Growing up in an Italian household, the ideologies of the mafia were always prevalent—it usually is between all Italian youths who watched The Godfather, Goodfellas and Scarface for the first time. Things like, never taking sides against the family, never snitching on your friends, and the difference between keeping things personal or business; were always part of our lexicon.
Much like my dreams of bank robbery, being in the mafia was always a fantasy that I wished I could achieve without the possibility of getting gunned down, or going to jail. This is where the magic of video games came in, and games like Grand Theft Auto or Mafia allowed me to live out my gangster dreams from the comfort of my living room.
It’s been a while since I’ve experienced the depths of organized crime in video game form, so I was initially excited to see the launch trailer for Empire of Sin. I was excited of the prospect of exploring the nuanced “business” of organized crime while engaging in the methodic thrill of turn-based combat. Sadly, much like Fredo, Empire of Sin went against the family, and broke my heart.
I know this review comes quite a while after Empire of Sin released, and honestly that’s as much the game’s fault as it is mine—the game is such a forgettable experience that I LITERALLY forgot to review it. Honestly, I don’t even have that much to say about it: Empire of Sin is just a bad game. I knew it was off to a bad start when the game opens, after you choose your character, with a “sit down” meeting between your boss and the Mayor of Chicago. Now dialogue events are common in most tactical RPGs, however these events have almost no depth, as there’s only ever three options to choose from, one of which will immediately end the conversation and initiate combat.
But what’s worse is how you quickly learn that nothing said in these “conversations,” has any real meaning, as there’s only three ways they will ever play out: either you form an alliance, initiate a fight, which will lead to a takeover; or walk away from the table. It’s depressingly hollow for a game that, theoretically, should give you so many options to cut deals, sway or intimidate your opponents, and create moments that could help or hinder you in the future—much like Mass Effect.
Once the game starts proper, you’re offered a “tutorial” but it’s barely helpful. While it does give you a fairly basic rundown of how combat works—when it works, but we’ll get to that later—the tutorial itself is just an avalanche of information being explained to you by a narrator whose dialogue constantly cuts out mid-explanation. From taking over enemy operations, to managing your own, to the cavalcade of menus and statistics to navigate, it’s just so much information to bombarde the player with, rather than giving them the opportunity to learn how to play the game from a balanced mix of gameplay and explanation.
Combat is pretty basic, but made significantly terrible by noticeable lag, and the fact that no one has really figured out how to translate PC menus to console/controller design. Trying to navigate the combat system is a testament to frustration, as players are given to Action Points each turn, but pressing A will trigger a movement action, but on the second move—which is usually a combat move—it doesn’t naturally open the combat menu. So you’ll have to hit down on the D-Pad in order to even get to the menu, then try to navigate basic attacks, special moves or reloading your gun. It’s just so unintuitively designed for a game, and that’s before you get to how glitchy it is.
In traditional turn-based shooter style, players and enemies can take cover to reduce chance-to-hit. However, in one instance, I had an enemy standing in full cover, but my character was standing directly in front of them, on the other side of cover. Even though the enemy was directly in my line of sight, every shot missed, since I guess the game believed they had full cover benefits?
Furthermore, the game is just a slog to navigate. For whatever reason Empire of Sin has an “open-world” for you to navigate, but it serves no purpose, as players can move more conveniently through the zoomed out, menu world. And the free movement is made pointless further by the way a “sit down” is triggered any time you enter someone else’s territory. Like you couldn’t just be out for a walk, without some nefarious takeover plans cooking in the background.
From a technical perspective, the game runs terribly on Switch with long load times, framerate chug, and some serious delay between button pushing. Character models are ugly and poorly animated, and the whole game just looks a mess. From what I’ve seen, it does look and run better on other consoles, and I really don’t understand why, since this game was debuted during a Nintendo Direct—you think it would’ve been optimized for the system.
Not only that, but the game is just ugly too, particularly on the Switch, with so many textures looking pasted on and low-poly. Even things you’d expect to have a degree of polish, like character’s suits, look like N64-era graphics, and the rest of the environment is muddled and drab. While the soundtrack is pretty decent with lots of 1950’s Jazz to compliment the setting, much of the voice acting is amature and beset with glitches.
I honestly don’t think Empire of Sin knows what it wants to be. It seems like it wants to be something like Mafia or even Grand Theft Auto, but assumed a game about micromanaging criminal enterprises needed to play like X-Com. It shouldn’t have been this hard to make a mafia game this uninteresting but Romero Games sure found a way. Do yourself a favor and just skip this one.