Tropico 5 Review: This revolution is more of a refinement
At a Glance
The first time I lost a game of Tropico 5, I was bewildered. I'd been voted out of the office of El Presidente after carefully guiding my nation out from colonial rule. We had a surplus of $20,000, beautiful roads, a thriving industrial sector, a standing army, plenty of food.
I pictured poor El Presidente standing on his terrace, hearing the election results roll in. "It's not good sir. We've lost by nearly 30% of the vote."
"I've given them everything," says El Presidente, eyes heavy, tongue thick in his mouth. "Universal suffrage. A booming economy. Practically zero unemployment. Plenty of housing. Bountiful food. Free and open elections. And still they betray me?"
I reloaded an old save. To hell with honest elections—I had the opposition party leader murdered. I made it so only the wealthy could vote. I waited. This time I stood on the terrace on election day, fire in my eyes, and saw a town cowered into submission.
What manner of monster have you turned me into, Tropico?
No laughing matter
Tropico 5, like its predecessors, is a Caribbean-flavored city builder. This time around you take control of an island as its royally-appointed governor and then guide it through independence, the two World Wars, the Cold War, and into the modern era of exploitative tourism.
How you do this is up to you. Do you stand as a pinnacle of democracy in the region, keeping your citizens happy with enormous amounts of food and freedom? Or do you go full Fidel Castro and seize power?
Either is possible, but the game is lost when you're forced out of office—by the ballot or the bullet.
Tropico 5 is darkly humorous, like if someone turned Charlie Chaplin's The Dictator into a video game. For instance, you can build a strong standing army to help maintain control: Guard towers on every corner, a barracks every two or three blocks, tanks rolling down the streets at night, martial law. People will be upset at this. They'll feel their liberties impinged, and that will drive up the potential for revolution.
Unless you also build a bunch of media buildings. Throw in a newspaper and a couple of TV stations downtown and suddenly your citizens can feel freedom coursing through their veins. It's a party! Those guard towers and tanks? They're for your own protection. That's what the news says, and why would the news lie to citizens?
The new "era" system in the game also adds a unique challenge to Tropico 5. This is the first game where I've had to plan a city across multiple time periods, and it's a great teaching tool for why cities like Boston or many cities in Europe end up with weird anachronistic architecture.
Your colony starts out as an agrarian powerhouse, with plenty of plantations and ranches. This is just the way of things in colonial times. By the World War era, however, industry is far more important and you'll start building up a "downtown" area.
Because of your city's history, you'll find yourself in weird situations where there's a cattle ranch and a sugar plantation located next to your city's brand new hospital. You'll have to demolish the old and keep forcing farmers further and further from the city center—or, you know, just leave that plantation downtown forever.
It's the most interesting progression I've seen in a city-builder in a long time. Cities grow organically from one era to the next as you trash old buildings and rebuild.
I've seen you here before
Despite the new eras system, Tropico 5 feels...well, pretty similar to Tropico 4. That doesn't make it a bad game, and if you've never dipped into the franchise before then I highly recommend this latest entry.
But if you're a seasoned Tropico veteran with a fake beard and army hat you wear every time you load up Tropico 4, you won't find a ton of innovation here. This is a refinement on the previous game, which itself was a refinement on Tropico 3.
Eras, new art assets, a streamlined user interface—these are welcome changes, but nothing to get excited over. And once you figure out the era system, it works like any other tech tree in any other strategy game. It's just couched in a more realistic reason for progression.
The save system is also obnoxious. The game autosaves seemingly at random points. At one point in the campaign I lost an election and had to start over, but I couldn't just restart the level. I had to reload an old save. My options? Reload an autosave from about five seconds before losing the election, or reload an autosave from midway through the last level.
Needless to say, I never relied on the autosave system again. You'd expect it to at least save at the start of each campaign level, but no. I had to manually make that save every time. I'd say "It's not a big deal," but when I lost an hour of progress to this system for absolutely no reason you can bet it felt like a big deal. At the very least, I'd like to see a patch address that in the future.
Tropico 5 is still the best Caribbean dictator simulator on the market (whatever that means) and honestly one of the most refined city builders out there. However, the series has backed itself into a corner by choosing such a niche idea for a game—it's increasingly clear there's not a lot of ways for Tropico to evolve as a franchise.
Tropico 5 is the most refined Tropico yet, but if you've played one in the past that might not be enough to draw you back in this time. And even if it is, I don't think it's enough to justify a Tropico 6 without some enormous changes to the formula. A revolution, as it were.