What do you know about multiverse theory? We Wikipedia'd it before writing this review and we played BioShock Infinite a few years ago so we're practically scientists now. From what we've learned there's a good chance that there's alternate universes out there much like ours only different choices made along the way have altered the destinies of those worlds, resulting in places that are kinda the same, only kinda different.
Perhaps there's a parallel reality in which we're drinking tea right now instead of coffee. Coronavirus turned out to be just another sniffle and we all got on with our lives. Sheffield United aren't bottom of the Premier League. Ed Sheeran is working full time at the Sainsbury's meat counter wondering if he ever could have made it. What a wonderful world that would be.
In that world, Empire of Sin is a brilliant old school gangster take on the XCOM turn-based strategy formula and we had a blast playing it all weekend. In this world, Empire of Sin squanders its oodles of potential under a steaming dung-pile of appalling design choices and bugs so ludicrous in nature, and so comical in quantity, that we honestly don't believe the game should even be on sale.
Empire of Sin is similar to XCOM 2, only instead of high-powered lasers it's Tommy guns, and instead of aliens it's gangsters in Chicago in the 1920s. The roaring 20s is famous for two things: first, it was the last decade in which you could wear a fedora hat without looking like you belonged on the sex offenders register. Second, prohibition.
Prohibition was when the American government had decided that it was good idea to outlaw alcohol for some insane reason, and illegal bars called speakeasies were where people had to go for a knees up. You can learn all about it in the hit 80s movie The Untouchables, starring Sean Connery and Bob DeNiro.
Anyway, gangsters make booze, people like booze, so the gangsters with the most booze make the most coin. Alcohol is the lifeblood of the organised crime industry, so it's your job in Empire of Sin to make sure you have a constant flow of glorious, delicious alcohol to keep your patrons well oiled. Once they're pie-eyed, they'll spend money at one of your casinos, and once they've lost money at one of your casinos perhaps they'll head to one of your brothels to console themselves in a most unsavoury way with one of your finest strumpets.
It's a solid business plan, honestly. The only fly in the ointment is that there's other gangsters out there doing the same thing and so occasionally you'll come to blows in a turf war. These battles play out in turn-based strategy combat in which your various gangsters use their different skills to take down the enemies in battles that are too easy to feel engaging, but so numerous that they frustrate.
You can also get involved in some diplomacy in your bid to run the city, but the economy is poorly balanced and it's far too hard to make money without resorting to violence. The business management side of the game is badly realised, amounting to little more than a cumbersome trawl through menus to buy overpriced upgrades.
The only viable strategy here is to just kill all the baddies and take over their territories. You don't need to mess about with any of the other options: just walk up to the front door of a rival gangster, declare war while you're on the porch, walk in, shoot them in the face, and take over.
If that was it, Empire of Sin would be an unremarkable strategy game with a cool style and a jaunty jazz soundtrack and that might be just enough to recommend it. But that's not it. That's pretty far from it.
Once your empire grows and your properties number in the dozens, you'll be attacked more and more by rivals, and be forced to take part in battles in which you must defend your establishments from invaders by controlling your security. Simply walking from one end of the street to the other can take an hour as you're constantly besieged by pointless, boring combat encounters in pointless, boring, copy-pasted arenas.
And the bugs! Oh Lord, the bugs! During our 15 or so hours with the game before we gave up to reconsider the life choices that resulted in us writing this review, we had to reload twenty times thanks to some sort of ridiculous glitch or error. And that's just when we stopped counting. It was probably double that. Maybe triple. It's staggering how broken this game is.
One time we were on our way to kill a rival gang leader and he was on the other side of town. Of course, that means we were stopped a dozen times for stupid defensive battles en route. Then we got to his house and killed his security outside. We went in and inexplicably one of our team spawned inside the room with the boss and his top security guard rather than at the door like they should have. The baddies promptly eviscerated him, so we quit, and we reloaded.
Another trek across town, another dozen defensive battles. We get to the house, we fight the security outside, and then once they're all dead the battle just continues even though there's nobody to fight. We still have turns but we can't do anything because there's no enemies. Quit, reload.
Walk. Dozen battles. Fight security. This time we entered the house and our team spawned half in the floor so only their top halves were visible like it was some kind of Clive Barker body horror movie. Quit, reload.
This time the X button stopped working. Quit, reload.
Then the game crashed. Reload.
Quit, reload. Quit, reload. Quit, reload. Is this it? Trapped in a never-ending loop of quitting and reloading? Quit, reload. We could be playing Doom Eternal, right now. We got it for our birthday. That seems like a lifetime ago. Quit, reload. The darkness closes in. Quit, reload. Fever gone but itchy. Quit, reload. Hungry and eat doggy food. Quit, reload. Itchy itchy Scott came. Ugly face so killed him. Tasty. Itchy tasty. Qui–
Oh dear. Empire of Sin has a fantastic idea at its core, and the jolly soundtrack perfectly complements the over the top character designs. But the game is a technical mess, littered with a spectacular array of bugs, and crippled by poor design choices that derail whatever little momentum the game may otherwise have had. Empire of Sin? They should have called it Buggy Malone.