While Tropico is one of the city-builder genre’s most prominent and long-standing franchises, the series’ newest entry, Tropico 6, marks my first ever adventure into this luscious dictator simulator.
It didn’t take me long to understand why Tropico has such a strong cult fanbase: the task management is challenging, the morally flexible approach to governing your island is rich in choice, and the blunt satire that emerges from its self-aware mission design, while admittedly heavy-handed at times, has a charm most city-sims lack. It’s hard to deny Tropico’s wry cheekiness and while I don’t think it has the staying power other, more prominent city-builders offer, Tropico is worth a look for its stunning sense of personality alone.
To those unaware, Tropico centres around a simple premise. You’re appointed the president of a small tropical island in the colonial age. Your goal? To shape the tropical paradise to satisfy the demands of its people and neighbouring countries. Do something your citizens don’t like, they’ll vote you out of power; do something that the overbearing nations outside your borders frown upon, they’ll crush your small nation with ease. This balancing act soon becomes the centre of the game, however, where Tropico excels is allowing you to dive into the realm of politics, corruption, and ruling with an iron fist remain in power and keep your island afloat.
It’s here where Tropico separates itself from typical city-builders. Enacting morally dubious edicts, allying with governments, rigging votes, assassinating rebel leaders, and enlisting child workers are all viable options in sustaining your nation, yet, what’s even more surprising is how often I found myself relying on them to secure victory. Tropico 6 is a tough game, and when your bank account reaches minus figures, passing a few morally ambiguous laws to escape your burning wreck of a civilisation becomes more and more appealing. It introduces a sense of role-playing that most city-builders wouldn’t even attempt, and the emergent stories that come from these scenarios mean that each island you build comes with its own hilarious failures and last-ditch efforts to make ends meet.
One such example from my first playthrough came after I fell so far into debt that I had to donate one of my islands to America as a nuclear testing zone. Following the fallout of this procedure (shameless pun) a good portion of my society was afflicted with radiation poisoning. So how did I make up for this clearly despicable act? I gave everyone free cars and house! Suffice to say I didn’t win my next election.
Outside of passing edicts and rigging votes, the gameplay is similar to most other city sims. The game divides into two modes: missions and sandbox. Missions task you with fulfilling certain parameters, for example, eliciting the favour of certain political parties or smuggling gold off your island. Outside of the generic tutorial, they do a good job of acquainting the player with some of the deeper aspects of the game, highlighting trade, politics and the different methods of which you can rule over your island.
Sandbox mode becomes the natural progression following these missions. Beginning the game, you select a type of island, how much money you want, the difficulty and a range of other factors. What Tropico 6 changes, however, is the state of the isle you have to control. Beginning the game, your selected map sees you trade in a single land mass for a small cluster of islands. The catch? Certain resources are only available on certain islands, meaning you’re constantly forced to think up ways to gather far away resources and move them in the quickest manner possible. It’s a clever mechanic that makes you strategize where best to set up shop and decide what’s the most efficient use of your time and manpower.
You’ll start mostly by building residential areas for citizens, before establishing industry and creating trade routes with neighbouring countries to begin amassing wealth. As time moves on, you’ll reach new eras that see the game’s challenge and complexity grow, adding new buildings, new laws, new resources and new needs for your citizens. As the time periods progress, the demands of the citizens evolve with them; their needs shift to focus on healthcare and safety, and eventually reaching marital rights and freedom of the media. It’s an interesting scale of difficulty that works extraordinarily well during the later sections, and the difficulty of keeping everyone happy slowly elevates to the point of extreme difficulty.
These jumps in era also introduce several political parties onto your island that you must satisfy equally if you wish to maintain the votes of your people. While the requests made by both your citizens and the various neighbouring powers are often fairly mundane and lack variety – often boiling down to construct this building or generate various buildings to amass favour – it’s a fun gameplay loop that doesn’t hold your hand and, consequently, feels rewarding when your island thrives without the need for petty underhand tactics.
As is evident, there’s a lot to contend with in maintaining your tropical paradise and the meat of Tropico 6’s gameplay comes through learning the best ways to make money while keeping everyone happy. It’s here as well where the franchise’s gameplay begins to show its age. While most modern city-builders prioritise intricacy and organisation, Tropico 6 can often feel badly structured and frustratingly random.
The economy, in particular, becomes a slog towards the late game, with one single decision seemingly sending your earnings plummeting without graphs, charts or hints telling you where that money is going. A similarly frustrating issue is the citizen approval rating, which informs you of how many Tropicans are in support of your reign, but crucially, not how to win over those who oppose you. Learning how to please your naysayers is simply too much of an infuriating guessing game, placing buildings and passing edicts just to see if the number rises or falls.
It’s this lack of intricacy that becomes Tropico 6’s biggest issue. It lacks deep systems, strong mission variety, complex tactics or in-depth statistics that help you micromanage your society. It’s not inherently the game’s fault, but with titles like Cities Skylines giving you unbridled control of every aspect of your city – with helpful charts that allow you to monitor their functions – it makes Tropico sometimes feel like a fun but outdated city sim that can’t compete with the modern standard.
There’s also a number of strange bugs that could be ironed out, such as roads not joining like they’re supposed to, spontaneous framerate drops, texture pop-ins, and buttons that occasionally cease to work. While these can be fixed over time, they’re noticeably frequent and often detract from the experience. It’s sad because, when Tropico 6 is firing on all cylinders, it’s surprisingly proficient on the technical front; the luscious tropical islands illuminated with vivid greens and yellows all accompanied by the samba-centric soundtrack which, while lacking variety, gives the game some serious flair. It works to develop the charming world of Tropico 6 into something reminiscent of a satirical cartoon.
While Tropico 6 might not be the most ground-breaking or memorable city sim, it is a charming and surprisingly challenging entry to the franchise that will surely have its fans. The political systems are deep, the tongue-in-cheek humour is brilliant, and its task management is the kind of stressful that makes you feel like one hell of an all-powerful dictator when you don’t mess it up.