Have you ever dreamed of being a dictator? Well, with Tropico 5 you have the chance to do just that, but without worrying about ruining any lives or getting lynched in real life. That’s the twist to this city-builder sim: that you don’t just build up your nation from scratch, but that you do it as ruthlessly as you please. Although it seems incongruously placed on the PlayStation 4 – the console to which its most recent port has taken it – if you’re willing to take a risk on the morally dubious subject matter, there’s plenty of game here to recommend.
To anyone who has played this sort of sim game before, there is much that will seem familiar. The purpose of Tropico 5 is to develop your country by constructing new buildings, managing the economy, and keeping the residents happy on such issues as healthcare and housing. The island of Tropico is in some nameless corner of the Caribbean, leading you to build such things as banana plantations while facing all the usual tribulations of such a place – like communist rebellions, natural disasters, and the occasional invasion.
Although many of the gameplay mechanics may seem familiar, Tropico 5 nevertheless manages to distinguish itself from the rest of the genre. For example, there are four different eras for you to play through, moving from Colonial Times through the World Wars, Cold War, and into the Modern Day; each has unique buildings you can construct and different technologies available. The political landscape changes with each era, too. In Colonial Times you have to bow to foreign rulers until you can declare independence, and during the Wars you can either pick a side – and risk facing the wrath of the other – or try to strike a balance between the two.
However, the game really shows its stripes in terms of the distance you can go to keep power. It’s Game Over if you’re ousted, whether it be through rebels storming your presidential palace or defeat in an election, so it is paramount that this doesn’t happen. To prevent it, you can do such things as rig the elections (or just cancel them completely), assassinate or discredit political rivals, declare martial law, change the constitution as you please, and embezzle funds into your Swiss bank account. This all sounds pretty brutal – and there is certainly an element of discomfort to being offered options like these – but the game does several things well to keep the mood light and prevent disgust.
First of all, though there isn’t much plot, the game has a dark sense of humour that keeps it from taking itself too seriously. Your incompetent advisors will pop up from time to time – to give you special tasks, for example, which you complete for bonus rewards – and their witty dialogue is more than capable of providing a few laughs. It’s particularly rewarding when you research something and an advisor tells you about how it was discovered… usually at the back of a closet. There’s a sense that all of Tropico is run in a laughable, ramshackle way, even if there’s a lot of darkness to it to.
It also helps that that darkness fails to have any effect on Tropico 5’s aesthetic. It is universally bright and cheerful, assaulting your eyes with a cacophony of Caribbean colours, painting its setting in vibrant greens and blues and yellows. The art style is just zany enough to keep the realism at a distance, and thereby keeps any grimness at bay as well. On top of all this, the music is such a merry collection of Latin tunes that it becomes difficult to feel at all uncomfortable with the game’s subject matter – a not inconsiderable feat.
And yet, for all this, it can’t be said that Tropico 5 ignores the moral depravities of dictatorship. One of the most striking things about the game is that though it allows you to engage in whatever dastardly deeds required to keep power, it never actually forces you to behave like a dictator. It is entirely your own choice. In fact, it is perfectly possible to remain in power indefinitely, as long as you keep the population happy and can safely navigate the war-torn waters of politics.
The result is actually a sharp look at dictatorship and how people can become obsessed with power. While playing through the main campaign, one of my islands safely supported me – the president’s approval ratings were up over 80% and the economy was booming – but in the other, I struggled to keep power as the populace grew increasingly unhappy and my hands were tied by an empty treasury. The ends to which you must go to keep power are not determined by the game itself but by your own competence in running the island. If your position is overthrown, it is no-one’s fault but your own – and if you resort to underhand methods to maintain it, then that is your fault too.
Getting over Tropico 5’s moral questionability does reap its rewards, because the game is extremely enjoyable. You can pick it up to play for an hour – then forget to check the time for the next six as you get totally engrossed. There’s plenty of content, too, including a campaign which sees your president sign up to a secret society of dictators, a number of individual missions, and a sandbox mode. There’s also a multiplayer option – both co-operative and competitive – which sees up to four players building cities on the same island. It isn’t a wonderfully different experience to the single-player game, but it stills adds some variety and extra content.
All in all, the main thing to be recommended about Tropico 5 is that it’s a lot of good fun. It might put people off with its subject matter – and possibly rightly so, though that isn’t the mandate of this review – but a good time will be had by those who do pick up a copy. It isn’t as at home on the PlayStation 4 as it would be on PC, with unintuitive menus, finicky controls using the DualShock controller, and a simplistic standard of graphics, but once you get used to it this isn’t such a big issue. Ultimately, for people who want to play a city-builder sim with a dark sense of humour and a ruthless streak, this is a game which will please. After all, gamers have been drowning their Sims in swimming pools for years; all Tropico 5 does is make that power-madness part of the gameplay.