Being the all-seeing and all-controlling dictator of an island paradise isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. At first I suppose it was amusing enough, pulling the strings from the shadows in order to gain political control and expand my various industries. But now I’m left with a positive budget, a fat Swiss bank account and a dearth of things to actually do. Such is the story of Tropico 5, a game that I had such high hopes for, but in the end left me wanting more. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is Tropico 5? It’s an interesting hybrid of the 4x style of strategy (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) and your usual city builder with an admittedly exotic, tropical texture. It is no secret that the whole Tropico series strives to feel very Cuban in its aesthetic, from the music to the flow of history. However, the island you actually control in the game is entirely fictional. You play the role of El Presidente, and you have only one ultimate goal in the game: Stay in power.
You guide your island through four eras: the colonial period, the World Wars, the Cold War, and modern day. As such, each era has its own unique traits. In the colonial period, you must appease mandates from the Crown while also sowing the seeds of independence on the island and, by extension, your own ascendancy. When the World Wars break out, there are pressures to ally yourself with either the Allies or the Axis, or build up an army big enough to withstand invasion from either or both. The Cold War is the heart of the game, as it has always been in the Tropico series. Here the great factions of the World Wars give way to the world’s pre-eminent superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only will you have to make strategic decisions with whom you will align, but you will have to resist the subversive activities both will attempt in order to gain influence over your island. The influence of corporations and international trade becomes a much bigger factor in the Cold War, meaning your industry and tourism will have to undergo massive expansion and modernization to keep up. This is, unsurprisingly, where the game most strongly satirizes the classic Tropico subtext of the old “banana republics” of the mid- 20th century. The tongue-in-cheek humor is effective as usual (it’s a trademark of the Tropico series), despite referencing the grim subjects of neocolonialism, totalitarianism, and electoral fraud. Finally, the modern era offers the new challenges associated with globalism, such as new world powers and powerful internal forces. Throughout the game you have to explore and develop your island, maintain the budget, raise a militia in case rebels attack or the military stages a coup, stay popular with your citizens, appease the local factions (Communists, Capitalists, the Religious, Intellectuals, Militarists, etc.), approve edicts, and add to you island’s constitution, which can greatly affect how your citizens and the outside world regard you.
But, outside of a general overview, there are a number of things that were supposed to set this installment apart from previous iterations in the Tropico series. While both the Era system and the constitution feature are new additions, the big selling point for Tropico 5 was the new multiplayer mode. In theory, up to four people could build their separate cities on the same island and choose to either cooperate or compete. In practice though, after waiting for an hour for the multiplayer servers to liven up, I got nothing to show for it. Unless you and a friend plan in advance to be on the server at the same time and play together, I wouldn’t count on getting anything out of the multiplayer.
So does the single player alone make the game worth $25? I can’t in good conscience say it does. While the game delivered almost everything it promised, I couldn’t shake the feeling that no actual progress had been made from Tropico 4. In fact, it felt like s regression. On the technical side, 5 had the same graphics and overlay of its predecessor, yet I found that unlike in Tropico 4 where the progression through the game felt natural and easy to just pick up and play, Tropico 5 felt like a laundry list of tasks with just a sprinkling of what made Tropico great in the first place mixed in between. The challenge was sparse, and the game has long spells of calm that further cause the player to want to just push the story forward. The addition of the constitution is positive, but the eras just feel like an arbitrary distraction from the main focus of the game. And worse yet, I encountered more bugs and glitches in a limited amount of time with Tropico 5 than I ever did with Tropico 4. (Not to mention one very annoying bug that locked me out of my main save file, meaning I had to go back to the beginning and start again with an entirely new character.)
The team at Haemimont Games tried to fix something that wasn’t broken, and lost some of that Tropico wit and charm in the process.