Empire of Sin Review
A combination of RPG and strategy that doesn't pay off
I wonder how long Empire of Sin has lived in the back of lead designer Brenda Romero’s mind. It seems like the kind of game that would be obvious and inevitable, the kind of game that you might not actually get around to because you always wanted to do a little more research or think about the mechanics in a little more depth. It feels like a passion project for Romero. A staple in the games industry for years, Romero has sojourned through indie and AAA projects before forming Romero Games with her husband, John Romero. Empire of Sin is her biggest project in nearly 20 years and while there’s some shared credit with her husband, the game feels like her vision. But a passion project, something that’s been thought of for years and years, tweaked over and over can sometimes backfire. While Romero clearly knows her history of 1920’s Chicago mobs and has implemented inventive ways for people to explore the era through game mechanics - the experience feels lacking. The simulation may be right and all the boxes of the design doc may be ticked, but building a thriving Empire of Sin is a frustratingly difficult task marred by strange AI and cumbersome management mechanics.
You begin Empire of Sin by picking which mob boss and gang you want to run. While there are obvious historical figures like Al Capone and his gang called “The Outfit” in the 14 possible choices, some fictional characters have been added as well, like Maggie Dyer who is a circus performer turned mob boss. Each boss comes with their own perks, adding serious RPG flavor to the game. The bosses have their own narrative storyline that you experience before being able to fully engage in the strategy elements of building your gang from the ground-up by clearing out buildings and installing your own rackets, and it keeps interjecting as your empire grows.
The RPG elements don’t just come through in the story, they are present in the mechanics as well - perhaps a bit too much. While there is a neighborhood screen to help players get a sense of their many businesses and a lay of the land, it’s not actually how you manage your business. That’s done by controlling a character and hired crew around the streets from an isometric camera angle. What we have here is mechanically closer to a cRPG than a management sim. You’ll have inventory and equipment for your mob boss and crew much like a party in Mass Effect or Pillars of Eternity. With your group, you’ll wander the streets of Chicago picking up main and side quests. Main missions are unique for each mob boss and will have you making shady deals with the mayor of Chicago or hunting down your husband’s killer. Meanwhile side missions are the same for everyone and are simpler, like lending money to a blind drunk who promises to make you the best swill, or dealing with protestors on the street. You’ll have dialogue options and your crew will have their own personalities and character traits you’ll need to contend with.
In some ways, there’s interesting character work being done here. Seeing my crew develop feelings for each other and loyalty to me through continually working together is interesting and I could see how these relationships were impacted through gameplay. When one of my crew died, her lover slowly went crazy with grief. When a crew member asked me to help him find a saboteur who had ruined his career as a sharpshooter, I could choose to let the man live, but my crew insisted that he die.
The writing isn’t always great, but there are fun missions - both in the main narrative and side content. In some ways, I wondered why the game didn’t lean on this element more. Romero certainly seems drawn to the idea of telling intimate stories on the streets of 1920’s Chicago, why isn’t that the focus of the game? While there are interesting elements, it feels weird to be a mob boss running the streets and getting into gun fights as opposed to living life behind a desk, exerting your power through clever schemes and nasty words. Especially in a game that seems so interested in what Prohibition Chicago was truly like.
When you’re not running busy work for the people in your neighborhood, you’ll be clearing out buildings occupied by independent thugs. This requires entering into combat which is turn-based and laid out on a grid, like many other games of this subgenre. Each boss has unique abilities/attacks, sort of like picking your leader in Civilization games. You and your enemies take turns maneuvering characters and using abilities to try and kill each other. While the combat sequences can run a little long, they are serviceable. Sometimes the combat feels good, like when you’re at the climax of a story mission, but as you are forced to repeat the encounters to conquer buildings in your neighborhood, it begins to feel cumbersome. I wish there was an “auto-take over" button that simulated the fight because playing them out for almost every building is a bit long. Leaning even further into RPG territory are the skill trees that are upgraded as your character and crew get more experience. The skill tree isn’t well paced as you acquire skills a little too quickly. They’re the kind of skills you’d expect in a strategy RPG, like being able to take move action after killing someone or using a spread attack to hit multiple enemies.
After you’ve conquered a building, you can choose what kind of racket you want to turn it into or if you want to ransack or destroy the building. The obvious choice seems to be to turn the building into a money-making venture for yourself, but running rackets cost a surprising amount of money - first to just get them up and running, but even more to maintain them. This is one of the bigger issues with Empire of Sin. Getting your syndicate going is a bit tricky and I never found a reliable way for my businesses to turn a profit. After you start a racket, it begins with the lowest rankings for all five attributes - which change based on the racket you're running but they measure things like the ambiance of your speak-easy, the quality of your alcohol, or how likely the feds are to raid your establishment. They are expensive to upgrade and take a considerable amount of time to complete, though you can pay extra to get their benefits immediately.
It was hard for me to find a strategy that worked consistently. Too many low-ranking businesses resulted in too many headaches with cops raiding buildings and not enough money coming in the door. So on a second playthrough, I tried really perfecting a few rackets before expanding my empire, though that didn’t work much better. And crew members are so expensive that it would be absurdly costly to hire more than a couple. In addition to this, you’ll need to manage the kind of alcohol you serve as well. As neighborhoods become more wealthy and up-scale, they’ll demand better booze. This may seem like a fair bit to manage, but mostly the headache is not having a central hub to do it all in. I actually found myself with a fair bit of downtime, making me wish the game had cheetah speed as I waited for my money to accrue for upgrades. The fluctuation of neighborhood wealth changes a little too often as well. I was constantly getting pop-ups letting me know I should change my alcohol offering, which is annoying as I’m trying to run side missions.
As you and other gangs encounter each other you’ll have to start diplomatic relations. This is a little annoying because I was encountering new gangs all the time and your only options are to fight them on the spot, threaten them, or hold a sit-down. The first two options usually lead to warfare and engaging in multiple gang wars can get old really quick, so you’ll need to attend sit-downs with each boss. Sit-downs are little cutscenes with dialogue options where you and a mob boss meet each other and try to strike a deal. These scenes almost always play out the same - you’re either constantly juggling conflict or trading deals with multiple bosses but the way they are presented are dry and repetitive. There’s little time where you can just run your rackets or handle the plethora of side missions dumped on you.
The RPG and strategy game elements never find a harmonious blend. Instead, they almost feel like the gangs of Chicago, constantly at war and neither giving the other any room to breathe. The RPG stuff is involved enough that it distracts from managing your business, the business management feels lacking in options, and managing gang relations distracts from both of those tasks. It’s clear Romero wants all of these elements to work in concert with each other, but they feel isolated. It feels like two (maybe three) different games being soldered together. Giving more options and weight to the management and pulling away from the RPG may have helped make this be a more engaging strategy game, if that’s what actually was desired, or a reinvention of the game as an RPG could have given it some strong central identity.
The game has the typical cRPG look, and doesn’t feel like Chicago in any meaningful way. The world is lined with walk-ups and theaters, but aside from the overworld map and the named neighborhoods, there doesn’t seem to be anything separating the look of Chicago from New York. Nor do neighborhoods feel meaningfully different. There’s no desire to want to explore the streets of Chicago. I’m not asking for deep-dish pizza and Wrigley Field, but there’s a bland aesthetic to Empire of Sin.
The game is also a little over-reliant on its poorly animated and voiced cutscenes. Using these scenes for each sit down is a waste of time when a pop-up dialogue box would have worked just as effectively. Enlisting voice-work and animators must be expensive, but the end result is so forgettable, it seems like a misguided way to drain resources.
It doesn’t help that I found the game to be annoyingly buggy. I had issues in combat with the game refusing to let me throw projectile weapons, I hit a semi-game breaking bug when my mob boss refused to run anywhere, which I could only fix by reloading an old save. The AI is crazy aggressive, with random rival gangs constantly showing up in my neighborhood looking to start a war. Yet, the AI in the gunfights is impractical, often running around instead of shooting at obvious targets. The final product seems rushed, to say the least, and hopefully, some patches are on the way to smooth things out.
Empire of Sin seems like the kind of game that is maybe a little overdesigned. Instead of a strategy game that’s focused on managing a business or an RPG that’s about running the streets of Chicago, we have a strange blend of both. It’s a chimera of mechanics, with multiple heads snapping and biting at each other. Given Romero’s history with RPGs and the passion behind the project, I could see how you might get here through the strange journey of game development. Yet, the inability to focus and develop one core set of mechanics, nor establish a definitive gameplay loop for players to invest in, leaves Empire of Sin feeling clunky and uneven.