Coming off of my jubilation about Torment: Tides of Numenera, which I highly recommend, I was sort of expecting the story and dialogue options of Expeditions: Viking to be narrow, even trite. I was intrigued more by the setting and combat than anything else. Truth be told, I’m now eating my fur cap.
The follow up to 2013’s Expeditions: Conquistador from Logic Artists, Expeditions: Viking is a turn-based, tactical RPG with a branching storyline and multiple endings. Rouse up a band of warriors to join you as huscarls and explore the late 8th century while honing your skills with brutal weapons. In the game’s bleak setting, the idea of magic is limited mostly to dazing, confusing, and demoralizing your opponents. Sure, there’s some powerful healing, but this ability is chalked up to practice and a fanatical habit for collecting herbs.
Expeditions: Viking is not the most classic RPG I can think of, but it is something of an ideal. You create the main character by choosing their gender, appearance, name, and skills. Then you’re whisked immediately to 790 AD and the funeral banquet of your thrill-seeking father. With him gone, you now sit as thegn, chief over a small band of Vikings that seem to have more foes than friends. It is up to you what kind of thegn you’ll be, whether you’ll practice mercy and restraint, or leave the stereotype of warmongering, pillaging, senselessly violent Vikings solidly intact.
Playing this game, you feel completely in charge. It isn’t like some other RPGs, where you feel as if you’re playing a role in a story already written, an actor following a script. I found myself thinking I’d make a pretty good thegn myself. I knew when to be firm, when to be brutal, and when to be generous. But as the story grew outward like the branches of an old oak tree, I started to lose my edge. I didn’t want to anger potentially powerful allies and I wanted everybody to like the thegn I had created. That meant some of the more conservative Jutes in my hird started to question my authority, thinking I’d gone soft.
Such things are best require a firm hand. Expeditions: Viking gives you the option to do so, and your actions are constantly affecting the morale of your companions. Quite quickly, you set off from Skjern, the seat of your power, and sail to the distant lands in the west, to the tune of the game’s wistful and stirring soundtrack.
I’m somewhat of a sucker for history lessons inside video games, as evidenced by my masochistic enjoyment of Europa Universalis IV. So to get to roam around Anglo-Saxon Britain, meeting with kings and leaders, and playing an active and often violent role in the politics of the time is a real delight. The Anglo-Saxon tribes have a well-worn distrust for your ilk, but are happy to use your prowess in battle to their advantage. I might protest, but laying out cocky Picts with an enormous Dane Axe named The Disfigurer is too much fun to say no.
Combat takes place in classic tactical RPG form, with each combatant occupying a hex and having a range of abilities to choose from. A unique feature to this title is Attacks of Opportunity, by which you can incur some damage simply from walking past an enemy. This makes placement and pathing pretty important. What’s also nice is that at no point do you become an unstoppable HP blob full of arrows and gashes. Attacks hurt in this game, and if you don’t have a shield to protect you, you won’t last more than a few blows from a skilled adversary.
That sword cuts both ways, and if you can utilize the pool of skills available to you and your huscarls, you’ll be able to pacify and cut down most of what stands in your way. That said, I took the game on its Medium difficulty, which offered no bonuses or penalties to enemies. I was surprised to find that the game didn’t have much of a difficulty curve as I progressed. My fights were messy at first, and then once I got the hang of it, I really did feel like I was representing Viking superiority in battle. Combat was fun, but not entirely challenging. That is until one particular encounter that was so challenging it was no fun at all. A little bit of a run up would be nice.
The game is split into an area map and instances made up of towns, hamlets, and locations of interest. Visually, the area map is old school, to put it nicely. There’s something about it that’s almost DOS-like. Travel takes time, any number of encounters and incidents can happen along the way, and your companions often become fatigued and hungry. That’s when you should head to a campsite (which you may have to fight for) to rest up, hunt, cook, repair and make equipment, and heal any outstanding injuries. Maybe it’s a little strange that you can only do any of these actions while camping, but it adds some legitimacy to the difficulties that traveling in 790 AD would have presented.
Perhaps my single biggest disappointment from playing Expeditions: Viking came about 15 hours in. I entered a campsite to take it by force, so that my hird could rest and enjoy some meat and mead. But the campsite map, and the enemies that populated it, were exactly the same as the last one I’d taken. To the game’s credit, I was so engaged in the story, world, and characters that I could be shoved by back a repetition like that and reminded that I’m only playing through something somebody built.
Character progression, while offering a variety of options, is also a bit stunted. Especially with some of the custom characters I took along, it was a pretty short sprint to maxing out all the combat skills they would need. Then came crafting, passives, and then a buildup of skill points with no real worthy investments.
Also to the game’s credit is the possibility of fostering a homosexual relationship with one of your huscarls. I had been enjoying the vague homo-eroticism of it, until a night of drinking by the campfire went full tilt gay erotica. That, coupled with the fact that you’re free to make your thegn a woman (and that it actually affects your interactions), makes this a Viking game that actually has a Social Justice Warrior side to it.
Is Expeditions: Viking the type of game that will smash records and become a worldwide sensation? Absolutely not. It’s entirely the wrong type of game if that was anybody’s goal. But it is a faithful, fun, and engaging example of a contemporary strategy RPG set in an underutilized (at least until recently) world and mythology. And that certainly makes it a worthwhile adventure for fans of the genre.