Venture to the Unknown
At the end of May in 2013, the company Logic Artists released Expeditions: Conquistador. The title was a well-received tactical RPG with a fantastic take on simulating a journey to the new world. It was with great anticipation that a sequel arrived on our shores here in 2017. Not a direct sequel mind you… This adventure would focus on another group of explorers: The Vikings.
This title sees you taking control over a clan and its holdings not long after the death of your father. Considered a complicated ruler, your father had the respect of his peers in many regards, but angered others with his poor leadership skills. Fate forces you down the same path your father took, with all the detractors and supporters that came with it. It becomes a race against time to assure you can gain and keep the strategic resources necessary to show strength in the face of your clans enemies and maintain your holdings. You will get to explore, battle, suffer grievous wounds, and investigate mysteries – all in a well crafted historically close setting. The fantastic authentic sounding musical score brings everything home.
At a reasonable price of $29.99 USD ($32.99 CAD), the game was released on April 27th and frankly this old gaffer’s expectations were high. While the prognosis was generally quite good, there were a few things holding it back from being the triumph it could have been.
Morda, Viking Warrior
Character creation came up and I knew it was going to be one of those experiences. You know, one of the ones where there are so many options, you can’t help but feel you are hampering yourself in some way by not choosing this skill or by lowering that stat. Two genders, nine portraits for each one, three body types and a large score of colours, appearance styles, and skin tones (these are, however the Vikings – so we are going to have a spectrum there of ghastly white to a bit ruddy.)
I decided that my character would be female and a brutal warrior who didn’t suffer fools, and really insisted on her way, or the axe. Very little room for compromise. With those concepts in mind, Morda began to take shape. With a selection of combat-heavy skills, I prepared to enjoy ruling by the Dane Axe when diplomacy just got too hard.
Right off the bat I was confronted with several choices in how to react to different characters and events. After the setup of me taking over the clan (and the violence that followed), my starting hird (a band of armoured personal servants) of supporters made ready for our venture to defend our lands from a rival clan who boasted a much greater strength than us, and planned to show everyone just how weak we are – taking all our lands in the process. So off I went with Ketill, Nefja and that jerk Asleifr, to prove our worth in the eyes of our kin and subjects. We were brave, brash and young. Nothing could stop us.
Until Ketill fell in a ditch and got a lung infection.
We were not off to a good start.
Sadly for Ketill I had no sense of scale such as when the timer was concerned. This timer (another timer awaited us after this one finished) represented how long we had before our boat was ready to travel to distant shores, and thus save our clan with the riches we found there. It was going to take several in-game days before I got a handle of how long it took to heal my band’s injuries, exactly the best ways to set up camp and split up duties, and so on. So Ketill, that plucky optimistic fellow, had to suffer with his infection. I will always be grateful to how he stuck it out, even after his leg was punctured in a small skirmish to take over a campsite. I couldn’t decide if Ketill was the best or worst viking.
I liked to think in the early days, when there were so few of us, that the very rational and responsible Nefja and I would stand around the camp, smugly speaking of how poor Ketill may not be cut out for this life. That it required some skill, valor and endurance that our archer lacked. My character, Morda, would laugh. Nefja would laugh. Even Asleifr would laugh.
Then Nefja would trip and fall in a ditch and get a lung infection as well.
Seriously, gang. Get it together.
Eventually, as more people were gathered into the hird and our skills increased, we were able to treat the various wounds, including a rather nasty head injury that Asleifr incurred. It became clear that if I was on a more difficult setting, resting like this would not have been be an option, and much of my band would be forced to enter battle with pre-existing conditions.
Also, it was clear, all my rivals had to do to defeat me and my gathered supporters was set up a series of ditches everywhere. We wouldn’t make it.
There was a problem, though, one not related to the game’s mechanics: I always was pulled out of immersion just a bit, by the nigh-ever present timer bar, reminding me that I had a deadline.
I have almost a dozen deadlines in real life each month. I didn’t want another.
Vikings Under Pressure
This really is a complicated issue for me. My thoughts on it started out in a very particular camp; that of the crossing my arms, spitting and saying “Well, that’s stupid!” without ever actually playing the game. And through the course of the game, my opinion flip flopped all over the place. As of writing this review I now have a much clearer idea of the timer, and while it will remain a problematic issue for many, I’ll say this: It wasn’t as bad as I thought.
Exploration, freedom of choice and action, these are important to many when playing RPGs. And while the tactical combat and the settlement management are really a big draws here, this is, first and foremost, an RPG. When you put a time limit on a player’s ability to explore the world they are interested in at their own pace, you are risking alienating a substantial demographic of players, particularly in games with open world elements like this one.
I don’t like to be rushed when exploring. (In fact, I’m old, I don’t like to be rushed, period.) I want to take my time and look around. Heck, I want to be able to build up my forces, fine tune them into an unstoppable killing machine, and roll over later encounters with extreme delight. The timer actively prevents that, and that is intentional. The developers put it in to create a sense of realism and urgency to drive the narrative forward. While playing I could never shake the feeling that I was a guest… A welcome guest, who’s given a lot of freedom in many ways, but ultimately I needed to play the game their way, not mine. And that’s okay. It just isn’t what I was hoping for.
But did I mention I flip flopped a lot?
In fact, there had been ample time to explore and do many side quests and all manner of flouncing about here and there. I just didn’t realize it until I was ready to move on. I would have preferred the timer set to a difficulty level. No timer on the easiest mode, but a scaling timer matched with difficulty level. Maybe just the option to adjust the timer on a slider, separate from difficulty setting, and if it is set too low it removes the ability to get achievements. That seems to be a popular move these days, and I think if they added it, it would make many customers happy.
So the timer wasn’t that big a deal. It detracted from my experience with the game, but not by a whole lot.
The Hammer and Nails
Character creation is easy and deep. That alone makes this game a cut above so many others. In a genre where choices and variety are oft-lauded qualities, this game almost has too many choices. But I will not fault them that in the slightest. The customization options, while not amazingly diverse, were definitely above the average and there is a lot more to making your Viking. There are five core stats with clear purpose in the game, shown by the handy popup menu that is present through character creation. You can even lower some of these stats in order to give other ones a large boost.
There are lots of skills here as well; my count puts them at over sixty divided over five categories. Some of them are non-ranked perks or abilities, while others have ranked levels that increase their effectiveness or add new powers to your character when you increase them. While I struggled with where to spend my starting points, once in the game I never felt like any of them were bad choices. I just needed to lean in hard with my character’s strengths. That said, you will be grateful for every new character you add to your hird, as every skill they offer brings something valuable to the table. Leadership, Witchcraft, and Healing are incredibly useful skills that I found to be game changers in many situations. But I know I’ll be trying the game again with different characters and powers to see how it works out.
The concept of experience and levelling is a bit different, but it moves well with the narrative-driven concept of the game. You do not get experience for killing bad guys and winning fights – not exactly, anyway. Instead, you get awarded skill points when you handle a situation. Did you murder the homeless children (by mistake! I swear) or maybe took the time to find an alternative non-violent approach? Either way you’re getting skill points at the end of it, which are used to increase your character’s abilities. A simple sweet system that allows for growth with out being level or even combat dependant.
Navigating the world of Expeditions: Viking is pretty simple, in fact, the entire thing reminded me of the classic 1992 game Darklands. There are points of interest and chances of small encounters, and as you explore you always watch for proper camping spots to feed and heal your hird. You need to be mindful of your party’s supplies and where you are heading. My first few tromps around the map, I only realized my hird was starving and exhausted once a fight started. The indicators are not clear, so keep a close eye on them.
When in the smaller area maps you have a fog of war, but this is permanently removed as you explore. However, I found it an aggravation when in places like major settlements. I felt in these areas it may have better been without a fog of war. It would have made getting around less of a chore, but frankly that is a very minor gripe.
In many of these smaller maps, you’ll find a variety of NPCs to chat with. Not every character you meet will have dialogue, and the ones with important things to say will be made clear with a special icon. While the conversation options are small in number, the effect they have on game is rather impressive. What you say can and will come back to haunt you; giving depth to simple systems seems to be a running theme with this game.
This is one of the best tactical combat games I’ve had the pleasure of playing in some time. It was easy to understand, with your available actions clearly colour coded, and never did I find a character to be a complete waste. There was always something to do, and even my sub-optimal characters could find a way to interact and grant an interesting synergy with others. A versatile ability coming from the Leadership skill, for example, would refresh an ally’s attack action this round. It made all the difference in some fights, and could be used routinely.
One nice touch to the combat mechanics are the two coloured notifiers – red and yellow. These signify combat and movement, and appear on both your character portrait and as a circle around them on the battlefield to show if you have movement left or if you can still attack. Should all movement points and attack actions be exhausted, the indicators disappear. This allows you to keep track of who is able to do what still in a potentially complicated game of Viking chess.
All aspects of combat are clearly laid out, including detailed information in your mouse over box. Combat was always fun and exciting for me, particularly trying to keep my hird from being too mangled by the end of it.
Off to Valhalla
There were many high points in the journey of Morda. I enjoyed turning enemies into supporters through diplomacy. I also enjoyed being able to just straight-up murder some uppity NPCs who wanted to dole out fetch quests to me. There were some low points too, where I really wondered about my credibility as a leader – like when I wasn’t pleased with the tone of voice this group of homeless squatting children had taken with me, so I killed them all. They were likely just as surprised at my choice there as I was. It was late, I hit the wrong button, hadn’t saved in a while, and adopted the “aww heck, I’ll roll with it” approach.
Less accidentally was me killing a bunch of escaped Thralls. Can’t have the local resources getting uppity.
I don’t want to go in to great detail with the various situations, because there were a lot of fun encounters. The character I set out with to play with Morda was exactly what I got. I was able to engage with the game in a rewarding way exactly how I envisioned my character.
While I was hesitant at first about news of a timer on the game, it did not detract from the overall experience. I expect, had I known this going in, that I would have been able to enjoy the game much more. Standing by my previous statements, this game would be made just a bit better by giving the players control over how much impact the timer has on their experience.
Besides a few minor gripes, this game is well-executed, and I ran in to no major bugs or glitches that stand out. I look forward to seeing more from Logic Artists as they continue to expand on their Expeditions series. Just, maybe no timer next time.
Reviewed by Joshua Smith aka Old Man Mordaith
Edited by Jesse Roberts
This game was received free for the purpose of review.