speed option to pass the time and get things built after you've placed them. This also means you have to build housing and services such as health and entertainment together, as citizens will choose to live in a shack next to their workplace, with no services, rather than getting to and from a nice apartment on the other side of the island.
These same citizens keep you in power, despite the game's dictatorship approach. You can do a few things to skew election results in your favor, but the fact is you can get kicked out eventually, ending your game. The poorly implemented dynasty system from Tropico 5 is gone, so it's once again just you against democracy. Keeping citizens happy means providing quality jobs and housing, keeping crime low and bellies full, and providing health and entertainment services. You can also keep new people coming in via immigration offices, and tourists via attractions and hotels.
But even if you do so, citizens are now affected by the arbitrary happiness of the Caribbean as a whole, and if you are falling behind, they will notice. The happiness mechanic is a source of frustration in Tropico 6, as citizens just don't respond to the changes and services you provide, for whatever reasons. The game isn't very clear about it – according to the resource maps, you could have great health and entertainment area coverage, and quality housing that's rent-free, and still the happiness ratings for those areas would barely budge. It would have been nice to get more direct feedback about what can be done to improve citizen complaints. When you do win re-election, as any proud Presidente should, you can again give a speech and this is an opportunity to promise improvements to citizens and perhaps raise your relationships with a specific faction.
As in the last game, you'll go through The Colonial era, the World Wars era, the Cold War era, and finally arrive in the modern era. Through these times, you'll have to contend with your citizens in another way – their social groups. From the rebels, communists, environmentalists, and religious folk, each faction comes in a pair that has directly conflicting interests. Militarists want more guard towers, while communists prefer to have radio stations. Objects from most factions will roll in at a steady pace and keep you busy, as well as provide rewards for completion. You can reject their needs, at the cost of losing some support from that faction. Sometimes, you'll be forced to choose between two factions. The downside to this system is that the objectives are arbitrary and the game ignores buildings you already have – if the Religious faction wants another church when you've already got five, you'll have to build one, even if you demolish it right after getting your reward.
The objections from the factions will drive your progress in sandbox mode with randomly generated maps, but they also appear in the game's campaign, alongside main missions. The campaign in Tropico 6 is fairly varied and entertaining for a strategy game, featuring 15 missions of varied parameters and focuses, as well as wildly varying terrain. You can pick a difficulty for each mission, and each one raises the stakes and progresses you though specific eras, introducing the players to more aspects of managing the archipelago gradually. You can also still issue edicts that define how your land is governed, such as imposing prohibition or increasing military focus, which remains a fun and unique aspect of the game. To do so though, there is now a slightly revised research system – you must first earn research points from libraries and similar institutions and spend them on edicts, before you can enact them.
The campaign missions are loosely tied together as memories of El Presidente's most trusted chap, Penultimo. The series has always had a great tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, and though its quality has fluctuated over the years, Tropico 6 goes for quality over quantity with its writing. Some of the characters are voiced, though they do often say the same things when it comes to giving you objectives. The sense of a fun and light hearted atmosphere remains intact.
You also have to deal with external forces once again, which change depending on the era – be that the USSR, USA, and so on. International talks occur on much lower frequency than local faction demands, but can be nonetheless important to your success. It's not so much about choosing sides as it is doing what's best for Tropico, and for you. Speaking of El Prez, previous games had the idea of having a personal Swiss bank account to stash money away, and Tropico 6 makes this into a gameplay mechanic by introducing the Broker character. This character gives missions to only pad your Swiss account – which you can in turn spend at times of need as a sort of failsafe. You can convert your personal cash to Tropico treasury, buy a boost in political ratings, or generate a favorable trade offer.
But for all its sunshine, the game certainly isn't without problems. For instance, some of the interface navigation can be improved, and as mentioned, the game lacks key information when things go wrong. There's no easy way to see all your religious or military buildings, for instance. Placing buildings can be annoying as they are placed one at a time, and you need to navigate back to the build menu to place another. You could be zoomed out to find that gold resource location, but you can't zoom while in build mode, so you need to exit building mode, zoom in, and build again to fine-tune the location and orientation of the structure. Roads are shockingly bad at autopathing, and you have to lay them in fairly short batches. You also can't simply shut down a place without demolishing it, to save costs during tough months.
The game can also be fairly buggy. Visual glitches like buildings vanishing at certain zoom distances (absent after a save reload), citizens and El Prez getting stuck, transports getting frozen, and missions failing to complete. There are also some more worrisome issues that have to do with game calculating numbers improperly – be that finances, exports, or something else. You can't quite put your finger on it, but when finances suddenly surge or crash when nothing's changed for a long time and you're carefully watching your trade routes, something just feels off at times. Perhaps the same goes for the citizen happiness rating calculations.
If the campaign and sandbox aren't enough, budding dictators can also head online for some multiplayer. You compete against up to four others in trying to create the best island nation. The mode is fairly open ended, though there are victory conditions like completing the most objectives and having the most money. Everyone gets their own piece of land, and you can interact with other players (if you have an embassy) by asking to borrow money or blockading their ports. The problem though is that you can't save. That's right, at launch the multiplayer mode of Tropico 6 is a one-session affair. The developers say that a save function will be added later, but it makes the online component a fairly throwaway feature for now.
While other long running strategy game franchises, like Ubisoft's Anno, have the benefit of being able to swap settings and adapt familiar gameplay into new eras, that isn't the case with Tropico. Given the name, the series has always been softly locked in to the sunny setting and warm atmosphere, and while it's always fun to return to it once in a while, it does grow somewhat repetitive. Like going to Hawaii every year on vacation – it's nice, but you've been here so many times that things start to blur together. If you played the previous two games, it would be hard to immediately point out any presentation differences in the new one. It's still sunny, the interface is familiar but slightly tweaked, the music is great (but are the tracks being re-used? It's hard to remember), and it feels like returning to a familiar location. It looks and sounds good, with the same dry-wit political jabs and amusement of being a sly dictator. If you've never played Tropico, the experience is charming, but returning fans will be instantly familiar the game's atmosphere.
And perhaps that can be said for the game as whole. To be fair, Tropico 5 was a bit of a misstep, but now that the franchise is back on track, you'd be hard pressed to find must-buy reasons for this title for fans that already spent time with Tropico 4. It's a charming and involving city builder, and if you're itching for your Tropico fix, the game certainly delivers. But going on its sixth entry, the small iterations to the core experience may as well have been released as expansion packs, without a multi-year gap.