Tropico 6 Review
Tropico. An island paradise of sun, sea, sand, and… political imprisonment.
I have a confession to make. A couple of hours into Tropico 6, I asked myself a question. Am I the bad guy? Sure, I only ever did the best thing for my people. I built them homes, gave them jobs, made sure they had places to blow off steam. But I also chose to imprison a homeless person who didn’t have a family, because I knew no-one would care that they were gone. No-one would remember them. And all because I was offered a $100 deposit into my Swiss bank account. In reality, I’m nothing like the despot I get to be in Tropico. I’m actually quite nice. I usually let people have my seat on the train. But put me into the dictator’s chair, and it’s open season for abuse of political powers.
It’s these moments which show the dark undercurrents in this latest incarnation of the Tropico series. The series has always been known for letting you play the bad guy or, to give the official title, play “El Presidente”. The de facto head of a banana republic (interesting political reading ahoy), Tropico sees you balancing the needs of your citizens with the demands of various political factions, both internal and external.
Since 2001 when it was first released, the series has seen a number of different studios take up the mantle, and it’s no different for the sixth incarnation. Helmed this time by Limbic Entertainment, the studio has largely stuck to the tried and tested formula: build your economy, grow your treasury, and cream off as much as you can before being violently deposed.
If you’re a returning player, there are some new features. Limbic have rebuilt the graphics from the ground up in Unreal 4. It’s still a bright, loud affair, but there is an extra level of detail in the world that’s visually pleasing. Crocodiles bask on shorelines, parrots flap across creaking palms, sharks and manta rays swim through crystal clear seas.
For the first time, El Presidente is no longer constrained to a single island, and can spread across an archipelago of tropical islands. Building bridges across the ocean allows you to capitalise on remote resources, or simply hide away your secret penal colony full of homeless people. What? Stop looking at me like that.
Spreading out does come with its downsides though, in the shape of another major change to older versions of the game. Citizens now have to actually be inside of their workplace to create resources, so you need to put a bit more thought into how people will travel from their homes to their workplaces.
If you’re used to city builders, Tropico can come as a bit of a shock. For a start, you don’t really build on a grid. This seems weirdly counter-intuitive at first, but it’s actually quite a clever design feature. I’ve always found my imagination fails when I’m able to build in nice straight lines, and I always end up with a city about as inspiring as Milton Keynes. Functional? Yes. Boring? Definitely. In Tropico, only resource generating buildings need to be attached to a road. Mines, plantations, logging camps, bus stations, garages, and so on. Everything else can be plopped down pretty much wherever you like. It creates a sort of charming natural chaos to the growth of your island over time.
However, this is also one of the biggest weaknesses of the game. Buildings are treated on a very individual level as opposed to a zone. You. Have. To. Click. On. Everything. At one stage I had twenty plantations, and unlocked a useful upgrade to increase their efficiency. I had to click on every single plantation, every single upgrade tab, and every single upgrade button. But that’s the sort of game this is. A mix of macro level politics and trade, and micro level building and citizen management. It mostly gets this balance right, and it’s interesting to be faced with a mixture of very high level strategic play, and carefully detailed decisions.
Speaking of detail, Limbic has boasted that this time round every single citizen is a fully simulated being, with needs, wants, and memories. If you imprison one of their family members, there’s a higher chance of the remaining – and future – family members to become dangerous rebels fighting against your rule. And that is why you should always imprison homeless… What? What?!
Unfortunately, the depth of citizen simulation doesn’t extend to the voice acting or detail beyond a calling card with a political affiliation. The more important characters such as various ministers and diplomats, and the ever-present, and ever-faithful Penultimo, are voiced pretty well, and have plenty of personality.
The game as a whole sees you playing through four distinct eras: Colonial, World War, Cold War, and Modern. Throughout each, you’re faced with new challenges to overcome, such as freeing your people from the clutches of colonial rule, or picking a side in a global conflict. As you progress you constantly unlock new buildings, edicts, policies, political actions, raiding actions, broker actions… In short, there is a lot going on in this game.
It’s super easy to become completely absorbed in the game. I started playing one evening and emerged at 1am without realising five hours had disappeared. While it’s definitely engaging, I’m not convinced it’s always engaging for the right reasons. You’re constantly bombarded with missions and quests and requests by various internal and external factions. You can choose to ignore them, but do so at your peril: annoy any group too much and you’ll quickly have a full blown revolution on your hands.
I find it a bit incongruous to be a dictator who constantly runs around doing what everyone else tells you to do. It’s also annoying that the missions are basically pulled from a pool of “build xxx, get xxx” scenarios”. Often, you would be asked to build more of a building you already had loads of, with the easiest option being to just demolish an existing building, and rebuild it. This isn’t a particularly satisfying use of the system, and you can find yourself running in circles just to keep up with everyone's demands.
This is definitely where the game is at its most frustrating. You’re in a constant cycle of needing to make decisions, but the game never gives you quite enough information to do it effectively. I think the best city builders are intuitive - you should be able to tell from your God’s eye view exactly what is going on, and where the problems are. Cities: Skylines is a great example of this, particularly with traffic management. You can click on one of the many overlays and get an instant feel for what’s going on. Tropico really lacks that ability to get instant information.
For starters, despite travel being so important to building efficiency, there’s no way to see the journeys citizens have to make to get to work. Instead, you just get a big yellow arrow over the top of where they currently are. Another example is in finding existing buildings. If I’ve snapped on one of the overlays to show beauty or entertainment, I’d expect immediate highlights of the buildings that contribute. Not so. Instead, to find a building you need to click through about three menus, and did I mention PLEASE STOP MAKING ME HAVE TO CLICK EVERYTHING. It’s these little frustrations that ultimately lead to me saying this game is only good, not great.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy. The classic Tropico humour is present front and centre, and very few games have made me laugh just from the names of their achievements. Overall, it’s a fun – if frustrating – experience, which will probably only improve as Limbic patch in some final polish.
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