“El Presidente, El Presidente, El Presidente!” It never ends; there’s always someone needing to talk to the greatest leader any banana republic has ever seen. An earthquake is turning Tropico to rubble, a military coup has erupted, workers are striking, a diplomat is offended and a foreign power is trying to invade.
Tropico is not a quiet Caribbean island where you go to relax. It’s a chaotic place filled with caricatures and tongue-in-cheek political and social crises. It can go from calm to a complete bloody mess quickly, but that fat Swiss bank account makes it all worthwhile.
Despite the Tropican penchant for revolutions, each installment of the city-building series has been more iteration than revolution. In Tropico 5, though, Haemimont Games has shaken out some of the dust and cobwebs, and thrown in several new - sometimes meaty - systems that go towards making it the most distinct game in the franchise. But some of these new features lack the refinement that the series’ mainstays enjoy.
The core of Tropico 5 is much the same as it has always been. In the role of El Presidente, players are given a wild, tropical paradise and tasked with turning it into a thriving city by any means necessary. Farming provides the backbone, flowing into simple industry, and the money generated from trading produce can be invested back into the island in the form of new buildings like schools, entertainment facilities and churches.
But there’s a lot going on behind the scenes to turn a few huts into a modern city. Social engineering, backroom deals, political pandering, assassinations - they are all necessary to ensure that as many Tropicans and foreign superpowers as possible are on the same page as El Presidente.
Not surprisingly, after so many games, the heart of Tropico is a polished, compelling juggling act. The range of social and political edicts, and, of course, buildings, means that there’s always something that can be tweaked to solve a crisis or win an election. Every tweak can help Tropico grow, edging ever closer to the utopian or dystopian city El Presidente envisons.
That song and dance has been going on for 13 years, though. It’s becoming a bit tired. So in comes the Era system, shaking things up in paradise. Tropico 5 is split into four distinct eras that limit what can be built and researched while also informing the goals for the period.
The Colonial Era kicks things off. Gone are the many factions vying for control, leaving two period-appropriate factions behind. As a colony of the Crown, Tropico only has two types of people: royalists and revolutionaries. Royalists obviously want to stick with the rude, demanding Crown, while the revolutionaries want El Presidente to create a self-sustaining colony that can make a bid for independence.
The juggling act that’s at the centre of the series is scaled down to balancing favour with the Crown and the support of the revolutionaries. El Presidente only has a temporary mandate to rule, not long enough to get the rebels’ backing, so some pandering to the powers back home is necessary to get mandate extensions. But not so much pandering that the beret-wearing malcontents feel betrayed. That means calling the King an ant-eater for the entertainment of the revolutionaries one minute, to sending the homeland all of Tropico’s beloved rum the next.
When Tropico becomes independent, it moves into the World Wars Era, which squashes the first and second World Wars into a giant war between the Allies and Axis that spans about three decades. More Tropican factions appear, like the communists and capitalists, while outside influences like the Allies and Axis need to be dealt with through diplomacy, trade and war. As Tropico moves into the Cold War and Modern Times eras, it starts to become more familiar. More buildings are unlocked, the factions from the previous games return, and everything becomes a lot trickier to balance.
The Era system eases would-be dictators into their roles. Each era up until Modern Times places limits on El Presidente, inspiring a more focused approach to constructing the city. The Colonial Era ensures that the resource gathering groundwork is laid down for the more industrialised World Wars Era, while the missions during the Allies vs. Axis conflict lead players to construct massive manufacturing chains and embark on large scale trading endeavours. These chains provide the profits necessary to create the tourist meccas and economic powerhouses of the later periods, tying everything neatly together.
The campaign creates a few bumps in the otherwise smooth sense of progression. Jumping between different islands, repeating eras and responding to the incessant cries of “El Presidente!” from aides and advisors like snivelling Penultimo or Kane, the shadowy mentor, can get in the way of the simple joys of constructing a tropical paradise or dystopia.
That’s what sandbox mode is for, and it’s undoubtedly the meat of the game. Stuck on one island, El Presidente can guide it from a tiny village into a shining beacon of modernity. And Tropico 5’s sandbox experience is the best in the series, showering dictators in options for 200 years. Tropico can grow into a Communist police state where there’s a soldier on every street and rebels are hunted down and executed, or it can evolve into a trade hub, where behind the rows of docks and ships stand massive, gleaming skyscrapers.