One of the biggest disappointments when reviewing a game is playing a good game that could have been so much better. Narcos: Rise of the Cartels by the developer, Kuju, is a prime example of what I’m talking about. It displays so many questionable decisions, missed opportunities, and dubious implementation that even while I was enjoying the game, the nagging voice in the back of my head kept picking up features that could have been better implemented. 

The premise is based on the hit Netflix series, Narcos, which chronicles the rise of the Medellin Cartel during the 1980s. In a nutshell, the Cartels have taken over and the people have appealed to their country’s government for help, who in turn appeal to the United States for assistance. Pretty soon everyone is involved in this all-out war. Whichever side you’re on, you’ll move through a series of linear campaigns covering notable key locations and characters from the popular TV series. 

The game is played from an overhead isometric perspective just like XCOM. The interface for controlling your character is extremely simple, intuitive, and quite effective. Graphically, the game looks terrific with a glorious palette of bright colors, detailed environments, and nifty weapon effects. I especially like the blood splattering and the way characters limp away to take cover after being injured. This adds a nice touch of realism. 

So far so good, right? I’m zipping through the first few missions, shuffling my characters into a position to maximize their impact when I notice things start to break down. For one, the detailed tooltips aren’t always correct. In one instance, it said to ‘Raid/Attack a base’ when in fact it was me that was being raided. Second, the guys throwing the grenade are too damned overpowered, making it too easy to exploit them due to their unlimited supply of grenades. Third, the AI is absurdly braindead as it attempts to hide and take cover. As an example, I flanked one enemy but instead of retreating, he ran past me and right smack in the middle of the firefight. I’ve seen more intelligence from the local crack heads in my neighborhood.

And last, the biggest let down is the decision to only use one character per turn regardless of how many members you have on your squad. This wouldn’t be so bad if the combat portion of the game was more engaging, but it’s not. And because of this one turn per side shenanigan, it’s almost useless to recruit any other team members to your force. I mean why would you need anyone else if you got Rambo charging in doing all the damage himself?

Of course, there’s the other tangible stuff that’s lacking compared to most games of this genre. Most notably, there’s really no skill points per se to level up your units and the buff system doe not have any meaningful perks to even be considered useful. And even if you do receive a perk or an upgrade, it’s instantly removed once your unit commander dies. It just doesn’t make sense and doesn’t embody the mechanics that were almost perfectly done by the XCOM series. Maybe XCOM set the bar too high or my expectations for this game were too high because I really wanted to give this game a chance.
Despite its shortcomings, however, the tactical gameplay still manages to be fun. In fact, some of the missions were quite enjoyable to play and gives an indication of just how much better the game could have been if it just retained some of the core features most players are used to having. As it stands now, Narcos: Rise of the Cartels is merely another casualty of gaming’s “Might Have been“, “Could have been“, and “Should have been” moments.

– Nicely rendered units and animations
– Great voiceovers
– Intuitive Interface


– One turn per side
– Freaky pathfinding and weak AI
– Missions and briefing are occasionally inaccurate

A decent game that could have been so much better. Not even a third shot of tequila would help.