Do you like spreadsheets?
Empire of Sin, the strategy and management game from Romero Games, had a fairly rocky launch on the Nintendo Switch. Performance issues were cited frequently when people mentioned the game. It’s unfortunate since the top-down tactical RPG combat and the business and real estate management sim aspects of the game are rare to find in a higher profile release like this. Over a month after release and a few patches in, does the game still have issues?
Well, yes, it’s still a very rough game from a technical standpoint. The visuals are blurry; textures that should have some dimension to them, like clothing or cobblestone, are flat. Lag spikes are frequent. Animations will occasionally not play or sound cues will be missed. Commands for your characters take a few tries to execute. The performance-related aspects are actually a noticeable bit better when playing docked; animations are much less likely to be skipped, for example. Lite owners and mostly-handheld players like me will have to live with the hiccups, however.
Empire of Sin sees the player take control of a fledgling gang in 1920s Chicago and tasks them with taking that gang from the dregs of society to mob royalty. But first, you need to pick a gang. The variety of options here are a little staggering at first with fourteen gangs that all have different benefits to choose from. I picked the Hip Sing Tong due to their gang leader, Sai Wing Mock, having the ability to throw poison bombs around the battlefield, which sounded cool. There are other benefits to bosses that are less visceral. Any brothel owned by the Hip Sing Tong gets an extra guard automatically as well as the cost to upgrade casino games being 20% less.
The intrinsic perks of your gang affect the management sim part of the game. Conquering Chicago is done by obtaining and growing businesses. There are a few types of businesses, called rackets in game, that you can run: breweries, speakeasies, brothels, casinos, and hotels. The player can invest money into each business to grow them by improving the ambience or the word of mouth. Owning successful rackets brings in a higher weekly payout. You need money to make money here, so making each business as nice as possible is key. You’ll start the game with a brewery and a few other rackets, but expanding is up to the player.
Acquiring businesses has a few different methods. Some buildings can be bought outright, but others have occupants that need to be kicked out first. The safest buildings to take over are thug occupied buildings or those owned by minor gangs. These will have the least amount of blow-back from displacing the tenants. Expansion becomes tricky when you take buildings from other premier gangs. Going after these buildings means snatching something from people who don’t take too kindly to having their stuff taken. Rival gangs will try to take their property back if your favorability rating with them gets too low. Protecting a building means investing in Security to increase the number of guards that building has. The police are also a faction in Empire of Sin. Each business is illegally run, so slowing down suspicion by investing in Deflect is another way to protect a business.
Dealing with other rival gangs can also be done diplomatically. As mentioned earlier, other gangs can lose favorability toward your gang, but sometimes they can like you. For my playthrough, everyone hated me. I think it’s because I kept accepting business deals with other gangs despite certain factions hating the people I did business with. Inter-gang relationships can be checked in the Diplomacy tab to see who has relationships with whom. The diplomacy tab is also where you can offer trades with gangs, form alliances, or just plain give people money to like you. Another reason everyone probably hated me was that I was always bribing the cops so they would like me. I didn’t want them to raid my businesses. I understand why that would make all the other gangs hate me; when you’re surrounded by people living outside the law, they probably aren’t going to like the person who is snuggling up to the police.
How combat plays out in Empire of Sin is tactics style on an isometric grid. Every member of each gang gets a turn to perform actions like moving, attacking or using special abilities. The turn order is based on each member’s initiative stat. Each unit will have two action points (AP) to use during combat. Generally, they’ll be used to move behind cover and then attack, but more powerful weapons like sniper rifles take both action points to use.
Special abilities are unique skills that each unit has like reducing an enemies defense or applying status effects like bleed or slow. Which special abilities a unit has access to is determined by their class, an overall distinction on how they play, or what that unit can do for you. Enforcers are about getting into the fray or protecting your crew. Demolitionists have access to explosive skills. There is also an element of customization with each unit. As a member spends time on your crew they’ll have the chance to learn new abilities, and you pick which abilities they learn. Does your crew need someone to flush enemies from cover or do they need an attack that hits multiple people?
Combat is risky, though. It has the ability to leave lasting effects on your crew. Taking enough damage will actually harm a hired member psychologically. My first gang member, Hugh Miller, acquired the trait Hair Trigger due to taking too much damage. If anyone in the gang takes too much damage he starts to act on his own and fires wildly at any nearby enemies. Fortunately, there are also good traits to acquire over time. If a crew’s morale is high for long enough, units will gain the Happy trait. This means they’ll perform better in combat, because they like working with you.
On top of being a tactical RPG and a management sim Empire of Sin is partially an open-world exploration game. There are real-time-generated neighborhoods of Chicago to run around in. Ducking down an alley could lead to finding thugs guarding gear or side missions to improve non-combat stats, such as persuasion, of the controlled character. It’s surprising how much these little neighborhoods feel like an actual place. Random passers-by are found wandering the streets; corner stores have period-style signs; look-outs for other gangs patrol areas. A lot of the feeling of the neighborhoods derives from the sound design. I tried playing Empire of Sin once on mute, but I missed how vibrant the world sounded. Without the beep of cars rolling down the streets or the chatter of the locals, the game loses a lot of its luster.
Despite how enjoyable walking around 1920s Chicago is most of your time will be either spent in the combat sections or going over spreadsheets for the various elements of the game. Each neighborhood has a number of spreadsheets of information with each individual racket in that neighborhood having more. In addition to those spreadsheets, each rival gang has numerous spreadsheets to hold information and every potential gang member has spreadsheets of information. I don’t mean this as a negative; I enjoy getting a peek at granular details in games especially with how easy it is to find information due to the number of sorting options. It helps that all of the information contained in these spreadsheets is useful. I needed to know which gang liked me and which didn’t, who my hired gangsters hated/liked/were in love with, the overall preferred alcohol for a neighborhood, or which of my rackets weren’t full of customers. These pages are where that information is found.
There are a lot of good things in Empire of Sin. The combat has a lot of room for variable play styles. The diplomacy systems make every play through unique. I love the neighborhoods they crafted. This is a game built around the idea that emergent gameplay is fun, and it is. That’s why the technical problems are such a bummer. Empire of Sin is a good game, but the Nintendo Switch is the worst place to play it.