Romero Games' Empire of Sin is an excellent premise for a turn-based strategy/management mash-up that sticks you in 1920s Chicago during the heyday of Al Capone and a host of other real-life gangster legends and charges you with building up your very own criminal enterprise. It's an era that absolutely oozes atmosphere and one that we couldn't wait to spend time in – however, it's also currently bogged down by game-breaking bugs, poor performance and gameplay systems that should mesh well together but just haven't been executed properly. It is, in short, a bit of a mess.
Starting out in the dog-eat-dog world of Empire of Sin, you'll be invited to choose your protagonist from a generous roster of budding mobsters, each with their own backstory, perks and traits, before hitting the streets in your own personal bid for power. There's a fantastic selection of characters to choose from here that includes the likes of good old Scarface himself as well as Dean O'Banion, Daniel McKee Jackson and a bunch of well-realised fictional choices all of whom have been impressively designed and voice-acted. For our playthrough, we jumped into the shoes of Frankie Donovan, an Irish ex-rebel and expert marksman who does a fantastic line in swearing at every single opportunity he's given.
Once you've decided who to run with, the game gets down to showing you the ropes, giving you a whistle-stop tour of its many, many menus, introducing you to its management systems, RPG-lite elements and XCOM-style turn-based combat. First impressions here – although the tutorial does go on a bit – are good; there's lots happening but none of it is too hard to grasp, and you'll spend early hours wandering the streets in either a top-down or zoomed out overworld map view, smashing up local neighbourhood rackets and businesses owned by rival gangs in order to take them over for yourself. The brothels, casinos, speakeasies, hotels, breweries and safehouses that you can then turn these properties into each come with positive and negative aspects that affect the speed and volume of dollars you accrue.
And you'll need plenty of dollars here as you shell out for various levels of security for each of your establishments, more refined ambience in your bars and brothels, stronger word-of-mouth to bring the punters in or to add new games to casinos and make sure the cops are well looked after so they turn a blind eye to your nefarious escapades. You'll also need to hire goons to join you as you run around the streets of Chicago smashing up joints and muscling in on new territory. In order to hire said thugs, you'll refer to the game's black book, a rogue's gallery of criminals, all of whom – in one of the game's most interesting ideas – have relationships and history with one another. Move your cursor over each face in this wretched hive of scum and villainy and indicators appear on top of other mugs indicating personal links, whether it be lovers, friends or deadly foes. This system does a great job of making the game world seem alive and interconnected.
Once you've hired a few thugs, you'll get down to the turn-based combat element of proceedings – an aspect of the game that's initially exciting, atmospheric stuff full of swearing, spraying of Tommy Gun fire and suitably vicious melee attack animations all set to a consistently excellent Jazz soundtrack. However, this is also where the wheels start to come off this particular 1920s Cadillac Sedan.
The turn-based combat here is tediously average at best – when it decides to actually work properly at all. Enemy AI is pretty poor in general, running around in and out of cover, exposing itself to attacks, failing to take its chances and making completely nonsensical decisions with regards to where it positions itself. Even if you happen to accidentally run into a battle solo – something that happened to us consistently as our squadmates randomly broke themselves off from us before engagements – it's absolutely possible, and more often than not quite easy, to take down an entire room full of rivals on your own. Not a good sign for the underlying strategic mechanics or the AI at work here, let's face it.
Character models are also heavily overused; you'll most often find yourself in a room full of clones, with the locations themselves not doing much to add variety as they too are repeated ad-nauseam. There are a nice selection of skills for each of your teammates to unlock as they level up, including automatic overwatch, extra turns upon successful kills, brutal frenzied melees that can be chained together and so on, but Empire of Sin dishes all of this stuff out too readily – at least on normal difficulty – and before long, turn-based engagements that should be thrilling, challenging and tense little stand-offs with rival factions become an absolute cakewalk. Indeed, we very quickly switched from being the negotiating type who'd accept a peaceful deal with local gangsters rather than start trouble into a fingers-in-your-face, don't-talk-us-or-we'll-stab-you sort of criminal crew, rocking around town drenched in blood.
Things really do unravel quite quickly here in terms of challenge, and it's not just with regards to the massively repetitive combat. All of the various aspects of management – there are tons of them and they're all presented in terribly busy menu screens that are painfully difficult and time-consuming to parse – begin to expose themselves as completely unnecessary. Why bother to take your time to tinker with minute aspects of your empire when all you really need to do is ransack, kill and bully, take everything and pump all of the money into your properties ASAP so nobody dares come near them? You can, in fact, go one better and just cut off the head off whatever snake happens to be attempting to bite you at any given time; head straight for the boss of whatever family you're dealing with and sack them off, take what they own and lock a district down. It's pretty easy to do, even with a low-level crew.
All of these problems are pretty damning, but we'd still be willing to overlook many of them, still willing to sit down and have fun, just because the era itself and the characters which exist in it are so compelling. But then the bugs creep in. The constant performance problems enter the fray with stuttering, pausing, crashing, glitching and just straight-up not responding. This Switch version of Empire of Sin looks pretty decent, all-told; graphically it's been downgraded, there's plenty of blur and pixelation and low-resolution textures, but nothing we wouldn't expect in order to get a game of this scope and scale running on Nintendo's console. However, we eventually reached a point where even our superhuman reserves of patience were tested to their absolute limit.
We endured several crashes to the console's home screen that meant we had to reload back to an earlier point in our campaign – a big annoyance in a game of this type – as well as numerous full-on freezes that required a restart. We also pushed on through broken animations that saw our gangsters skate around combat engagements rather than move their legs and waited for egregiously long periods of time for members of our team to perform an action once we'd chosen it.
Things really can get pretty choppy here with fights slowing to a crawl as the game struggles to keep up with itself. However, Empire of Sin then started to refuse to respond properly at all, allowing us to move units around a fight well enough but not to make an attack or any other action. We started to skip turns and put our goons into overwatch in order to try to snap them out of it but, in the end, we had to give up on the entire affair as it wasn't letting us finish fights unless we just stood around and let ourselves die – not ideal in a game with permadeath.
A day-one patch for Empire of Sin has been released already – unfortunately, the most pressing of the issues we detailed above happened after we applied it, and we've been assured by Romero Games that multiple other fixes and patches are incoming. However, at this point in time, it's pretty much impossible to recommend you jump into this one. There's so much promise here; it's such a good idea, such a neat meshing together of genres, and we love that black book nemesis-style mechanic, the hugely atmospheric sit-downs with rival bosses and the excellent soundtrack, but it really is all pretty broken and botched as things stand at the moment.
Beyond the bugs too, the management mechanics are too easy to game. There are lots of aspects to running your own empire but most of them are just far too easy to ignore. The turn-based combat needs a lot of work to make it feel genuinely engaging. Overall, this one is a fantastic idea that we dearly want to love, but as things stand, it would be criminal of us to recommend you jump in.
Empire of Sin is undoubtedly an excellent idea, a clever meshing together of management sim and turn-based tactical action that's set in a hugely compelling era of Chicago's criminal history. There are some cool mechanics here, too; the well-executed overworld map of the town, the gangster black book with its complex relationships and those tense sit-downs with rival ganglords. However, all of this promise is held back by copious technical problems, game-breaking bugs and management and combat systems that feel half-baked and scrappy. There are more patches and updates planned and we desperately would like to see this one sort itself out but, as things stand, it's virtually impossible to recommend – and it remains to be seen if future updates can bash it into shape.