Tropico 5 Review: Fun in the sun

Put on your dictator's hat, and come with us, as we take over an island paradise.

Tropico 5 Review Fun in the sun  Everybody Plays
15th November, 2014
Game Info // Tropico 5
Tropico 5 Boxart
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Developer: Haemimont Games
Players: 1
Online Multiplayer: None
Available On: Xbox 360, PC
Genre: World Building

If there's one thing that's a universal fact, it's that your average bloke (or woman) in the pub knows how to run the country better than the people in Parliament do. If only they'd listen to the guy sipping on strongbow, immigration would be at sensible levels, taxes would be lower and distributed more fairly, and the health service would be a shining beacon to all around the world rather than a crumbling old wreck. It all sounds so easy, doesn't it? Sadly, the intricacies of democracy means the average guy in the pub will likely never get the chance to step into no.10 and put their grand economic plan to work - but in Tropico 5, you can try your hand at the next best thing.

Probably best described as a "dictator sim", Tropico is a town planning game that puts you in charge of a tropical island paradise, as the ever interesting "El Presidente". And when we say it puts you in charge, we mean it - as the island's supreme ruler, you start out with an absolute mandate over its people. No need to struggle getting people to agree with your ideas, or pass them through parliament first - oh no. Instead, anything you say in Tropico goes, and it's up to you to turn the pokey little island into a thriving island powerhouse, doing all you can to keep your residents happy (or at the very least, keep them in line), while keeping your economy out of the red.

How you actually accomplish this is largely up to you. By pressing Y, you can open the game's building menu, where you can choose from a wide variety of things to construct, from banana plantations to basic housing, doctor's surgeries, police stations, roads and even churches. Often starting out with little more than a few farms, and few ramshackle houses, it's up to you to meet your citizen's everyday needs, keeping them fed, watered, and healthy, as you export your goods around the world, and start to pull things together.

Tropico 5 Screenshot

From small beginnings...

Each mission you play starts out on a fairly basic island, and each gives you some very different goals. In the space of the first few missions, you'll go from having wagers with the US President about how many thousands of units of meat you can export, to preparing your little island to defend itself against an invasion from the evil Isla Rojo. Along with your over arching objective, you'll regularly be given new goals to complete, whether it's exporting a certain number of fish, or building a certain number of buildings - all while trying to keep your citizens under control, and making sure everyone's happy.

The citizens on your island have a number of desires and wants, which are divided up into categories in the game's handy almanac. With needs for a variety of food, access to good healthcare, entertainment and schools amongst others, there's a lot to get right, and when you first start out, it can be a game of spinning plates to get your island growing. With a limited amount of land to play with, and smokey, industrial buildings having negative effects on any nearby houses or farms, there's a lot to think about - especiall as some land is better suited to growing certain crops than others, so your hands are often tied when it comes to the placement of your farms. With money hard to come by until you've got a decent amount of goods being shipped out, and people to run your buildings even harder to come by until a few ships have docked, bringing with them much needed immigrants (at least in the early days), things can be tough to get going. But play your cards right, and you'll end up with essentially a self sustaining economy, giving you time to have a play, and find the rest of the game's secrets.

Of course, keeping your citizens pleased isn't an absolute requirement - but should you choose to ignore their happiness, you'll soon start to become an unpopular presidente. And that could be an issue as the elections start to approach. Every few years during your time as leader, you'll have to go up in front of the public in an election - if you win, you get to stay in charge for a few more years, but should you lose, it's game over. Of course, being Presidente gives you a few unfair advantages. First, you can fix the election results - although your citizens may not be too pleased with that. Or, you can deny them the chance to have a vote in the first place, which'll make them even more ticked off. Get under their skin enough, and you could end up with a full on uprising on your hands. And while you can choose to assassinate the leaders of the rebels, it may not be too long before you find yourself being unceremoniously deposed...
Tropico 5 Screenshot

In later eras, tourism becomes a huge draw - and one your island economy can take advantage of. Until you suffer from one of the game's natural disasters, anyway...

Of course, it's not just the elections you have to worry about. As a new feature for Tropico 5, you're now able to take your little island through several different eras, from colonial times, through both world wars, and up to the present day. Each era comes with its own new set of problems to worry about - and in the colonial era, that "problem" is an extra time limit, as you only have a limited mandate from the empire. Let it run out, and it's bye bye Presidente. With time ticking away, it's up to you to do everything you can to extend your mandate by doing as the empire requests (even if that means doing things that end up working against your people), until you've garnered enough revolutionary support to stage an uprising of your own, and declare your independence.

As you can probably tell, there's an immense amount of depth to Tropico 5, and an almost infinite number of ways each game can play out. In fact, there's only one real problem - it's almost impenetrable when you first start playing. From an accessibility perspective, for players new to the series, Tropico 5 is really nowhere near as easy to get going as it should be - and, perhaps more frustratingly, every issue could easily be fixed.
Tropico 5 Screenshot

You'll need to build a fair few army bases to defend your land.

These usability problems range from the trivial, to the kind of essential-to-your-understanding-of-the-game issues that really should have been picked up somewhere along the way. For starters, there's very little in the way of feedback on a building's performance until you click on a building. It's all well and good telling me the building only has half as many staff as it needs; that my fishery has run out of fish to catch; or that production at my banana plantation is being affected by pollution after I've clicked on it  - but why would I click in the first place, if I didn't suspect something was wrong? Having an icon of some sort hovering over buildings that are working under capacity would be a huge help. There's also still nothing to tell you where your bottlenecks are. If you can see crates piling up next to your lumbermill, why are they staying there? Do you need more teamsters to ferry them around, or is that just how the game works? If you've set a building to be constructed, why no-one working on it? And how long will it take to build? There are so many little things that could easily be fixed with a bar here, or an icon there, and the game would be much stronger for it.

Perhaps more significant, though, is that the game tells you to increase revolutionary support, but doesn't actually tell you how to do it. While in later eras, you can click through to a menu to see your standing with different factions (capitalists vs. socialists, for example), and see what you can do to improve your standings with each, there's nothing telling you how to get more popular with the revolutionaries, so you can declare your independence. Which is a bit... weird? While the tutorial does explain it, if you're like us, and you come back to the game a few days later, you'll have forgotten most of what the tutorial said - so it'd be nice to have some sort of instruction, telling you what to do. On a related note, it'd also be nice if new buildings were introduced a little bit slower, and actually gave you a little mini tutorial about what they did, and how to use them once you unlocked them, rather than just expecting you'll know.

Still, despite its accessibility issues, Tropico 5 has a lot going for it. If you're looking for a city building game on consoles, you'll be hard pushed to find another - and once you've got your head around it, Tropico 5 can be a lot of fun. With a PS4 version also scheduled for early next year, and several expansions on the way to add new buildings, and new missions for you to complete, Kalypso are obviously confident there's plenty of life left in Tropico yet. We just hope they'll make the (inevitable) next instalment that little bit easier to get into - because this could be something very special indeed.
StarStarStarHalf starEmpty star
  • +
    Loads of depth
  • +
    Varied missions
  • +
    One of a kind on consoles
  • -
    Confusing initially
  • -
    User interface needs work
  • -
    More tutorials would be helpful
Parents! Looking for more info? Check out our quick parent's guide to Tropico 5 for all you need to know!
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