I didn’t play all that much of Expeditions: Conquistador. Based on my experience with its sequel Expeditions: Viking, I’m starting to think that may have been a mistake.
Like Conquistador, Viking is the tale of a group of hardy explorers venturing into a strange land who may or may not engage in a little light genocide of the indigenous population when they get there. The tone of the game is significantly different this time around, however, as your hardy explorers are Vikings, the strange land you’re exploring is Britain circa 850 AD, and the indigenous population are a collection of Picts, Northumbrians, Mercians and various other groups with whom you can ally yourself or murder outright as you see fit. As I happen to live in Britain I found this to be an interesting role reversal; yes, Dark Age Britain might as well be the back end of the moon for all the resemblance it bears to the modern one, but having the towns, villages and other points of interest be historical versions of Chester or Perth rather than the Mystical City of Ein Glanfath (or whatever) was a refreshing change of pace.
You don’t set out for Britain straight away, mind. The first few hours of Viking are a curiously lengthy prologue set in the Viking homeland of Denmark. This effectively functions as tutorial and scene-setter together; your character is a Viking thegn whose settlement is under threat from larger, stronger neighbours, and so you resolve to make an expedition to Britain to secure allies, treasure, or a power base that’ll make them back off. The prologue is more of a mini-adventure, complete with its own separate world map and the Viking capital city of Ribe to explore, and consists of gathering materials to build a ship and a group of companions to crew it, as well as dealing with various minor challenges to your recently-assumed leadership. The companions are the first indication that there’s been a bit of a change in approach from Conquistador, as the game throws half a dozen unique characters at you to start filling out your hird. Only two of them have personal quests, but all of them have voice lines and will interject at various points in conversation to offer their opinion on whatever you’re doing; there’s a heavier focus on narrative here and as a consequence Viking more closely resembles a traditional RPG than Conquistador did.
If that’s true, though, then I think it’s very much a change for the better. Viking might be more of a mainstream RPG, but it is an extremely competent one and its success is almost entirely down to its writing and quest structure. In fact when you break it down into its constituent components I can’t really say there’s anything that works particularly well except for its writing and quest structure. While the turn-based combat system is perfectly workmanlike it leans on it far too heavily and the systems involved are far too simplistic to sustain the number of battles the game asks of it. There’s a nice range of skills and abilities and I especially like the implementation of shields, which function as an additional ablative pool of HP that’s enough of a pain that you send in axe users to hook them out of the way so that your other party members can riddle them full of arrows. However any nice design touches are rather undone by the HP pools in general being very small — this is a game where it is always possible to at least two-shot an opponent if you use the right abilities, and very often you end up inflicting a one-hit kill — and each side’s entire party getting to move before the other side does, making who goes first absolutely critical. If it’s you you can easily knock out two or three enemies before they can even respond. If it’s them you have to hope that they fire all their arrows at your shield users with 90% block chance, otherwise they’ll end up focus firing down one of your backline.
(Aside from this it’s trivially easy to break it on Medium with the Inspire ability, which lets your party members transfer their attack actions to other party members who have already spent them. This means that you let your strongest character loose in the centre of the enemy formation and have everyone else Inspire them in turn, giving them four or five attacks. As already covered, HP bars are so small that this will often end up producing four or five dead people.)
Then you’ve got the Expeditions-specific mechanic of camping, which replaces the one-click Rest action traditionally seen in RPGs. Camping is a more involved version where you can dictate what each party member gets up to in their downtime, engaging them in a range of relaxing leisure activities such as hunting to gather food, healing wounded party members and crafting new weapons and armour. It’s a time management minigame that’s undone by your having rather more capacity to do work than there is actual work that needs to be done; in practice what happens is that you give everyone the appropriate ranks in two or three support skills, set them to do the things they’re best at, ensure that there’s a reasonably good spread of activities throughout the party (having too many people doing one thing will produce zero return past a certain threshold), and then you completely forget about the majority of the camping mechanic since the game will remember your choices for next time you camp. Aside from minor tweaks to make sure people are being healed or food isn’t spoiling you’ll never touch it again past the settings you make on the second or third camping session. Which is fine — if nothing else, the camping UI is admirably well designed and flags up everything that can possibly need your attention without you having to go and check — but what gets me about it is that it’s a reasonably complicated system to get your head around that, when you understand it, turns out to add absolutely zero decision space to the game. You could literally replace 90% of it with the aforementioned Rest button and I wouldn’t miss it at all. And, again, it’s something that Viking leans on far too much; your party gets fatigued/hungry so quickly that just about any trip between two locations on the world map will necessitate a camping session to avoid crippling stat penalties.
In terms of pure game mechanics Viking can’t seem to hit the sweet spot between being over- and under-engineered despite some good ideas (I did like the crafting system very much). Fortunate, then, that the quest structure the game is built around could be used as a goddamn textbook to teach certain other RPGs whose names rhyme with Killers of Paternity or Villainy exactly how it should be done. (Note that I say quest structure here rather than plot, since while the moment-to-moment writing is very good the actual plot of the game is all but invisible at times.) After you’ve said your goodbyes in Denmark you sail across the North Sea to land on the eastern coast of Britain. There’s a nearby village with an attached nunnery that sends a party of nervous locals to parlay with you, and how this meeting goes down is entirely up to you. You can play along with the locals, or — and this is the option I went for, because I’m a Viking and I came here to pillage — murder them all. And then murder the nuns, who are almost totally unarmed and mostly run and hide. And then steal everything from the nunnery that wasn’t nailed down.
There were a couple of things about this choice that I really liked. First, there is no such thing as “morality” in this game about Vikings rampaging through Dark Ages Britain. Yes, you can be an honourable Viking if you want and go out of your way to make friends with the British factions, but equally if you want to be a mercenary Viking or a pillaging Viking the game will accommodate you and it mostly won’t punish you for taking one path over another; it’ll just give you a different outcome. True, my murdering that particular village meant I couldn’t get quests from them and missed out on a chunk of content, and that meant I accelerated from zero to slaughter a little less rapidly after that particular incident. I view that as a natural consequence rather than an intentional punishment, however, and this is mostly how Viking chooses to respond to your actions. Later on I tried to make a deal with some Mercians to stand aside when I eventually invaded the mainland, but there had apparently been a group of Mercian merchants camped next to the village where I’d landed who were now, predictably, dead, and word of that had gotten around. So no deal. Viking always makes the effort to at least comment on your actions — specific actions that you have taken, rather than Pillars’ rather woolly reputation scores — and if it can’t offer a set of significantly branching outcomes it can at least provide enough superficial variance that you feel you’re having a noticeable impact on how the game is playing out.
Because the game isn’t making traditional morality judgements it becomes significantly easier to get into the mindset of your character, which is what RPGs are supposed to be all about. Usually you end up making some compromise between playing a role and min-maxing scenarios for the best in-game return (the old Infinity Engine games are terrible for this), but there’s none of that in Viking: the way its quests and dialogues are set up means it can wholeheartedly support you in being whatever kind of Viking raider you want to be. That’s not a trivial achievement, at least judging by the number of recent RPGs that have managed to screw it up, but for the games that manage to pull it off it’s by far the best way of keeping a player invested since they — I — really felt like it was my story. Coupled with the unusual historical setting it was enough to keep my attention throughout the 25-odd hours it takes to play through the campaign; there’s enough nods to both history and legend that I really got a kick out of exploring Dark Age Britain despite it mostly being a collection of forests and swamps. It doesn’t quite stick the landing — after building to a crescendo in Britain the story goes back to Denmark for the conclusion, but I’d been in Britain so long I’d completely forgotten the point of the game wasn’t conquering the British Isles and and that the factional Viking power struggle that I didn’t really care about would have to be resolved — but then neither does its competition, and after finishing it I find myself feeling rather better disposed towards Expeditions: Viking than I did Pillars, Tyranny or Torment. Certainly I feel that, despite everything in the game that doesn’t quite work, it has a better handle on how to provide a quality role-playing experience for the player. And that’s about as much as I can ask of any game that calls itself an RPG these days.