An in-depth city-builder with a strong personality and a perplexing economic system.
There aren’t a lot of city builders that let you roleplay a specific type of leader, so I immediately took a liking to the freedom Tropico 6 gives you to do just that. There’s nothing stopping you from trying to build a communist paradise where everyone lives in haciendas and banana pickers make as much money as tech executives, or a brutal military dictatorship that only cares about how efficiently human lives can be turned into profitable exports. Nothing, that is, besides an unwieldy economic simulation that can quickly go belly up without giving you easy access to information on how to fix it.
There’s a lot going on across the inviting white sand beaches, bungalows, and lush jungle interiors of the latest version of Tropico, which look great except for the waterfalls, which seem lifted out of a 10-year-old game. Despite its relaxing environment, its politicking, trade, and mission systems kept me busier than any of its predecessors as I strived to stay in power and accomplish objectives that would advance me from the colonial era all the way up to the modern day – many of my own making in sandbox mode, as well as pre-made ones in its 15 story missions.
Usually, I didn’t have a problem with how much was going on because the tools provided are pretty good. Laying roads, building houses, creating jobs, and ensuring access to public services is relatively easy to do, other than the fact that you can’t zoom in or out when placing a building and some of the logic the road painter uses to get everything to snap together does not seem to resemble our Earth logic. Only the Colonial Era has a time limit, as you have to declare independence before your governorship runs out. But the other eras let you stay in them as long as you want, and new mechanics are introduced gradually as you go from one to the next.
Shiny, Unhappy People
Satisfying one need will usually be in direct competition with another, which leads to interesting choices.
All the while, you’ll have to keep the population happy with some combination of a stable food supply, healthcare, entertainment, protection from crime and war, and liberty. Satisfying some of these needs will usually be in direct competition with others, which leads to interesting choices. Military buildings, for example, reduce liberty within their radius, but failing to build any will make you very vulnerable to attacks from rebel groups or foreign powers.
Each citizen also belongs to a faction, such as the communists or the industrialists, which often have mutually-exclusive desires that must be strategically fulfilled or ignored in a tense but enjoyable juggling act to keep your approval high enough to keep getting elected. You can subvert democracy in a pinch with bribes, assassinations, or rigging elections, but these all have meaningful consequences such as reduced liberty or increased rebel activity. Keeping things legit can feel like constantly having to placate a room full of feuding preschoolers, but the trade-off is not having to worry so much about interrogating rebels and filling the islands with machine gun towers. Both styles of governing are enjoyable (and viable) in their own way.
The less entertaining side of Tropico 6 is the economy. It can be fulfilling to set up production lines that turn sugar cane into delicious rum to either increase the happiness of the locals or make you some big bucks on the export market. But no matter how much fiddling I did, I almost always found my island’s economy to be a precarious leaning tower that could tip over at any time. You get access to plenty of data on citizen happiness and factory output if you dig through the fairly easy-to-read menus, but the lack of aids for interpreting that information left me in a position where it was surprisingly hard to troubleshoot what was wrong, exactly, when my treasury took a dive. Not enough industry? Too many service buildings? Wages too high? I ran into the same problems regardless of what kind of playstyle I attempted, including extreme austerity, which was frustrating. And since spending is very limited when you have a deficit, it can be almost impossible to fix some financial snags even if you do understand what’s up. Having more ways to borrow money than a single, one-at-a-time loan of $50 grand would have been nice.
Help for the Needy
The story missions’ quirky storyline keep them from feeling like a drawn-out tutorial.
It can also sometimes feel like it takes an excessive amount of new services to fulfill everyone’s needs. When you make a campaign speech prior to an election, you have the option to promise improvement in a given area to get elected. On one island, I swore to make Tropico more fun. But I found that to reach the threshold required for my promise to be considered fulfilled, I practically needed a nightclub on every block – something I had neither enough workers nor enough space to accomplish. In another mission, the United States demanded I increase the crime safety around their embassy to a certain level. I found that the only way to do this, even with my law enforcement budget maxed out, was to park an expensive police blimp permanently over the area and practically surround the thing with traffic checkpoints and guard towers, demolishing a luxury hotel in the process. While this was absolutely hilarious, it didn’t feel very balanced.
Aside from a customizable Sandbox mode that includes over a dozen pre-made maps and the ability to generate randomized ones, Tropico 6 also comes packed with 15 story missions, each designed to teach you about a specific aspect of running your island. They were mostly really well done, and the quirky storyline kept any of it from feeling like a drawn-out tutorial and the sometimes bizarre layouts challenged me to make the best use of the space I had. Some missions impose interesting restrictions as well, such as banning you from building houses and forcing everyone to live in makeshift shacks that homeless Tropicans will erect automatically when given no other choice. Another leaves you with no arable land, requiring you to import a lot of basic materials and build an economy on fish, oil, and tourism – Norway style. Some are better than others, though. One in particular required I reach 1000 population before advancing to the next step of the story, which felt like an incredibly tedious waiting game even when I’d taken steps to maximize the birth and immigration rates.
Also, if I were el Presidente for a day, one of my first edicts would be to demand a more diverse soundtrack. It’s well done and fits the setting, but there are only so many hours of upbeat, Caribbean trumpet music my sanity can handle before I need to turn that volume slider all the way down. Further repetitiveness crops up in the tongue-in-cheek campaign speeches you give as glorious leader before each election. There is only one recorded line for each speech topic you can pick, so if you’re constantly promising to improve the healthcare situation, you’re going to hear about “better doctors working more hours for less pay!” over and over and over again.