Review: Cartel Tycoon

25 Jul 2022

For better or for worse – probably worse – the late 80s into the early 90s were a real time that actually happened. Some of us lived through them. And there was a time, perhaps not so long ago in memory, when there was a real sense of a sun-drenched lush paradise ruled over by drug lords and corrupt police officers in South America.

I say this in no way to make mockery or make light of the very real period in history or the people who had to live with the worst excesses of drug cartels in this region, but to paint the very simple picture that Cartel Tycoon is meant to evoke precisely that mental image. It is a game that is set in a very specific time and place, where “Colombian drug lord” would immediately bring out the mental image of a slightly heavyset man with a moustache, greying hair, a colorful shirt, and either a scowl or a smirk depending on the situation.

Cartel Tycoon is a game about conjuring a memory of a time and place as well as placing you in the role of someone who is, explicitly, the bad guy. Does that make for a fun game when it releases on July 26th on Steam from tinyBuild and Moon Moose? Or does it get lost in its ideals and wind up gunned down by its supposed allies?

That metaphor got away from me a little, but you catch the intent, hopefully.

Las Historisa de Hombres Malos

Unlike a lot of games in its style, Cartel Tycoon actually does have a story. In fact, it has three, ordered by difficulty. The tutorial is the easiest mission, but rather than simply tossing you in with a generic cast lineup, it starts you taking control of Mauricio Romero, a college student plucked from his studies by his father to take control of Hijos de la Candilega with the guidance of his uncle, Salvador Romero.

On some level, the story in the tutorial is a little light; for all that there’s the vague implication that Mauricio has to pull his weight, you never really get the sense that he’s actually in danger from his father. At the same time, the tutorial goes through all the paces it needs to invest you with the sense of a world that’s lived in and filled with characters, both positive and negative.

This is helped by the fact that while the game certainly could have lieutenants and mayors and everything be interchangeable and blank stat blocks, instead everyone is given a personality and a memorable set of traits. Not everyone gets to have a starring role in a story (there are only three stories, after all), but every lieutenant (who is also a potential capo) gets a brief biography and list of traits to give you a sense of who they are. Every mayor has their own goals. Special buildings like prisons and military bases are watched over by distinct NPCs. While this very much is intended and built as a sandbox game with a lot of freedom to play around with, there’s a sense that the developers tried hard to enhance the sense of these people as… you know, people, not just game pieces to be moved around.

Of course, they are just game pieces to be moved around. But in this particular game, the sense that you are treating actual people without respect and like they’re just tools for your ambitions is understandable. If that provokes a disconnect of how callously you are behaving, that’s the point. You aren’t the good guy, you’re a drug dealer. You aren’t working with good people. You are self-serving and that’s the reality.

The point is that the game does have some stories, and while they’re not perfect, they’re fun enough. Of course, the game is confident enough in itself that it also lets you just play through sandbox-style or go all-in on a survival mode if you’d prefer. You can choose your poison.

Un Oficio de Sufrimiento

Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a simulation game. At the end of the day, what makes this either a good or bad game is not going to be whether or not you connected deeply with the game’s story but whether it feels like a fun and engaging simulation of being a drug trader. And thankfully, the answer is… mostly.

At the very simplest level, your job is simple. You build farms to harvest crops, and you then bring those crops to a warehouse. The warehouse is connected to a transport company, which brings the goods to a place of sale. So far, so straightforward. However, things are complicated slightly by two factors. The first is that you have to deal with the fact that drugs you sell bring in dirty money that can’t be used on everything, and the second is that transport companies can’t carry money around.

You can, of course, use your lieutenants to ferry money around. But you can also bring your residence and set up connections so cartel members automatically bring money from one place to another, like the various businesses in cities you can use to launder money, or nearby buildings you have running on dirty money. And then there are further concerns, like smuggling checkpoints where you need to package your illegal drugs inside legal products to make it across the border, and the necessity of intermediary steps for several parts of the production process.

I don’t want to say that it’s all too complicated, and the fact is that the game very clearly walks you through each step of the process so you understand what you’re doing and why all along the path. It does, however, get a bit frustrating to set all of it up at times. Then again… while it is a game abstraction, this is kind of supposed to be a little bit complicated. Running a drug empire involves a whole lot of complexity to it. And it’s not game-breaking insane frustration, it’s just the complexities of dealing with “how do I get a good production chain going for cocaine and how do I ship it efficiently?”

Just as an FYI, never search for tutorials for this game unless you like being flagged as suspicious.

The game doesn’t stop there, though. Being aggressive – fighting rival gangs, letting illegal merchandise overflow and build up, and so forth – builds up Terror, which prompts police responses. Those can range from seizing control of buildings to setting up cordons blocking roads, and that can cause all sorts of problems. You also have to manage Loyalty of the people, which is basically “their willingness to put up with your cartel.” Do a good job and cities remain in your control even without people sitting there; do a bad enough job and the people will rise up to take the capo out directly.

You also have to manage the loyalty of your lieutenants, research new technologies over time, and manage your relationship with mayors… all of which is, ultimately, sectioned off neatly enough that it all works and flows naturally. It feels a bit overwhelming in places, but the micromanagement of each action feels like it does at least require attention being paid to every part of your house of cards. If anything, the “research” part is the most superfluous and the most game-ish aspect of the whole thing; there’s not much reason for it to be there other than researching tech trees just being a thing in this sort of game.

On a whole, while it’s all a little fiddly and sometimes a bit annoying, and some things like deploying additional connections are oddly arcane, it broadly works and makes you feel like exactly the sort of murdering monster running an empire of terror that you’re supposed to be. So, props for that, I think!

Una Mirada de Carácter

Here’s the biggest problem the game does have – while the map is distinctive enough and the UI is clean, the actual 3D models are just serviceable and devoid of any real character. I didn’t hate them, but I couldn’t tell you the difference between most buildings without icons, and some of the things you build look completely indistinguishable unless you zoom in really close. This is not a very pretty game in that regard.

Fortunately, the character artwork and cutscene art is very different, full of expression and a very distinctive style. As mentioned, the UI is at once clean and flavorful, the icons look informative, and the decorative flair around certain elements really draws the eye and helps remind you of just how important certain elements are. It’s enough to kind of forgive or at least overlook some bland 3D models.

A lot of times it feels like I note that a game’s music is functional but forgettable. That is definitely not the case here, with the game sporting a soundtrack that is spot-on perfect for the flavor, feel, and general atmosphere of the game. Sometimes I would just swoop over portions of the map while the game was on pause and listening to the soundtrack. Sure, it was purely atmospheric, but it establishes a great atmosphere and really helps you get into the mindset of being a cartel leader. I like it a lot and want it on its own.

La Toma Más Grande

There are definitely places where Cartel Tycoon falters. There are things that are a bit more frustrating than they need to be, and while that definitely helps to contribute the feeling that you are operating an illegal drug ring in a place that is not entirely friendly to you, it also sometimes is just bothersome. The fact that there is only one map is a bit limiting, even if there’s a lot of map to explore and control. There are only three stories to play through, although it’s a good thing that the stories are entertaining enough that you want more. Parts of the graphics could look better.

However, when all is said and done, it’s a game in which you are given the feel of managing a somewhat volatile drug empire with a bunch of violent people who are more than willing to break the law in the name of their own self-enrichment, and that alone is enough to make the game fun enough to stand on its own. It justifies its existence and goes above and beyond in a lot of places.

So go ahead, sit back, and pour a mojito as you start sketching out your grand plan for distributing goods across the border. If you like management games, it’s a good chance to play the indisputable bad guy in one.

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Review copy provided by Tiny Build for purposes of evaluation. Screenshots courtesy of reviewer and tinyBuild.