The popular Food Network show Iron Chef has been a cult hit in the United States for years, offering viewers entertaining cooking battles between some of the world's top chefs. So it's no surprise that the developers at Enlight have incorporated some aspects from that show into their restaurant management game, Restaurant Empire. But the game is much more than a cheap attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the show. The game's lead designer, Trevor Chan, is responsible for acclaimed strategy games like Capitalism II, and his expertise is apparent in Restaurant Empire, a game that, despite a slightly flawed interface and presentation, provides an enjoyable and deep strategy experience.
Restaurant Empire comes with two gameplay modes: a sandbox mode and an 18-scenario campaign that follows the adventures of a young chef, Armand LeBoeuf, who has just graduated from cooking school. Armand begins the game managing a restaurant formerly run by his uncle Michel, also an expert chef, and he sets out to expand his operation to include several restaurants in three cities (Paris, Rome, and Los Angeles). The story involves Armand's fledgling operation going up against the might of an international food conglomerate called Omnifood.
The gameplay may seem complicated at first, since it offers an almost dizzying array of options for building, decorating, and running your restaurants. Fortunately, you're coached by the game's extensive tutorial, which, over the course of the campaign's first few scenarios, walks you through almost every available option in the game, offering tips on how to gain new customers and how to best satisfy your current clientele.
Almost every imaginable aspect of running a restaurant is simulated in Restaurant Empire. You'll need to hire general staff for each restaurant, like servers, captains, kitchen porters, and, of course, chefs. Each chef in the game has different levels of skill in different areas, such as appetizers, main courses, and soups. This expertise is further subdivided into three categories of food--French, Italian, and American. The restaurants need to be set up with dining sets, lighting, and appropriate decor, and it's also possible to add and move kitchen appliances around to achieve maximum efficiency.
Much of the game's strategy revolves around food. Each dish in your menu consists of several ingredients, each with a specific cost and price. It's possible to adjust the quality of each ingredient to drive the cost of a dish up or down (which also causes the dish's quality to go up or down). As your chefs practice making certain dishes, they'll gain more skill points in that particular category of cuisine and the specific dish, which also affects the overall quality of the food. It's even possible to assign a specific chef in the kitchen to be the only one to prepare certain dishes, in order to make him or her improve at certain recipes more quickly. Over time, as you learn which dishes your customers prefer, it's easy to add or remove them from your menu or adjust their prices to maximize profit margins.
Certain special customers in the restaurant will have access to specific high-quality ingredients, which you can purchase and add to your recipes to make them better. Other customers will offer to sell you new recipes, information on how to better prepare dishes (which increases preparation skill), or information on secret ingredients that you can add to your dishes to make them better. And every so often, it's possible to enter local cooking contests, which will net you bonus money, new recipes, and prestige for your chef and his or her dishes if you can win them. The prestige of winning these Iron Chef-style cooking contests also increases the popularity of your restaurants.
Aside from the quality of your food, your restaurant's rating is also directly affected by the comfort level and attractiveness of the decor, the quality of service, and the appearance of your restaurant from the outside. You can upgrade the furniture in your restaurants for better comfort, increase the skill of your staff with monthly training, and pay money to renovate the exterior for better scores in that aspect.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the game is setting up your restaurant so the staff can deliver dishes as quickly and efficiently as possible to customers. You'll find yourself constantly moving tables around the restaurant and adjusting the position of stoves, dishwashers, and dumbwaiters in the kitchen to maximize efficiency. Unfortunately, there's no easy way to anticipate bottlenecks in the operation, so you must watch your staff and the way they move about in your restaurants to determine how to become more efficient. It probably would have been easier to manage your staff if Restaurant Empire had let you assign specific servers to specific tables, for instance.
Aside from a few flaws, the game's interface is adequate. You can actually access every function using only your mouse, though if you wish to have complete and instantaneous control over the game, you can access most of the important charts and interface items using keyboard shortcuts. However, later on in the game, you'll have to build and manage multiple restaurants, but you'll have to fill and configure each of your new establishments' bathrooms and kitchens manually. The game would definitely have benefited from some sort of templating feature that would let you drag and drop pre-made bathrooms, kitchens, and other areas into new restaurants.
Restaurant Empire's graphics are pretty good for a game of this sort. You can zoom in and out and rotate the view to any convenient angle. The food in the recipe screens is actually rendered pretty nicely, but the game's graphics falter a bit in the adventure modes, such as in the kitchen stadiums during the cooking contests. The characters look blocky and are animated stiffly; nevertheless, Restaurant Empire's fully 3D graphics are better than what you'll find in most management games. The game's sound effects are adequate, including, as you might expect, plenty of eating noises and chatter from your customers. Some voice acting is included in the adventure modes when you're interacting with NPCs, but for the most part the game's dialogue and information appears only in subtitles at the bottom of the screen. The music tracks in the game fade in and out at strange times and sometimes sound as if they were lifted straight out of a 1970s adult film.
At times, Restaurant Empire can be frustrating, but careful observation of your restaurant operation usually yields an obvious solution. It takes some time to learn about all the options in the game, but the well-designed and extensive tutorial should bring even beginners up to speed in a reasonable amount of time. Restaurant Empire should appeal to fans of the Iron Chef television show or other cooking shows on cable television, and, despite a few shortcomings in its interface and its presentation, it also provides a deep and enjoyable experience for fans of management simulations.