Tropico 5 is addicting. I came to that realization some time around 1 a.m. after completing a campaign stage, seeing the next scenario I’d be facing, then clicking on the island I wanted to start on. Internally I had that same argument as I had with my parents when I was a kid: “I know it’s bed time, but let me just do this one thing first and then I’ll save.” Of course, I had used up that excuse three things ago. And if not for the superpower of the Superego (which is clearly where it derives the name), chances are I’d be playing now, pretending as though I still need to see more before writing my review. But I know fun when I see it, and in all honesty those last ten hours were all for me.
What makes this game so appealing begins with its silly and vibrant characters. As you create your very own dictator and choose between one of two starting isles, you’ll be gently guided through a Colonial era where indebtedness to the royal crown narrows your starting options. The technological restrictions and simplicity of the objective — i.e. just keep the queen happy — is a great way to introduce players to what the game has to offer.
As different characters pop up out of the woodwork they explain their desires and goals with flourish and flair. Eventually, as you work towards declaring your own independence, you can continue to please her majesty and earn extensions on your gubernatorial contract, all while knowing that you intend to revolt. At this point you begin siding with other political factions, such as militaristic revolutionaries, pirates and smugglers, the Order (Illuminati), or your own advisor Penultimo. Each has their own exaggerated personality, which sadly cannot be said about your one-who-would-become El Presidente.
Tropico 5 has an interesting little dynasty system where heirs are born with one specific character trait, that can be upgraded using funds from your personal Swiss bank account. Typically, when you are given rewards for completing objectives that appear at your palace, you have the option to add money to your treasury, gain some free building or technological research, or siphon off funds privately. While the latter option becomes a specific objective, you may just as validly always decide to directly invest in your country, rather than yourself, so any role you or your dynasty members might play in the story becomes virtually negligible.
In fact, when new heirs are born and acknowledged, unless you take time to dress them differently in the creation screen, they will be practically indistinguishable from each other. Sure, when your citizens demand elections you can pick one of these dynasty members to run, but chances are if you like your starting character trait, there’s no real reason to alternately invest in, or elect, anyone but your main character.
As your digital personality takes a behind-the-curtains role, you actually feel much more engage personally, as though you are the one calling the shots — because really, You are. In the aforementioned example of colonial rebellion, only you know that you’re pleasing the queen and keeping militants happy as long as possible until you can become your own capitalistic superpower. Or later, when you transition into the World War era, your choice to support either the Axis or Ally war machines may or may not be relevant to your secret political agenda of ultimately bringing Communism’s ideals to your little island paradise. There’s a tremendous amount of leeway and nuance to how you can govern your land, the majority of which stems from the Almanac, Constitution and Edict features.
In addition to constructing buildings and choosing which natural resources you’ll focus on harvesting, there are several different options for how you want to actually govern. Through use of Constitutional decrees, you can create police states where citizens’ safety overrides their personal liberties and privacy, theocratic states where religion is the focus of everything, scientifically driven atheistic states where only immigrants with college degrees are admitted, and everything in between. And as you do this, the citizens themselves really come to life. Using the Almanac you can directly and simply see what your population thinks or desires, and through identifying individual’s strengths you can appoint managers to any building on the map, using the personal skills of your populace to grant bonuses to your efforts.
The vital role the Almanac plays in demystifying the whole governing process cannot be overstated. In other sim-management games players can drown in a deluge of information, but here icons floating above buildings help quickly identify problems. It’s relatively easy to discern what’s wrong and quickly develop a plan of action. For example, in modernizing production I converted all my pig farms to factory farms. Quickly realizing I needed to produce far more corn for feed, I looked at available space for new plantations (not wanting to lose export revenues by converting existing banana, cocoa, and tobacco plantations). I then had to decide if I really wanted to continue factory farming. Having already made the financial investment I continued on, but it should be noted that I felt pangs of guilt for the digital pigs in those overcrowded pens, and vowed not to replicate those conditions on my second island. And the fact that Tropico 5 could make me care enough about simulated animals to influence my economic decisions — nay, the fact that I was even provided the opportunity to make that nuanced moral choice through such a direct interface — is tremendously impressive.
For everything this game does right though, there are some features that fall short. The first and most striking is the inability to remap the WASD keys for use in panning the camera. Though it’s a simple fix, it should be noted that the only key ever pressed on my keyboard was the Alt button, used almost constantly to awkwardly rotate the camera in conjunction with the mouse, or scroll in and out while trying to place new construction. Secondly, while the attempt to bring multiplayer to the genre is admirable (cooperative play in particular), the pacing of the game simply is not well suited for it; you don’t realize how much you rely on covert pausing in menus until things continue happening outside your purview. Where the single player game can become a little overwhelming (especially when preparing to be invaded), stopping the action to strategize is its saving grace. Taking control away from the player breaks the illusion they are an all-powerful dictator. Effectively forcing you to rush against another person just to build a road towards a gold deposit completely undermines the entire Tropico formula for success.
Despite those faltering steps though, there are a wealth of options and play styles to explore in following the campaign scenarios from colonial times all the way through the space age. And the fact that you are free to build and develop on two different islands throughout those scenarios just increases the possibilities. Though random challenges to construct certain buildings may be completed before they’ve been assigned (thus removing the element of challenge), there is an element of freedom in how you accomplish the static challenges the game presents to move the campaign forward. Consequently, Tropico 5 is the epitome of replayablity and fun, and its quality easily exceeds any of those lesser dictator sims that have come before.
Heck, if you can sit there and actually wish loading screens were longer so that you can more fully appreciate the random factoids about outrageous things real life dictators have decreed or done, then you know this game is truly something special.
SCORE: 8.5 out of 10
A code for Tropico 5 was provided to Pixel Related for review.