Brick-by-brick and bullet-by-bullet, Empire of Sin tasks you with building your own criminal syndicate in prohibition-era Chicago. Assuming control of one of 14 different mob bosses (including Alphonse “Scarface” Capone), you must establish speakeasies and casinos, supply them with illicitly brewed alcohol, and protect them from the police and rival gangs.
This is a detailed, structurally unusual game of economy management and violence. Each of Chicago’s districts has a thirst for booze, varying from low-grade swill to top-quality whiskey, depending on the area’s prosperity. Slaking this thirst through your speakeasies will earn you cash, which can be spent on upgrading your establishments to provide better quality drink and attract a more affluent clientele.
But there’s no such thing as a free lunch in 1920s Chicago. Buying property outright is expensive, so the cheapest way to acquire new businesses is to swipe them from someone else. There are dozens of gangs, ranging from loose collections of thugs to rival outfits like your own. Any of their buildings can be taken through violent, turn-based battles. While not as slick or nuanced as the X-COM-style alien scuffles they’re inspired by, these encounters compensate with their grisliness and era-appropriate weapons.
Taking an establishment by force lets you expand your business for free. But there may still be a cost. The rival gang may demand retribution, or declare war on you. Gang violence in turn affects a district’s prosperity, forcing you to sell cheaper drinks as the wealthier barflies and floozies flee the fighting.
This representation of the consequences of mob violence is Empire of Sin’s most interesting trait. Your henchmen, selected from a pool of wannabe gangsters, will fight alongside you in combat, run parts of your organisation, and even have their own sub-stories. But they can also be killed and, even if they survive an attack, they might not come out unscathed. After a particularly brutal conflict, one of my closest henchmen turned to drink to drown his troubles. He’d lurch and stagger his way through fights until I recruited a doctor to sober him up.
Empire of Sin is ambitious but it isn’t always reliable. The game suffers from myriad technical issues, ranging from quirks such as thugs’ jackets changing colour when they die, to game-breakers such as henchmen disappearing completely from your squad. Covid-19’s impact on quality assurance may well have a been a factor here, but there are broader problems, too. The rival factions are more a nuisance than a threat, pestering you incessantly for alliances and favours. And the early game is too slow: building sufficient cashflow so you can put a half-decent squad of henchmen together is more work than fun.
It’s unfortunate that Empire of Sin has arrived in town with holes in its waistcoat, but I don’t believe its problems are beyond fixing, and it’s got moxie that ultimately shines through the flaws.
• Empire of Sin is out now; £34.99