During one of our E3 appointments, we sat in a tiny, packed room to observe a 20-minute gameplay demo for Empire of Sin, the upcoming 1920s-themed strategy game slated to release Spring 2020. Surrounding us were no fewer than five developers, including John Romero, famed creator of the original DOOM and Quake series, just to name a few.
After the demo was complete, we were desperate to ask one particular question. We needed answers. We blurted it out as soon as we were able.
“So... do you think ‘John Romero making a prohibition strategy game with Paradox Interactive' is the most unlikely headline at E3 this year?” One of the developers immediately added, “Also ... announced on a Nintendo Direct!”
Thankfully, we were given some much-needed context. The lead designer on Empire of Sin is none other than Brenda Romero, long time game director and also John’s wife. In fact, this game is her passion project of over 20 years gestation, finally pitched over two years ago to Paradox Games as a single-player strategy game. It’s been in development ever since.
Hear that, Nintendo fans? This is a game built with the Switch in mind since day one of development. If you want a beefy, bells-and-whistles type strategy game that isn’t a warmed-up port released on Switch years after other systems, well, here it is.
“When we got the pitch, it was right up our alley,” Paradox told us. “It’s deep, complex strategy, it’s a historical setting. I mean, it’s mod-friendly, it just clicks so well with what our players love. It’s a match made in heaven.”
In Empire of Sin, you play as one of 14 mob bosses. (For the purposes of the demo, we were shown Al Capone). The goal of Empire of Sin is to defeat all other mob bosses; to do this, you need to take over their rackets. Want a short run? Create a game with a single neighbourhood and one or two other bosses. Or if you want to go all out, select six or seven neighbourhoods with a boss apiece, which Paradox figures would take anywhere between 6-to-10 hours of gameplay to complete.
Neighbourhoods are essentially the overworld map; zoom out and it sort of looks like a Monopoly board. Rackets owned by different mob bosses are coloured in that team’s colours. (The influence from games like Civilization and other old-school strategy games is evident here.) The level of complexity runs deep; the process of taking your units to other portions of the map is impacted by whether or not you choose to drive or walk – walking, of course, being the more dangerous of the two options.
Yep, Romero Games isn’t kidding around when they say this is a nuanced strategy game. Let’s take the units themselves, for example. Accomplishing any of your goals means effective management of your team of mob members, which are collectively your units. Each recruitable unit has different personality traits, which interact in various ways – both positive and negative – with whoever you pick to lead your crew. One example: if you take over a bar and choose to assassinate injured NPCs who can no longer fight back, you might just gain the “serial killer” moniker. Great for killing, not so great for making friends.
In terms of the gunplay gameplay, the obvious comparison is XCOM. The combat portion is a game with units on a grid, like a chess board, and each level is littered with different bits of environmental detail to fight around. Brenda’s history with the classic strategy game Jagged Alliance is obvious here, as characters can not only use different abilities and different weapons, but also form relationships with one another that impact their effectiveness in battle. Paradox warns that lovers who end up on the opposite side of warring factions are very likely to put down their weapons and leave the fight. Perhaps fans of the Fire Emblem series will find this element of relationships between units especially appealing.
Another cool wrinkle in the gameplay? Those who choose to sort out their differences with other mob bosses through constant battle are likely to attract the attention of the police, which are independent units who join the battlefield. We asked if this might include, say, prohibition special agent Elliott Ness, but Paradox isn’t saying. To that point of whether or not Empire of Sin is made up of events and characters factual or fiction, we were told it was both. There are characters influenced by the era, as well as lots and lots of historical people, places, and events.
Speaking of history, Brenda’s personal history plays a large role in this game’s existence as well. “She loves this time period,” John Romero told us. “Her grandfather used to run alcohol across the state lines, between the United States and Canada... during prohibition, and she used to live in the town that had the only bar that wasn’t shut down during prohibition in the United States.”
That’s as unique an origin story as you’re gonna get for an E3 reveal. “It really stood out during the Direct announcement,” Ian O’Neill of Romero Games emphasized. “You could tell a lot of people were taken aback by it... you had Luigi’s Mansion [and] Al Capone! It really had its own place [and] really got people talking about it.”
Their hope? That people stop talking about just the fact that John and Brenda Romero are making a historical strategy game and start talking about how much fun and complexity Brenda’s game jams into a single, portable title, all in its own right.
How will this massive concoction of gangster influences coalesce when it hits the Switch early next year? Until we find out, the only safe thing we can say is with almost three years of development before its eventual release early next year, Empire of Sin is de facto one of the most ambitious strategy games you’ll be able to try out on your Nintendo Switch. Like Al Capone himself, all they’re trying to do is supply a demand that’s pretty popular.