Totally Tropical and Totally Totalitarian
The satirical tropical Bannana-Republic-em-up series Tropico has been roaring along for five entries now. With the exception of the piratical Tropico 2, each game in the series has cast the player as El Presidente, the ruler of a tiny Caribbean island in the midst of great conflicts between superpowers, such as the Cold War between the USA and USSR. You’re required to ensure your island nation’s survival by managing its economy in some Sim City style building management, staying on the good side of your island’s populace and keeping the competing superpowers appeased.
My first impressions of Tropico 6 were that it was – as the last few games have been – a glacial evolution on what has come before. Every person on your little island has their own thoughts, desires and political beliefs. Enjoyably, I also noticed that now when you click on one of your subjects, they’ll give a line of dialogue that reflects their current mood. The micromanagement in the game feels so incredibly intuitive precisely because everything is so visual. You can see them all walking around, going to work, going to church, popping down to the restaurant or scurrying off into the jungle to take up arms against their repressive government!
As such, it’s easy to see when one of your industrial buildings is barely getting any work done because its workers have to commute on foot across the entire island to get there! This means you might have to put down a bus stop so employees can more smoothly get between where they work and where they live. Similarly, if you’re not seeing an armada of little boats between islands in your archipelago, it’s a sign you’ve forgotten to build landings where your people can row out across the waters. Similarly, if your jewelry factory is sitting idle while your gold mine has a big shiny pile of nuggets piled up in the front, it’s a sign you don’t have enough teamsters to get goods where they need to go.
Since every building can set an individual budget, if you pay workers more, they’ll work more efficiently, and empty job positions get filled quicker, but this, in turn, requires you to keep an eye on your jobless population as you might not have enough people with the right educational qualifications. Likewise, skimping on the maintenance budget for an apartment block might gain bigger profits on the rental yields, but will infuriate the people living there. It’s a delicate, but brilliantly intuitive and fluid balancing act.
It’s also pretty clear, without even having to go into the exhaustive almanac (which details everything you need to know about your citizens and economy) when people are dissatisfied with how things are going. When elections roll around, you can make a speech acknowledging your shortcomings and promising to do better. For example, if people are a bit miffed your island is a little dull, you can promise to raise their fun happiness by building circuses, taverns, restaurants, and even funfair piers! But if you fail to meet your election promises though, people won’t believe you when the next one rolls around.
If democracy is a little too frustrating and the people are just determined not to like you, you can have malcontents jailed (and forced to generate income for you as convict labour if you like), bribed or even shot in the streets (which will have repercussions for family members and witnesses) Your advisor, the ever-sycophantic Penultimo, will helpfully suggest fiddling with the election results gently in your favour. If popular discontent is far too high, however, the only option may be to declare martial law, which will result in a dramatic uptick of wannabe Che Guevaras running off into the jungles to overthrow your fascist regime!
Overall, it’s up to you to strike the balance between being a benevolent ruler and being a cruel dictator.
New additions I noticed to previous games were such buildings as the pirate cove. The pirate cove will send out privateers on missions. These can include scavenging for resources amongst the flotsam of wrecked ships, rescuing seabound survivors (and bringing them back as new Tropican subjects) and even stealing world wonders! I was particularly baffled and delighted when my crew of scurvy pirates managed to pilfer the Hagia Sophia for me. The beautiful Turkish basilica not only provided happiness for my visiting people but also gained me some income from visitors. It even stopped anyone on the island dying from poor healthcare! (God’s grace, I suppose?) This comes along with other welcome improvements to previous Tropico titles, such as the streamlining of budgeting for buildings and the need to research technologies rather than having them simply dumped in your lap.
There’s also the mysterious “broker” who will make shady backroom deals in exchange for some covert cash. Beforehand, you could pad out your Swiss bank account with such nefarious schemes as having banks launder state money, or taking a percentage of all building expenses. In previous games, building your Swiss bank account was more of an occasional requirement for campaign missions or a score which tallied towards a victory condition. With the broker, it’s now much more of an interesting separate currency to be used judiciously. In particular – during the world wars era – the broker really saved my bacon in one of the missions. Relations with the Axis powers were diminishing rapidly because I’d refused to help them extract Inca gold from under an active volcano (don’t ask) threatening my island with imminent invasion, but the broker handily did some backroom dealings to keep relations stable and invasion off the cards.
It’s a nice reminder, of course, that Nazis are thoroughly unpleasant people (a fact more presidents should openly acknowledge!)
National (and Political) Lampoon
The satirical storyline – where each mission recounts a different little archipelago El Presidente and his sidekick Penultimo have managed – really gives a wider context and motivation for playing that so many other management titles over the years have really lacked.
Since Tropico 6 focuses mainly on managing a productive economy, the challenges you’ll face in the campaign are generally ones that impede your ability to make money (which can ultimately solve most of your problem). It was particularly enjoyable in one mission where various USSR agents come to the island demanding ruinous changes, like destroying the banks and demolishing the churches. Of course, it cuts both ways, with the capitalist faction being joyfully unmoved by the growing village of poverty-stricken, shack-dwelling citizens, getting outright angry if you pass an edict taxing the wealthy or granting the poor free housing. When I got the ruthless capitalists too fed up with my shameless socialism, they gave one of the faction-exclusive ultimatums, where I had to start kowtowing to their demands or they’d ruin my island’s economy.
The various faction leaders and their comically over-the-top depictions of the ideologies they represent are, as always, a highlight. Fortunately, despite the vast number of nations and ideologies being lampooned in the game, I never felt like the parody was overly harsh or one-sided. Whatever your own beliefs, I think you’ll probably be able to find a few laughs from Tropico 6.
I particularly enjoyed the characterization of the Angela Merkel like EU representative who is meticulously bureaucratic and requires exacting rules for the consistency of toilet paper to ensure good working conditions for the citizenry or demands things like a Museum of Modern art near the EU embassy (whereas the American representative naturally wants a fast food joint!) Keeping foreign powers is now extra satisfying as they’ll give you more lucrative trade deals when relations are good.
The problem is that oftentimes, you end up so overloaded with various tasks and requests from the various overseas powers and political groups that they turn into something of a shopping list of things to do rather than a choice about the soul of your nation’s future. And some of the comic flavour gets diluted down when you receive too many similar tasks and hear the same jokes too often.
With all the features now bolted on to the core Tropico gameplay, some of the flavour of the experience can get a bit lost in the shuffle. I noticed, for instance, that the tourists no longer seem to have different accents when you click on them! Sadly, it’s the same generic voice whatever their nationality. Likewise, though you can see your little people entering parking garages to drive around the island or swimming in aqua parks, you can’t see them doing more detailed things like actually riding the rides in the funfair.
Though little things like this won’t be too big a deal for most people, it’s a bit of a shame some of the finer details of Tropico as a simulation haven’t had quite such a high premium placed on them this time around.
Also, with the new features come interface issues. The technologies screen, in particular, can feel like a bit of a mess. Especially by the modern era, there’s a huge number of technologies that can be researched with no tech tree to speak of, and I often ended up just haphazardly queuing up a bunch of them just so I could get back to the myriad other tasks I had to do, having to laboriously cancel every one later if there was a particular technology I needed.
The interface has many improvements in some areas, like certain buildings having better visual representation of their effects, like a fire station showing you its radius of coverage before you build it. Still, there are bizarre niggles that detracted from the fluidity of experience, like the inability to see an overlay of the island’s beauty while placing tourism buildings, so I needed to carefully memorize the most beauteous spots before plonking down my hotels and cabanas!
These niggles are combined, unfortunately, with some pretty big bugs that are still there even in this late stage of development. In fact, I had one quest-breaking bug which prevented me from completing a mission where Tropico has to dominate the world chocolate market. I must say that being unable to finish this otherwise very fun confectionery-focused mission was rather bittersweet! Hopefully, bigger bugs like this will be fixed swiftly.
Four more years! Four more sequels!
Tropico 6 is an evolution from previous titles in the series but it is still only the next representative of a gradually reforming regime rather than a revolutionary new entry that overthrows the old rules. You can still see plenty of buildings looking like – and working almost identically to – how they did in the last iteration. The addition of the shadow broker and raiding adds more cool new features, and various balancing tweaks mean there’s a greater focus on choice rather than following the same no-brainer strategies.
If you’ve always been a rebellious dissenter against Tropico’s rule over the Caribbean-management-em-up genre then you’ll find little new to entice you. The military aspect of the game is still threadbare, and clashes with rebels will be won by having more and better-trained soldiers than by any kind of strategic decisions on your part. Tropico 6 also still refuses to make its basic mechanics too much more complex in other ways either. Elections are still very much just referendums on your rule – where the happiness of the islanders and your reputations with the island’s factions are tallied up – rather than a dynamic fight against an individual candidate. Think how much fun it could have been to watch your political opponent wandering around the island campaigning, and having your little Presidente avatar wander over to engage him in an impromptu debate! The fundamentals of the game are still largely just economic management, and playing it so safe like this may have been a wise move for Kalypso, but it still feels like there are some missed opportunities for deeper gameplay beyond the standard management basics.
However, if you’re a loyalist of the Tropico regime, you’ll find yourself rewarded by an overall improved addition to the formula you’ve come to love. Personally, I’d be happy to cast a vote (or several) for even more sequels in the glorious Tropico franchise! Viva la Presidente!
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), PlayStation 4, Xbox One, ; Publisher: Kalypso Media ; Developer: Limbic Entertainment ; Players: 1 ; Released: March 28th, 2019 (PC) ;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a copy of Tropico 6 given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.