My Empire Of Dirt

HIGH Interlocking systems that generate drama.

LOW Deep-seated anxiety on whether a gang likes me.

WTF A mortician gangster — handy!


For anyone trying to get into Empire of Sin and doing so on a console, I have two pieces of advice. First, ignore half the info on the screen for a while. Most of it seems there just to give players high blood pressure. My second piece of advice? Al Capone can eat it.

Empire of Sin is a combination of turn-based strategy ala XCOM mixed with the base and resource management related to expanding a Chicago mobster’s empire.

At the start of the campaign, the player is invited to select from 14 diverse gangsters based on real-life criminals of the period, each with their own backstory, personality, and abilities. I started with Salazar Reyna who comes from LA with a past that suggests he killed everyone associated with him, and his matching special lets him rain bullets on everyone within a specific circle. The other choices are equally interesting and they all have over-the-top framing.

In the early days, the player starts small by taking over vacant lots from thugs and turning them into Speakeasies, Casinos, Hotels, Brothels and Breweries to boosting their income. Notably, it is worth focusing on synergies between these businesses (hotels near brothels is advantageous in some situations, for example) as it will boost the cash earned.

Expansion of the empire will quickly lead to brushing up against other personalities, be they well-known mugs like Capone, or others such as Daniel McKee Jackson — a gentleman mortician with an awesome top hat.

At this point the player is expected to deal with diplomacy, offering peace pacts, trade agreements, and so on. Much of this is decided by the personalities of the gangsters and how the player responds. For example, if a sit-down invitation is ignored or a pact is broken, a rival is less likely to want anything to do with you. Peace is different in regard to non-aggression — some people that aren’t peaceful may actually still go to war with you if they hate someone else. Similarly, buying things from them, offering good deals, or just sheer desperation can make another boss more amenable. When diplomacy fails, it means war.

The turn-based combat offers the standard genre conventions of action points, specials and overwatch requirements, but a delight is that combat isn’t relegated to missions — a fight can break out while a patrol walks down the street, for example.

Enhancing the combat is that characters the player can hire have stats that can be upgraded, weapons and armor that can be equipped, and relationships that develop over the course of a playthrough. They’ll fall in love, develop rivalries, unlock traits, and can even die and be lost permanently for the rest of the playthrough.

In total it’s a lot to manage, and all of these things overlapping in the opening hours can be disorienting. The information to process comes in quickly as well — I frequently saw notifications that a faction liked me, then seconds later it would inform me that my standing with that same faction had dropped. Part of playing successfully is figuring out when information is important and when it’s not, and once that was managed, I was fully engaged. However, all of these systems were simultaneously too complicated and too simple.

The relationship meter, as just stated, inundates the player with fluctuating standings, but I found it best to ignore it most of the time. Setting up trades and peace pacts also seems important, but those are frequently broken, with little insight into why.

The economy looks like there’s a lot to be tweaked in order to make every business more lucrative, but on the default settings I almost entirely ignored fiddling with it and my income — even at my worst — outstripped my rivals.

In combat there are plenty of options, and I was happy that I could auto-resolve fights that I was likely to win or obviously going to lose. However, when the enemy attacks an establishment, players must battle it out. Later in the campaign this can mean having to stop every five minutes to partake in a fight I know I can’t win. Worse, the game doesn’t always give context for where fights occur, making it hard to figure out if I should try and retake a venue or ignore it as an acceptable loss.

These issues are all a shame, because when Empire of Sin is firing on all cylinders it feels great to set up deals with one gangster so that I could double cross another, and then torch both their venues to bring them to their knees. I also loved turning someone against an ally, only to side with the ally before stomping them out of a neighborhood I wanted.

In moments like this, Empire of Sin often caused me to stay up late to see how a vendetta would play out. Unfortunately, despite all of its ambition, it feels like some areas still need work. I hope the developers keep polishing this title or at least carry some of these learnings into a sequel — despite the problems, it’s often as intoxicating as the bootleg hooch the characters sell.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed by Romero Games and published by Paradox Interactive. It is currently available on XBO, XBX/S, PS4, Switch, PC, and Mac. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the XBO, and XBX/S. Approximately 50 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated M and contains Alcohol Reference, Blood, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, and Violence. The official ESRb description reads as follows: This is a strategy game in which players assume the role of an underworld crime boss in 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago. From a top-down perspective, players build and upgrade illegal rackets (e.g., breweries, brothels, speakeasies) while managing their crew and outmaneuvering/attacking rivals. Fighting sequences are turn-based, with players selecting movements/attacks from a menu; characters use firearms (e.g., pistols, machine guns, rifles), as well as knives, brass knuckles, and nail bats to kill enemy thugs. Fights are highlighted by blood-splatter effects, gunfire, and cries of pain. During combat scenes, players can choose to execute enemies, resulting in brief cutscenes that show characters getting shot in the head, beaten, or having their throats cut. The game contains some sexual material: brothels in which workers walk around in lingerie/boxers while chatting with customers; dialogue and game text containing sexual references (e.g., “What would I care about what some sex-crazed priest has to say…”; “After the discovery that the sex toys…haven’t been sanitized as well as they could be, the public seems to be avoiding your establishment”; “[Character] has spent too much time idle in a brothel and has acquired an STD.” A predominant theme in the game is the production of alcohol during the Prohibition era: players can own breweries; trade alcohol and purchase it in the black market; own speakeasies, upgrading types of alcohol served; order drinks from bartenders; have character traits such as “drunk” or “alcoholic.” The words “f**k” and “sh*t” appear in the dialogue.

Colorblind Modes: Colorblind modes are present.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: This game offers subtitles. The subtitles can be altered and/ or resized. The game is fully playable without sound and no audio cues are needed for successful gameplay. This game is fully accessible.

Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable.

AJ Small

AJ Small

AJ Small is a games industry veteran starting in QA back in 2004. He started his gaming on the BBC Microcomputer and switched to being a devout SEGA fan from then on. He currently walks the earth in search of the tastiest/seediest drinking holes as part of his attempt to tell every single person on the planet that Speedball 2 and The Chaos Engine are the greatest games ever made.

He can be found on twitter, where he welcomes screenshots of Dreamcast games and talk about Mindjack, just don’t mention that one time he was in Canada.
AJ Small

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