Cartel Tycoon review

Presumably to prevent angering an entire continent, it’s never revealed where Cartel Tycoon takes place – even though it’s glaringly obvious. The same applied to the Tropico series, clearly inspired by the Cuban lifestyle but instead falling back on the term ‘banana republic’. There’s fair reasoning behind this, with the writers of The Simpsons once under fire for the Brazilian stereotype rampant episode ‘Blame it on Lisa’. Brazil’s tourism board even stepped in after being angered by the depictions of crime. Cartel Tycoon takes place somewhere imaginary, and you can’t prove otherwise.

It shares other similarities with the Tropico series, focusing on establishing farms and factories while remaining in the population’s good books. Elements from Railway Empire and its sequel are also present in the way trade routes must be established. Going in, these were my two points of reference, and it’s fair to say that it’s on par with the most recent Tropico game visually, while also having a console-tailored intuitive UI similar to that seen in Railway Empire II, right down to featuring pinnable quests. You won’t be fumbling with the controls here, and it’s pleasing to see the developers get this right first time.

The campaign is spread over a few chapters, introducing us to a cartel boss’s son. Fresh from studying poetry at an American university (yes, really) they’re now eager to leap headfirst into the grimy world of smuggling, bribery, and commanding respect by establishing fear. The cut-scenes feature cartoon-like visuals, and there are some text-heavy dialogue dumps to read through when it comes to making informed decisions.

The tutorial takes 1-2 hours to finish, showing how to establish farms, factories and smuggling rings, before taking control of the neighbouring city. It doesn’t touch upon the economic side of things, however, leaving you to discover the various tools for charting income and expenditure firsthand.

Weirdly, the ultimate goal and rules of play aren’t outlined either; you’re simply informed that the protagonist’s dream is to run a thriving criminal empire. It’s more in-depth than that, with each campaign centred around taking over every city on the map – a task that can take 10-15 hours as you build up a legion of loyal lieutenants and establish a strong foothold. You’ll need to meet the demands of the current mayors before rubbing shoulders too, which usually involves transferring a fat stack of cash or weapons and removing all rival gang presence. These quests are time consuming, making for a very slow burning experience. If your ‘capo’ dies in either a police or gang battle, then it’s ‘Game Over’ – and fortunately the auto-save kicks in often, usually after completing a quest or reaching a milestone.  

There are a couple of aspects to wrap your head around before diving into researching and experimenting with new building types, ergo more complex smuggling operations. The aforementioned lieutenants are both your muscle and go-to guys (and girls), with their cartoony caricatures always present on the map. They can be used to protect buildings, and transport guns, cash, or drugs into the city or to a checkpoint. Their inclusion helps induce a sense of personality, and obviously, it’s hoped that you’ll become attached to long-time survivors, as they have unique skills with more unlockable, and each can be given a custom nickname. They often contact you via phone with decisions to make too, and these can impact your finances and level of respect or fear, in addition to averting or commencing a gang war.

Cash flow is the most important thing of all, as without a steady amount coming in, day-to-day operations – i.e growing narcotics and shipping them off in boxes of vegetables – can’t function. Businesses operate with ‘legal cash’ and ‘dirty cash’ ergo requiring a laundering facility such as a taxi service, casino, or amusement park to cover up tracks. Become too ballsy with spending dirty cash and tensions will rise with the police and DEA, resulting in buildings being seized. Having a low cash flow isn’t much fun and can quickly lead to becoming stuck in a rut with no way to reacquire seized essential properties. This occurred a few times while playing a campaign chapter, and it can be pretty discouraging, resulting in loading past saves while trying to figure out what went wrong.

There are a few modes to jump in and out of, in addition to unlocking new starting lieutenants and capos, along with an assortment of shiny gang emblems to show off. The campaign comprises of the plot-establishing tutorial, along with two scenarios lasting 10-15 hours each that are ranked in difficulty and accessible in any order. A third scenario, Crashing the System, is available as DLC. The Sandbox Mode allows you to toggle all manner of starting options or play with randomised attributes. It’s wise to begin with an airport or seaport nearby though, so you may have to ‘roll the dice’ a few times to get an ideal set-up. Then there’s Survival Mode, which sees you under fire from rivals from the get-go. Games cannot be saved here, only auto-saved. As such, this mode is recommended to those who’ve already sunk in dozens of hours.

Simulations based around building and expanding are usually quite compelling, making time fly by as you focus attention on one area to the next, forever planning ahead. Despite getting the majority of the fundamentals correct, this isn’t quite the case here. The the whole building aspect is downplayed somewhat, never putting a focus on creating a bustling beautiful bespoke city; these are simply buildings essential to progress and maintain a business. Your attention is mostly drawn to moving around lieutenants and protecting assets, neither of which is wholly engaging.

There’s a lot of ‘smoke and mirrors’ present too, in that the cities are merely formed of identical angular buildings and there’s no control over where laundering businesses are placed. Gang battles, meanwhile, merely pan out with a display of flashing lights and a gauge that slowly fills or depletes, depending on your lieutenant’s strength. There isn’t much here to fill the void left by the undernourished building aspect, or at least nothing particularly engaging or exciting. Not only that, but the mixture of strategy and expansion doesn’t gel. Hostile takeovers are always compounded by something – be it a lack of money, brute force, or resources – forever hindering the sense of progression. It doesn’t help that some quests are a little vague; taking over a rival gang’s farms and razing them to the ground are two different things, for instance.

Cartel Tycoon’s polished presentation and easy-to-learn controls help to lure you in while making a positive first impression, but eventually it reveals itself to be a bit finicky and unfocused – the opposite of what a strategy based business sim should be.

Moon Moose’s Cartel Tycoon is out March 14th on PS5 and Xbox series. Published by tinyBuild.