The Caribbean nation of Tropico is an idyllic paradise, and the newest addition to the crown’s ever growing empire. There are lush forests, untapped resources, crystal clear water, and your incredibly large house. Seriously. It’s bigger than most of the plantations you’ll be creating to feed your people.
Finding Resources and Making Goods
Tropico 5 plays like a simultaneously stripped down and powered up version of Civilization. You’re only in charge of a small island nation and cannot expand beyond your physical borders to discover more resources, but there is a lot more to do than in your typical Civ game. For example, once you have researched the ability to make steel, you actually have to make it. You can’t just find it on the map and start using it; you have to find the key components first (iron and coal), then build a steel mill, and only then will you have steel to use and trade with.
A similar situation arises when you discover electricity. You can’t just immediately start using it; you have to build power plants that cover your nation and its needs. And if your nation starts consuming more electricity, you’ll need to build more power plants, and converters, and transformers, etc. You can’t even start building anything unless you’ve built a construction office first.
As the ruler of this island nation, you will have to provide for your people, as well as yourself. You can decide whether to be a benevolent president with all the democratic ideals in place (but if you lose the election, you lose the game), or a tyrannical dictator keeping everyone under your thumb (but if the rebels you will inevitably create oust you, you lose the game). You can keep your people happy simply by paying them higher wages, regardless of your politics, but you risk bankrupting the nation as a result.
You do, however, have a fair number of edicts that you can hand down at the last second to secure your place in power for at least a while longer. These edicts range from things like Building Permits, which will make buildings 20% more expensive, but siphon half of the cost into your personal Swiss account (which you will likely need to pay off certain factions who want to overthrow you), to Martial Law, which suspends all elections until such a time that it is less likely you’ll lose them. You can even assassinate the leaders of the factions that are being particularly obnoxious, but you’ll have to find them and catch them, first.
The resource and population management aspects of the game are already enough for a person in love with fiddly bits to really sink his or her teeth into, but where the game really shines is in its relationship management aspect. Tropico is divided into four eras: the Colonial Era, the World Wars, the Cold War, and Modern Times.
Each era comes with its own scientific research, buildings, edicts, and various other advancements, but more importantly, each era also comes with its own competing external factions. For example, in the Colonial Era, the competing factions are the Loyalists and the Revolutionaries: the Loyalists want to remain loyal to your colonial masters while the Revolutionaries want Tropico to be an independent nation. You as the leader of the country want independence as well (it’s the only way to progress to the next era), but since you’re currently a governor in the employ of Her Majesty, you have to keep the crown happy lest they stop sending you much needed funds, and ultimately sack you for fomenting a revolution.
While doing various mini-missions for the Revolutionaries to get your approval rating high enough to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression, you also have to do various mini-missions for the crown so they’ll keep extending your mandate and paradoxically give you the time you need to get rid of them. However, when you do these missions for Her Majesty, you might lose some Revolutionary support.
But that’s the easy one. When you get to the World Wars, you have to keep both the Axis and the Allies happy. You can trade your various resources and goods with both of them, and even receive annual support, but anger one or the other too much, and they will invade. At the same time, another nearby island nation wants to crush you and everything you stand for (regardless of what it is you are standing for). You’ll have to build up your military, delay the invasion by doing various mini-missions, and cozy up enough to either the Axis or the Allies to secure an alliance (without pissing off the other faction) before those barbarians from Isla Rojo descend upon you.
Politics is Hard
If this sounds like a lot to take in, that’s because it is. At any given moment, you will have five different things to do, and Tropico is in real-time, and is not turn-based, so your decisions could have very dramatic and very immediate effects. Luckily, you do have the ability to stop time and take stock of your situation before pressing play again and letting your decisions play out. You also have your trusty advisor Penultimo who will warn you if things are going too off the rails. And for those of you who want to learn a bit before you dive into the game proper, there is a handy tutorial that will teach the basics in the Colonial and World Wars eras. This was quite useful for me, especially when it came to the actual controls of the game.
Nuts and Bolts
The major drawback of the game is that the various menus and tables of the game are on a fairly steep learning curve, however. Even playing through the tutorial a few times did not prepare me for the onslaught of menus. And the fact that different menus are navigable by entirely different means is not at all helpful. This can make parts of the game incredibly frustrating as you accidentally, but repeatedly, press the wrong button.
The graphics are quite nice, and I especially like watching my plantations grow and get harvested, but they are still fairly limited. Still, you can see all your subjects run around your nation, and even click on them to find out what each one is about: where they work, how much they make, what faction they belong to, etc. And regardless of what’s going, your island is still a tropical nation, and it is as beautiful as you were led to believe, especially that awesome-looking volcano off to the side…
The game can take a while to load on the PS4, especially when you’re starting a new campaign, but at least the loading screens are full of interesting factoids about the world’s rather sad abundance of dictators. For example, we learn that Idi Amin Dada once “laid claim to the Scottish throne and offered to marry Queen Elizabeth to lead the Commonwealth” and that Kim Jong Il’s official biography states that his “birth in Baekdu Mountain was prophesied by a swallow and heralded with a double rainbow and a new star in the heavens.” Other profiled dictators include Muammar Gaddafi, Rafael Trujillo, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and François “Papa Doc” Duvalier.