Empire of Sin review: A strategy you can't refuse

Romero Games and Paradox Interactive's new strategy game takes players inside the criminal underbelly of Prohibition-era Chicago as a gang leader looking to take over the city.

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Strategy games have run a gamut of topics over the years between fantasy, sci-fi, historic civilizations, and ancient and modern wars to name a few. There have been quite a few subject matters tread and retread in real-time, turn-based, and/or 4X strategy, but Romero Games and Paradox Interactive are using a very particular setting in their latest endeavor. Empire of Sin is a strategy-RPG hybrid that focuses in on the 1920s era of Prohibition in Chicago, when alcohol was illegal and criminal organizations were looking to build underground empires under the nose of federal law enforcement. Your role? An up-and-coming gang leader looking to create your own empire and take all of Chicago as your own. More than just adding another unique backdrop to the strategy genre, Empire of Sin brings tycoon and tactics gameplay to being a 1920s Chicago gangster in very fun and interesting ways.

The foundation of sin

As mentioned above, Empire of Sin has you starting in 1920s Chicago as an up-and-coming gang leader, and quite a wealth of characters are available with which to start, each with their own perks and advantages in business and violence. Al Capone is an option in the game, good with a machine gun and just as good at producing the illicit alcohol folks were looking for. You can also play as his rival, Dion O’Banion, who can handle a shotgun well in combat as he builds his empire off bonuses in his speakeasys and breweries. Many other gang leaders, both famously known and a little more obscure, are also available, and each has specialties in combat, business, and diplomacy that make them all well worth exploring. Even John Romero’s great-grandmother Elvira Duarte, who was herself the leader of a crime organization back in her time, is here.

It’s worth having a good look at each of the traits of these characters too because it impacts how your empire will best operate. You start as your gang leader in a single neighborhood of Chicago, taking over a handful of properties in your neighborhood. And you’ll work from that small start to take over further buildings by either purchase or force to build your empire with the overall goal of eventually taking control of all illicit alcohol production and sales in Chicago. That said, you’re not alone. It isn’t long before you come up against rival gang leaders in your own neighborhood with the same plans, and Chicago is full of neighborhoods with their own gangs, as well as local and federal police forces. Whether by truce or challenge, you’re going to have to deal with all of them if you want to take it all, making for a very interesting setup to the overall game.

An empire emerging

Empire of Sin’s gameplay is a mishmash of business management, RPG character growth, and turn-based combat. For the most part, you’ll run your empire’s finances through the takeover of buildings and their purposing into the businesses you need to grow. As hinted at above, outside of your safehouse serving as your home base, there are five business options with their own pros and cons.

Breweries produce your alcohol, which is the primary currency of the game beside money. Speakeasies specialize solely in selling your alcohol. Casinos can both sell alcohol and run higher profits at the risk of a winner taking a chunk of your income. Brothels don’t need alcohol, but also produce less money. And finally, hotels bring out bonuses in an entire neighborhood. Besides hotels, all of these buildings are also upgradeable with attributes like security to keep them safe, ambience to heighten their quality and bring in more income, word of mouth to increase their presence, and deflection to keep police from raiding and shutting them down. It’s worth mixing and upgrading your expanding empire thoughtfully if you’re going to get the most out of it.

Your particular crime lord will also play a big role in how you expand. As hinted above, Al Capone gets a bonus when it comes to production upgrades in his breweries, so it’s worth focusing on volume of alcohol with him and speakeasies to sell it. That said, it also costs him less to increase the ambience of brothels under his control, so it’s worth having them in the mix early to boost his income. Meanwhile, a character like Daniel McKee Jackson of the Vice Kings sees higher income overall in his casinos, so it’s worth focusing more on the gambling end of Jackson’s business. Each character has unique traits that make for rather interesting approaches to their financial affairs.

Further interesting is the quest factor in Empire of Sin. Taking over Chicago is the overall goal of every leader, but each also has a unique set of story missions associated with them. For instance, Mabel Ryley takes over her husband’s gang after he’s killed in a car bomb incident, so on her way to building her empire, she also has a line of quests that include reeling in rogue elements of her gang that think she killed him while also finding out who actually offed her husband and why. Meanwhile, Angelo Genna’s empire starts as a sibling of his Genna crime family is in peril of going to prison for murder. Genna’s empire is set alongside helping his brother out of trouble with the law. Some of these ongoing questlines don’t last long, but they do add flavor to the overall progression of Empire of Sin and there are random missions throughout Chicago not associated with any specific leader to partake in as well. The voice acting and animation in some of the interactions is often too stiff, but it still breaks up the monotony of business and adds to the overall individuality of each selectable gang leader.

Nothing comes easy

As mentioned above, you aren’t the only one looking to make it big in Chicago. Other gangs are looking to get theirs as well. And inevitably, expanding your business will sometimes require you to get dirty if you want to come out ahead. Taking over your first buildings in Chicago often has you fighting against either thugs squatting in it or the established organization that already owns it. And that’s when Empire of Sin’s turn-based combat and further RPG elements come into play. You move your crime leader and the gangsters and henchman associated with them around Chicago like a real-time strategy or isometric RPG title, but when you engage in combat with them, the area in which they’re operating becomes a grid-like battlefield of squares and cover based on the objects present, not unlike a fight in XCOM: Enemy Unknown or Phoenix Point.

Each character takes turns moving in the open and between cover and attacking with weapons like pistols, shotguns, machine guns, and melee based on their specialties and initiative. In addition to business specialties, gang leaders also have combat specialties. Notorious with the tommy gun, Al Capone can rain down bullets on a targeted area, while a leader like Angelo Genna can pull out six knives and choose individual targets for each knife thrown, doing direct damage and causing bleeding for damage overtime. Some leader abilities are more potent then others, making their unique traits in combat a further factor worth considering if you want to aggressively expand.

You can also hire henchmen that will have specialties of their own like proficiencies in shotguns or melee. They won’t have the unique abilities of leaders, but they do bring extra bodies to a fight. What’s more, as your gang leader gets more notorious, more professional and high-dollar gangsters will make themselves available to you, from low-rung and wayward thugs to outright surgical assassins. Many of them also have relationships (whether rivalries or friendships) with each other that you can use to gain their interest in your organization if you gain the loyalty of their lower-tier friends.

Combat in Empire of Sin can be interesting, but it can also be samey for long stretches. Taking over neighborhood buildings full of thugs often produces randomized variants of construction sites or opposing rackets you simply overpower if you have the means. Gang leader abilities alone often make most low tier combat easy and nearly trivial. That said, when you get into a fight with a rival gang leader at their safehouse, things can get intense. They often have their best in the organization there, plus the leaders themselves who are particularly dangerous. It’d be cool if combat didn’t feel repetitive in the stretches leading up to these confrontations, but everything that leads there also has your organization collecting new and more powerful weapons and your gang leader and cronies gaining new abilities to take into the next fight, so there’s both highs and lows to the whole experience.

Your city to take

There’s a lot going on in Empire of Sin. Romero Games and Paradox Interactive build quite a hybrid of business management, character growth, and turn-based combat, and the 1920s Prohibition-era backdrop makes for an interesting story. The gang leaders are varied in so many ways between their business, combat specialties, and personal stories. Meanwhile, the overall flow of business expansion, hostile takeovers, and diplomacy or confrontation with other gangs also makes for a mostly engaging gameplay loop. Empire of Sin doesn’t always keep it riveting. There are sometimes lengthy stretches of repetition in combat and business between the highs of the game and the stiff acting and character interactions are extremely noticeable. Even so, overall, Empire of Sin is a racket I’ll easily go back to over and over again as I figure out each particular crime lord’s path to an undisputed throne of 1920 Chicago’s booze biz.


This review is based on a digital PC copy supplied by the publisher. Empire of Sin is available on December 1, 2020 on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC via Steam and the Paradox Store

News Editor

TJ Denzer is a player with a passion for games that has dominated a lifetime. When he's not handing out beatdowns in the latest fighting games, exploring video game history, or playing through RPGs with his partner, he's searching for new food and drinks in the constant pursuit of good times with good people inside and outside the South Texas area. You can also find him on Twitter @JohnnyChugs.

Review for
Empire of Sin
8
Pros
  • Great variety of gang leaders & factions
  • Good mix of tycoon, turn-based combat, & RPG elements
  • Unique story questlines for each faction leader
  • Variety of gameplay styles and progression to pursue
  • Major confrontations with rival factions are intense
  • Plenty of non-faction missions to explore alongside business
Cons
  • Non-major combat can get repetitive
  • Mid-to-late game business can also be repetitive
  • Voice acting and character model interactions are stiff
  • Some faction questlines are very short
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