Why aren’t there more gangster games set in Prohibition-era Chicagoland? The early Mafia games skirted close to the era, Omerta: City of Gangsters comes to mind, and a few others have appeared here and there, but tommy guns and speakeasies are generally underused properties in gaming. Empire of Sin, the upcoming turn-based strategy game headed by game director Brenda Romero and studio Romero Games seeks to correct that vacancy.
Brenda Romero has been a powerful presence in gaming for over two decades, with lauded projects like Jagged Alliance 2 and Wizardry 8, as well as prompting critically fascinating explorations into game mechanics and human history with her ongoing series The Mechanic Is The Message. With all that history behind her, Empire of Sin still represents a huge guiding step forward, a passion project of considerable ambition.
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Screen Rant‘s exclusive firsthand experience with Empire of Sin’s sundry mechanics centered on one of its 14 unique bosses, the Irish-born Frankie Donovan. What we were able to determine in a handful of hours was that this combination of meaty gameplay systems, roleplaying elements, and real-time exploration should prove for an engrossing experience in early December.
A brief summary of what makes Empire of Sin tick might reference the formative empire-building mechanics of the Civilization games with the RTS party movement from games like Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, then situate these within the meticulous turn-based combat of series like XCOM. It’s an elaborate, heavily systems-driven concept that has that wonderful ineffable quality found in immersive sims, where experimentation usually leads to unusual but available and anticipated results.
Empire of Sin is also a period piece through and through, and bellicose immigrant Frankie Donovan could inspire some to take a more aggressive approach, despite the fact that they can go “Nuclear Gandhi” and roleplay Donovan or any of the bosses however they like. We decided to just crack heads, though, which led to many instances using Frankie’s unique Unleash Fury boss ability to repeatedly batter enemies to paste with melee strikes, wielding his signature Irish hurl as a deadly homespun club.
The game starts players off as a Chicago newbie, looking to build a name for themselves among the many rackets and gangs in the city’s wards. An early encounter affords them an opportunity to ally with an established mobster, though there’s agency in how they choose to navigate this offer. Choices and dialogue decisions arise at multiple points throughout Empire of Sin, and often with much more interesting trajectories than playing either harmoniously or nefariously. Walking through the city, a cop may approach and ask for a secretive allegiance. Players can deny them, attack them, agree to let them use one of their lounges as a cop bar, or only do so if considerable terms are met.
In a game of Civilization, multiple negotiations like these would probably play out over sequential turns, but just standing on a street corner in Empire of Sin means that time is constantly passing and events are occurring. In a far-off corner of the city, two entrenched mobsters trade gunfire. A recent gangster recruit is teaching themselves a special skill while guarding a hotel, which takes in-game time to completely learn. Elsewhere, a cache of weapons and gear which could help in later turf wars is being stolen by a yet-unknown mob, all while the player is being accosted by a temperance protest picketing outside one of their bars. All of these instances are fascinating from a narrative perspective on their own, but there’s added excitement when they’re continuously happening while actively walking around the growing boundaries of a player’s domain.
It’s fundamentally clear that Empire of Sin is being designed to empower unique experiences upon every restart. Permadeath and volatile effects are always active, so losing gangsters to battle, or dealing with one of them suffering through a bout of syphilis contracted while guarding a brothel (yes, this is really featured) are meaningful factors to endure. These gangsters aren’t just unnamed thugs, either – though conquered rackets do get automatically staffed with guards of that ilk – but fully-fledged characters with storylines, personality traits, and prior relationships to other Chicagoans which impact further choices and reactions. Some gangsters thrive on bloodlust, others are better served as mob doctors and become sullen on seeing too much combat, and on and on, synergizing and contrasting depending on their present status.
For those more inclined to business management, there’s plenty of that in here as well. Rackets include breweries, brothels, casinos, and speakeasies, all of which can be converted and upgraded for a price. They all have their own nuanced benefits and complexities as well, with casinos providing a risk of profit loss and breweries being susceptible to poisoning by enemy factions. Players can pursue small-time rackets through combat or purchase active locations, building their empire in avoidance of rankling other bosses, or otherwise specifically pursue and stamp out the rackets of their targeted enemies.
Empire of Sin‘s combat portion is absorbing and sufficiently deep, with different gear and limited-use items available for purchase or discovery, special gangster abilities that can turn the tide of battle, and various AP-fueled movement and cover mechanics. Different rackets provide a variety of maps with bottlenecks and geometry to make use of, and it’s incredibly satisfying to bust through a boss’ inner sanctum to eventually execute them with a flourish as they cower behind their desk.
Interestingly, though, the combat functions like any other Empire of Sin system, circulating effects into all of its moving parts. Executions are actually optional, and may increase player notoriety but can disturb underlings, and even caution other bosses from future alliance. If a battle is too intense, there is always the option to escape it, which may likewise reveal the player as a coward to others. Taking over another boss’ racket doesn’t immediately prompt an all-out war, and characters may request a sitdown to mediate conflict and feel out intentions for expansion. Sitdowns which, if a player so desires, can be preempted with aggression or outright ignored – a significant insult.
Our preview time with Empire of Sin felt like it barely scratched the surface, and the game feels like a one-of-a-kind strategic experience that will be especially attractive to fans of the period. The decision to build it with a real-time foundation also makes it more accessible to those who have shied away from the more intense and dense turn-based strategy games which clearly inspire it, and the mission structure recalls the weighty decisions in the classic Fallout series. Empire of Sin looks to be a spellbinding strategy release that should be firmly tracked on everybody’s radar.
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Empire of Sin is currently set to release on December 1 for PC, Mac, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and Xbox One.
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