Tropico 5 is another fine example of why the franchise is at the forefront of the simulation genre, but now, more than ever, the series has clearly gotten lost in its own iteration. For veterans of Tropico, the latest installment is a continuation of the evolution we've seen since Tropico 3, but newcomers to the series would be best served by Tropico 4, which had a clearer sense of self.
The premise of the banana republic sim remains the same. You are El Presidente, glorious leader of the Tropican people, attempting to build a paradise of your design in a now-persistent island nation through various multi-hour missions. Pushing back against your ambition are the world powers (now from various eras). You will maintain control and prosper by having your citizens plant farms, herd cattle, create institutions of higher learning, revel in bureaucracy, mobilize a standing army ... and embezzle some cash in your personal Swiss bank account.
Some of the key enjoyable components of Tropico remain. The writing is playful and brings a colorful narrative to a simulation game. Placing buildings is still a dream and cleaner than ever. It also continues to be a nice touch that if you play as La Presidenta (instead of El Presidente) there's a well-executed female voiceover. The mechanics are sound. If you're a casual fan of the series and all you're looking for is a fresh sandbox with salsa music, El Presidente's got your back.
The inescapable itching irritation that becomes a burning flaw in Tropico 5's campaign is the introduction of time periods. An idea meant to ease new players into the world by creating a tiered progression, it gets in its own way with awkward results. Represented by the Colonial, World War, Cold War and Modern Eras, they act as artificial barriers to technology development. The addition of a tech tree not only makes systems convoluted, but is done with the elegance of a three-year-old using markers to draw a Frida Kahlo painting.
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Tropico 5 (Gamescom 2013)
Covering all the ways the time periods conflict with each other would take too long, so here's a few examples: colonial militia fighting modern pirates with automatic weapons, the portrait used for the guerrilla leader has Che Guevara clothing a half-century early, the interface and visual elements of the game give little sense of historical context, and the soundtrack has modern salsa music playing in the 1920s.
This overall sense of dissonance continues in various gameplay elements, like The Constitution, a new feature in the series. The constitution replaces some buildings found in earlier entries with what amount to clickable edicts. However, Tropico seems to lose itself in offering "democracy" (this is Tropico, why is democracy an option?!) and delves into micromanagement with labor and voting policies. Tropico 4 had a sense of streamlining what needed to be cut from Tropico 3, where Tropico 5 throws in a bunch of new ideas without elevating transparency. A bunch of mechanics have been added that, if history is any indication, will be cleaned up in Tropico 6.
Tropico 5, which is simply another iteration on Tropico 3, isn't a faster, smarter or better experience than its predecessor. It's just different. You had a blue hacienda, now you've given a fresh coat of paint and it's a red one. It's as if you gave two teams Tropico 3 and asked them to improve on it. One took the clutter and cut it to give us Tropico 4, while another simply moved the clutter around, changed some game mechanics, couldn't reach the mark of their own ambition and gave us Tropico 5.
The time periods and research tree are going to be infuriating for veterans. They are hurdles and another example of two steps forward, one step back micromanagement for the series. Again, they were clearly designed for new players to ease into the world of Tropico. Unlike previous Tropico games where players were in one time period (The Cold War) and could build almost everything if they had the cash, the eras and the research requirements are now used as artificial blocks to prevent construction. This leaves you with a very small palette to build with initially. Tourism, a staple of the series, isn't introduced until the third level, which depending on how one plays can be 4-6 hours+ in. Veterans will also notice the gameplay loop is nearly identical to that of Tropico 4.
Another example of the game's "tossing ideas out there to see what sticks" mechanics are the Dynasty Members. Instead of El Presidente having various perks assigned to himself like in the prior iteration, now a presidente family adds particular perks to production facilities with the new manager mechanic. Special citizens can also be assigned as managers to facilities. For example, a dynasty member with the Foreman perk can increase job quality at a facility, as well as provide global effects to production. Like the constitution and research tabs, it's more micromanagement menu clutter in the guise of player choice.
The character of El Presidente is at its best and at home in the Cold War, but that's only one part of this game. It already felt odd having El Presidente in Tropico 4: Modern Times, the expansion to the prior installment, as the character and style of the game no longer fit the setting. Tropico 5 is an extension of that, where the issues of a character out of time come home to roost and gave us this egg. Some may appreciate that there are different time periods, but the approach comes off as a gate process to minimize the trial and error by new players. It's not creating a fresh perspective for Tropico, but it is a clever way to make an expansive tutorial.
Tropico 5's saving grace is it's competent as a simulation, but the campaign is missing the sense of fun and context inherent in the previous two games. If Tropico 5 wanted to get crazy and be a pirate simulator in the colonial times, that would have been fine had there been a visual overhaul to accompany it. It could have owned that. But, the way the game is presented now, it's like having Caesar's Rome during the Ming Dynasty, Medieval Europe and the Wild West. There's a mental alignment issue that can't be reconciled.
Having played all the way through the campaigns for Tropico 3 and Tropico 4, along with their expansive expansions, this is the first time I found myself getting bored. Running Tropico felt like a chore this time around instead of a joy. The gameplay loops are identical, the buildings have been slightly altered, but the new elements felt like one more menu to dive into and click a box on. Rubber stamp this, rubber stamp that, menu dive here, menu dive there.
Tropico 5 tweaks elements from previous installments, while adding unnecessary micromanagement in other places. It's passable and functional, but doesn't elevate the franchise or add the magic that'll bring El Presidente to a wider audience. It is what it is: Another evolution in a franchise that needs a revolution.
This review is based on the PC version of Tropico 5 available on Steam, provided by Kalypso Media.
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