Empire of Sin’s authentic decor, swinging house band, and menu of exotic systemic cocktails can’t make up for a serious termite infestation that threatens to quite literally bring the house down. It can be a real swell ball at times, but there comes a point – say, somewhere after the roof has collapsed, crushing all the guests – where you have to cut your losses and close up for renovation.
Had Empire of Sin launched in early access, I’d have called it exceptionally promising. Like a mob hitman dangling a lit cigarette over a gasoline-soaked rival business, it’s constantly threatening to turn into something absolutely explosive. Its many systems are poised to coalesce into some truly fascinating results, from the micro level personalities of the individual mobsters you can hire, to the apparent nuances of the higher level strategy management game. It doesn’t quite manage it, though.
I outlined most of what I felt were the game’s highest and lowest points in my review in progress, and at least one hotfix later, I’m sad to say that not a great deal has changed. Truthfully, however many approaches and clever tricks the game offers in the running of your mobster empire, the AI factions are never smart enough to warrant you actually using most of them. Weak minor factions will sit right next to the more powerful opponents, and the big fish will barely ever swallow the little one, despite the clear advantages they hold. There are many small issues like this, but they all come down to a lack of aggression or manipulation on the AI’s part. You have to wonder how they made it this far in the underworld with such a lack of ambition.
After several more hours with the combat that comprises around two thirds of the time you’ll spend with Empire of Sin, I’ve grown ever more weary of it. The lack of an auto-resolve feature means you’ll spend an age fighting grindy battles, and the ease of ambushing means fights are often over before they begin. This can be fun, for the first twenty or so times, but it ends up feeling like so many other parts of Empire of Sin: you’re barely even playing, just going through the motions needed to progress.
Because the economy benefits so strongly from your ability to take things by force, easy combat also leads to the management layer feeling almost inconsequential. You can break it with a few clever tricks, or you can take it by force, but the only way in which you actually have to work for it is in an investment of time, never strategy or forethought.
I still want Empire of Sin to realise its full potential, because its stylings really are something. A love for the time period permeates everything the game does, from the weapons and dialogue to what is probably my favourite soundtrack this year. The few battles that force you to pull out all the stops are properly gripping, and there’s a gleeful, immediate violence to finishing blows that bring to mind John Romero sneaking downstairs while his wife was asleep to add his own satisfyingly juvenile signature to the game.
I can’t remember having such an unsatisfying experience with a game that I didn’t end up fundamentally disliking, perhaps ever, because Empire of Sin is such a charming, and as I’ve said, ambitious creation. It’s not a bad game, it’s just one that needs more development time to realise its potential.
Empire of Sin is a promising strategy game but one that feels woefully incomplete. I can’t recommend it, but I can recommend following it’s hopeful transition into something genuinely wonderful.