When Empire of Sin was released all the way back in 2020, XCOM-hungry fans projected their aspirations and hopes onto it only to face disappointment and a game that should have never been released in the state it was. But let’s ask the question people have been asking on the forums: How’s Empire of Sin doing almost two years later? Is it finally playable? Or should you go look for your gangster fix somewhere else?
Since we’re nearing Halloween, let me tell you a story: You see, once upon a time, a famous game developer called John Romero awoke from his slumber, after failing to release a decent videogame since Doom II. Alongside his wife, they created Romero Games and teamed up with strategy gaming darling, Paradox Interactive to create a turn-based game with a management layer set during the 1920’s gang-ridden Chicago. The premise was great, and the pedigree was certainly there. The talent and passion, however, were not. And since it’s rare we can have nice things, Empire of Sin came out on the 1st of December, 2020, and it was a massive disappointment: a buggy and unfinished mess, with substantial game-breaking bugs that wouldn’t allow players to even finish the game they paid full price for. The management aspect of things was lackluster, something the “recent” (at the time of writing, this “recent” update it’s almost a year old) Precinct Update tried to address, but didn’t (again, more on this later). The tactical turn-based layer is decent, yes, but as all things Empire of Empire, it lacks any complexity and nuance in its systems, and battles mostly boil down to taking pot-shots until somebody dies. There are few incentives to use special moves and actions, as most of those are objectively worse than normal attacks, and situational at best.
It saddens me to see this game has been all but abandoned by the looks of it. No news for almost a year, the forums are full of unanswered questions about the current state of the game, and there’s still one DLC in the works waiting to be released that people already paid for if they bought Expansion Pass Bundle. Worst yet, is that on the Romero Games page, they claim that “It’s a new dawn for Romero Games. We are 100% focused on first-person shooters, the foundation that built our careers, our studio, and a genre. Our current project is an all-new FPS with an original, new IP”, but no word on whether they plan, or don’t, to finish what they started with Empire of Sin. I’ve contacted Romero Games and asked them if they’re planning on finishing the game, and if they plan on releasing the DLC, but no answer came. I’ll update the article if it does.
If you’re an avid reader, then it’s no secret that I take no pleasure in writing negative reviews of games, instead, if I don’t like a game, I just ignore it and move on to the next one, as I have always said: “life is too busy to spend your free time playing games you don’t like”. And most tastes are subjective, so what’s even the point? Aren’t most reviews just confirmation bias? And why are you telling me this? Well, because there’s a difference between a game being subjectively bad, or me just not enjoying it enough to keep playing it, and a game being downright broken and neglected. And from time to time a concept emerges that snags your interest and you can’t help but get invested. See, when the first reviews of Empire of Sin came out I dismissed them as a bunch of spoiled reviewers, with their digital bud tastes tainted by other, more refined titles of the genre. How bad could it really be? And if it was that bad, just wait a couple of months and it will eventually get fixed- as all things Paradox nowadays do- to the point it’s an enjoyable title. Let this be a cautionary tale to moderate your expectations. However, I don’t really dislike Empire of Sin, in fact, I’ve started to grow quite fond of it the more I play: it has a certain charm to its simplicity, and it’s a good game to play while you’re listening to podcasts or music, or just want to zone out and not put too much effort into your gaming session after a long day at work.
But what is the Empire of Sin, after all? It’s a turn-based strategy game in the vein of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, set during the 1920’s Prohibition-era Chicago. You play the role of an ambitious, soon-to-be big-shot in the criminal underworld of the Windy City. Akin to its inspiration, the gameplay takes place across two distinct but interlacing dimensions: the strategical layer is where you rule your empire (of sin), by deciding what moves to make to further your agenda. This layer happens in real time, with the ability to pause when needed. Strangely enough, there’s no way to fast forward- and if there is, I couldn’t find it- so prepare to be staring at your monitor screen from time to time when there’s nothing important going on.
The game’s art style is cool, and even if I would like to have a more realistic tone, I think the exaggerated features of the characters manage to capture their personalities rather well. There are some… odd choices, certainly, like a gang that’s based on a circus (?) and that’s a bit too far off. The cartoony-ish look of it all also lends itself to some funny scenes: say you’ve just hired a lady that so happened to be a former doctor turned gun-totting manic who also knows her way around executing goons with a World War 1 nail-spiked bat. Just like the picture below. This is charming in its own, weird and sinister ways.
The in-game characters all look cool and their personalities pop. My gang was composed of a Doctor with a sniper rifle, a World War veteran carrying a trench knife and a shotgun, a scar-faced, fedora-wearing Chicago Typewriter (who never worked in an office) named Vicenzo Carro, and an Asian lady that loves bombs. This posse of no-do-gooders is headed by Alphonse Capone, the titular mob boss of the early 1920s. Unlike other games in the genre, where the recruited characters are usually generic nobodies, in Empire of Sin, they have a certain personality that’s coherent with their looks and mannerisms.
However, these traits are only skin deep: they have a couple of modifiers to their name and might refuse to work with other criminals they dislike, but other than that, they are nothing more than your average squad member. A wasted opportunity to explore the relationship between different characters. For example, XCOM: Chimera Squad did that extremely well in its narrative, by having friendly banter between the different alien species working together in its police force and exploring the post-invasion interaction between different alien species and their former foes turned friends, the humans. Ludologically speaking, Darkest Dungeon II is even more competent at this, as character interaction is at the center of what makes its emergent narratives: some get suspicious and might actively avoid being helped by the party, others become friends and engage in relationships, granting them bonuses during the fights, some grow resentful and refuse to help, and others will turn from former heroes to cowards, refusing to fight and skipping turns, some will even steal. This eventually encourages players to try to foment these relationships between the different members of the party in order to try and get the best out of them in a hostile and deadly world.
But there’s one thing Empire of Sin does extremely well, and that is to invoke a sense of atmosphere. From a glance, just by looking at a screenshot from the city of Chicago, one can immediately identify the time period. The dimly lit rooms of speakeasies and brothers mirror the idealized mental images one has of the 1920s underworld, you can almost smell the whisky and cigars. There’s always a sense of foreboding, too. Every city building that’s interactable the player can also enter into them, and that’s nice, even though, most of the time there’s nothing to do inside unless it’s to go talk to someone. And this leads me straight to the next important point, the management aspect of things.
How many times was the word “lackluster” used so far? The 3D map might be looking great, but unfortunately, there’s little incentive to look at it. A good chunk of the game, I would say, around 60 to 70% takes place on the overworld map because this is where you’ll be making all your moves that don’t involve pressing a trigger, this is where bootlegging empires will rise, expand and fall, where sitdowns between mob bosses will happen and, at the end, where the money is being made. In essence, there are three layers to this map, the 3D one, or street view, which is the most zoomed-in. The neighborhood view provides an overview of your and the surrounding precincts and the self-explanatory city view. Most of the time, you’ll be scrolling in and out of the neighborhood and city views, given that this is the most effective way to play the game. This isn’t a critique, however, as I much appreciate the ease of access to all the information available and how straight to the point everything is. I just would like to see more reasons to interact with the 3D map more often, because apart from the 3D tactical battles- that happen in a 3D space but outside the city map- there’s almost no reason to use the close-up view, and it a damn shame because it looks fantastic.
Against other games of the genre, Empire of Sin’s management layer isn’t necessarily the worst, but it also doesn’t do anything interesting with it. And while other games can be forgiven for this: XCOM’s focus is on the tactical battles and the strategic layer serves only as some context to what’s happening and it wasn’t until XCOM 2 that this part of the game got some well-deserved attention. Gears Tactics is, arguably, even worse, as all there is to play around with is equipment and picking between repetitive side missions. But then again, Gears is a narrative-driven experience while Empire of Sin is more of a sandbox. And if criminal underworld management is what you’re looking for, City of Gangsters is a more suitable option.
The map is divided into sections of the city, and each section is into precincts, this is where the management happens. Each precinct has a certain amount of building slots for criminal operations to be built on. So far so good, but the trouble arises when you’re faced with only four buildings: breweries; brothels; casinos; speakeasies. The breweries produce the alcohol necessary for all others to function, and as long as the barrels keep rolling in, the money will eventually land in your hands. These buildings can be upgraded but these are mostly stat upgrades with no need for spreadsheet balancing or any big brain complex moves for you to make. Have the money? Increase the production of whisky and open another bar. And as long as this scale of establishments is open to the public and the alcohol being produced is balanced, there’s nothing to fear because losing money is somewhat hard, and the best way to live on the edge is to build more casinos than necessary, as they might incur in losses from time to time. In my current playthrough, I just own two precincts and within those are two breweries, the rest are just bars and one single brothel, and these bring home around 1700$ weekly. This was enough to garner me 95,000$ to equip my crew and start to plan to take over more powerful families in the first year of starting a new game. I wish I could say more but there isn’t a lot to say other than this aspect of the game clearly didn’t have the attention the tactical battles did, and it shows. Then there is the whole diplomacy thing but this is only good if you have an excess of barrels (which you will) and want to sell them to other families. The personal relationship aspects and opinions people in-game have of one another that are so crucial in like Crusader Kings and City of Gangsters are almost absent, except for “like/dislike” relationships between gangsters available for hire from the black book. And also, if the turn-based battles are the better part of the game, what’s even the point of avoiding war with other gangs and denying yourself the best part of the game just to see numbers go up in the user interface?
Curiosity: when the party moves on the 3D map, they look like the Scooby-Doo gang. Very intimidating
At this point in time, it’s unacceptable that games in this genre fail to do something… decent, at least. I’m not expecting all games to be masterpieces (like XCOM Enemy Unknown), and perfectly excel at everything, but with some much to draw inspiration from, it’s hard really hard to stomach the failings of a game with the pedigree and experience of Paradox and Romero. For context, prior to the release of Empire of Sin, the XCOM reboot had been out for 8 years; XCOM 2 for 4 years; Chimera Squad for 6 months; Gears Tactics for 8 months; Valkyria Chronicles 4 for 4 years; Phoenix Point for 1 year; Into The Breach for 4 years, almost 5; Omerta: City of Gangsters for 7 years; Divinity: Original Sin 2 for 3 years; Battle Brothers for 3 years; and so many others, this list could go on and on, and I’m only focusing on more mainstream titles, I’m not even going down the rabbit hole of other, objectively more complex turn-based wargames. So while one can excuse the lack of any meaningful new mechanics way back when it’s hard to gloss over it in this day and age. XCOM not only reboot but resuscitated an entire genre and launched it straight into a new golden age by streamlining the mechanics of the original and capturing a new audience that was never exposed to the 1994 classic, as is the case of yours truly, who was just a baby when the first game in this long-running series came out. XCOM 2 leaned harder into the amount of special actions units could do and the synergies between your team. Gears Tactics implemented a “theme-perfect” momentum system where the Gears (soldiers), by performing executions get more action points. Phoenix Point had its signature free-aim system that placed more emphasis on positioning. Into the Breach showed us how a turn-based system can be equally as complex in an 8×8 board as it can in massive 3D-rendered battles from the prior titles. And, to round things off, Divinity: Original Sin 2 is a textbook example of how to use your character’s abilities to trigger status and environmental effects. With so much to draw from, how can one excuse the lackluster implementation and poor design decisions of Empire of Sin?
Battles play out mostly as expected, but instead of moving your entire team at once and then the enemy, the system is based on initiative stats, more akin to classical JRPGs or, say, Darkest Dungeon. The unit with the highest initiative stat has the right of the way in that turn, then the second highest, then the third, and so on. This will most likely mean that your units will attack first, then the enemy, this might change later on, but I was unable to verify that because during my first playthrough the main quest line bugged out and I had to boot up a new save with another boss. Unlike other games, like the aforementioned Darkest Dungeon 2, where every move is, more often than not, a matter of life and death for the party, in Empire of Sin, this initiative-based system adds almost nothing, and I would argue it only makes planning harder because it’s hard to translate that stat into tangible, easy to perceive information, especially when there’s no way to preview the same stats from the enemies. In DD2, there are specific moves the units can activate to “act faster” on their upcoming turns, this trade-off, of sacrificing a move this turn in order to act faster on the following turns (why you would want to do this is situational, but say you want to combo, a new mechanic of Darkest Dungeon 2 that basically allows for enemies to be tagged by an ability that can be followed up by another – or the same character- for extra damage, heal, crit chance, etc.), and in a game as high stakes as Darkest Dungeon 2, every time a combo is pulled off, there’s an immense feeling of satisfaction, and more importantly, every time a combo is failed, there’s a sense of wasted opportunity and of impending doom (your characters will even reflect that in-game by getting stressed, another core mechanic of the game). This is to say: the base premise of how the game plays is not off to a great start, but it’s hard to fault it either, except for its missed potential.
let’s start by addressing the worst nuisance: Every time a battle starts, your units will spread out across the map, and not rarely, instead of running for the nearby cover, they’ll go full smooth brain and run towards the enemy and just stand there, in the open. This is annoying enough but made worse because, since you’re relying on your initiative stats to make the first move, this means the enemy might have the chance to kill or severely injure one of your goons before you even get a chance to place them behind cover, and not rarely I’ve had to restart missions because of how bullshit that is. This is especially egregious because injuries in Empire of Sin can last for months! And remember that you can’t fast forward, so if someone gets injured for 63 days (!) they’ll be out of commission for more than two months without you being able to do anything about it. Now, picture this: you start a new game, hire two bootleggers from the black book, and one gets shot and injured in the first turn of the first mission. For the next month and a half, you’ll be handicapped from the start, and unable to do anything, unless you want to risk getting your sole acting goon injured too by attempting to clear squatters out of derelict buildings. Worse yet, prepare to be looking at your map screen for half an hour, while you wait for them to make a recovery. This also means you might not be able to undertake timed missions because you’ll be risking losing the game outright. So what do you do? Wait or start over? This can be even worse if you made early investments and there’s no way to financially recover. And while crew management is an integral part of every game like this and injuries are present in every title, there’s a big difference between a mechanic being fun and forcing you to do tough choices and it just preventing you from playing outright. It’s a recipe for disaster I can’t believe went through quality assurance and nobody noticed it.
Battles that happen more organically: say you enter a bar of an opposing faction you’re not at war with (yet!), there’s the possibility of triggering an ambush by placing gangsters prior to starting firing, and you can initiate this willie-nilly, giving players a great upper hand against unsuspecting foes and making difficult battles just a tad bit easy by taking initiative. Besides, is there anything more gangster than surprising rival families when they least expect it? But as you might expect, this only happens once, because once families are at war, prepared to get peppered the moment someone suspicious rolls on by.
Fortunately, things get better from here: every unit can be equipped differently and accordingly to the situation at hand. Have to take down a building with too many enemies but don’t have more than two or three crewmembers available? Equip everyone with grenades! Taking too much damage? Get some silk vests. Need more close-range power? Shotguns are the answer. The inventory system had some thought put into it, and that is something I can abide by. There are dozens of different weapons, each with its stats and particularities. The gangster staples are all here and don’t take long to make an appearance: the 50-round magazine Thompson with the vertical foregrip; the BAR 1918; The Colt; The Remington Model 10 Shotgun. Even some more esoteric options show up for the party: the Gewehr 98 and Mosin Nagant are interesting choices and even an improvised Zip Gun is available for those looking to kill but lacking the funds for a decent shot barreled shotgun or a single-action revolver.
Cruder and cheaper options exist if you don’t mind getting your hands dirty: sledgehammers, bowie knives, lead pipes, baseball bats, brass knuckles, axes, and even cut-throat razors. Every gun has realistic clip sizes, and this has a very real impact on the gameplay, something I pretty much appreciate. Say, Vincenzo Carro, currently going by “Lucky” on the streets is typing with his trusty 20-round Thompson, he’ll have to manage his ammunition expenditure more carefully than say, Bau Chai-Ung, that’s sporting a 50-round mag. Now, why would you use one instead of the other? Well, as with all things in life, the better one is significantly more expensive. Grenades and other explosives have different damages and blast radius, and prices. All and all, I would say the arsenal in Empire of Sin is extremely versatile and even better than other games previously mentioned, and someone on the design team actually thought things through. Curiously, there are several health-related items such as medical pouches, kits, and bandages, all reminiscent of World War 1 surplus, to more… esoteric options like health tonics, which is essentially a health potion from Diablo. They all have different bonuses, stats, and will cost varying amounts- that’s always something nice to have, the larger the option pool, the better in my book. To round things off there are different types of ammunition, and trinkets, the first one increases weapon stats or adds other modifiers, such as the Riot Rounds that have a 25% chance to knock enemies back; the latter acts essentially as another stat modifier for the character you want to equip it: more melee damage, more initiative, movement, etc.
Were the animations a bit more polished, the tactical battles of Empire of Sin would be very enjoyable, but some of those are so rough they can be immersion-breaking, the most egregious one being that every time a Thompson gun is fired it has the chance to hit the enemy three times, but the gun fires six or seven times, so the hits have already registered but the weapon is still firing. Also, the recoil of the weapons seldom lines up with the shooting animation and when enemies die their animations don’t match the damage being inflicted: some dramatically throw themselves into the air after being shot by a pistol; others just shut down and fall to the ground after taking a massive slug; some just swirl around after getting their heads caved in by a pipe; it’s all over the place, and I’m not sure if these are even pre-recorded animations or just some ragdoll system not working as intended, but my bet is on the latter.
My last gripe with the combat system is that inside most buildings there isn’t a lot of incentive to move your units around to get a positional upper hand over your opponent. As long as the shooter is safely behind a brick wall, just take potshots until the enemy horde is thinned out. Since most of the time the enemy will outnumber you, and this reliance on numbers is something that can ruin the flow of a game if done poorly, moving out and not shooting is far from optimal, because you’ll soon find yourself surrounded and overwhelmed. There’s a much bigger challenge in facing lesser, but more competent enemies than hugging a wooden crate and hoping your shots kill the enemy first. This might change later on, but I sincerely doubt it, so things will get rather formulaic: Start a mission, thin the herd from a safe position, and move to put the last guys out of their misery.
Just for the record, so far during my playtime, there has not been one mission where a drive-by happens. What kind of gangster are we really if we travel on foot or use a taxi everywhere we go? And just one last thing, what’s the reasoning behind having to manually heal every character after each encounter? It’s one thing to not be able to heal them after, but if you have a medic on the team (and there’s really no reason not to have one), then just automatically do that, it’s just non-sensical busy work.
The Mission System And Bosses
A pleasant surprise was the number of different missions the game has and how often they’re presented. I’m not sure about this, but from what I’ve been able to observe so far, each boss has specific missions innate to their characters, and between these, other missions show up constantly, but these don’t seem to be randomly generated “go do this” and “kill that”, but they appear to have been curated and built by hand. Missions vary wildly, from killing other high-ranking family members to dispersing religious nuts from the sidewalks near your brothels to expelling goons from abandoned buildings, and even the occasional blackmail. Every mission can go several different ways, some characters can be killed, bribed, and even intimidated to your desired outcome. Not that this has any long-lasting consequences, in fact, it doesn’t have any consequences whatsoever but it’s a nice touch and can make for some fun moments.
Currently playing as Daniel McKee Jackson, I’m helping my buddy Bill in his run to become mayor of Chicago and secure my place in the sun, but during this questline, his secretary tried to intervene and convince/stopped me from helping him. I had the choice to tell him (and maybe turn against him?), but as the cold-blooded and calculating gangster that I am, I’ve run Bill’s errands and started convincing his political opponents that it was better for their health if they dropped from the political race: did you know that a lot of people die every year from jogging? Some even get run over by trucks… twice. And we don’t want that to happen, now do we? After some hard-lining negotiation, it was time to make sure voters knew it was safer to vote for my friend Bill than other, less morally dubious options. In the end, Jackson decided that the best course of action was to unload an entire clip into Bill’s secretary because Jackson knows that snitches must get stitches… or 6 bullets in the chest.
To finish this review, I have to talk about the bosses in the game. There are 15 different bosses, each with its own special boss ability (a skill to use in during the tactical battles) and empire-wide bonuses. And that’s basically it. Did I mention most of the things in the game are lackluster?
So Bad It’s Good
In the end, I don’t think Empire of Sin is a bad game, it just lacks a lot of polish. Small things one can handle, bad animations? Heck, even XCOM had questionable animations, and the camera work was downright atrocious. Sure, the goons’ personalities are skin deep but Phoenix Point also lacks any kind of personality to its units (unlike Gears Tactics). The management aspect of things isn’t necessarily Planet Coaster, but Gears’ management aspect was limited to picking up what missions to do next. But throw enough problems and a linear scale of problems can very quickly escalate into an exponential clusterfuck of hard-to-deal-with bullshit.
Would I say that you should buy it? This a tricky question to answer. If Romero Games were to get their act together and fix the bugs and problems highlighted in this review? Of course! I sincerely think there’s a good game hiding somewhere in here, but all its ideas are half-baked meals that never deliver to their premises. As it stands, I can safely qualify Empire of Sin as one of those games that’s so bad it’s good and fun to play. If you get it on sale or for cheapies on some online store, then yeah, you could do much worse. In fact, when it comes to gangster video games, everybody is rather strapped for options. There are not a lot of them at the moment, so if you really, really need this fix, it’s either Mafia, City of Gangsters, or Empire of Sin. It just depends on what genre you like the most.
Just have in mind that there is one game-breaking bug playing with Alphonse Capone that still hasn’t been fixed, so if you plan on getting Empire of Sin make sure you play any other boss and avoid Capone until this is fixed.