[18 February 2013]
After naming and allocating the attributes of the protagonist in Expeditions Conquistador the player is greeted with the following paragraph that sets up the game:
The year is 1518—a year before Hernán Cortés would be elected captain of the third expedition to the South American mainland, where he would overthrow the Aztec empire. But that will not happen, because you have beaten him to the punch.
Expeditions Conquistador is an alternate history, in which the player is put in the position of South America’s conquerors. Most of the game is centered on exploration and resource management with some sparse but important combat and dialogue trees mixed in. To say the least, it’s extraordinarily bold to handle such sensitive material in such a “game-like” fashion.
Expeditions Conquistador is a tactical RPG with a heavy emphasis on exploration and balancing resources that very closely resembles 1C Company’s King’s Bounty: The Legend. There are four important resources to balance, one being a basic currency, while the other three have practical uses. Spanish settlements and native villages will trade any of these resources according to their own demand, and the value of trades fluctuate according to what market you’re visiting. Interestingly, it’s the mechanically worthless resource that seems to always be in the lowest demand, but it’s the one by which the king in Spain will judge your success.
Resources are managed while the player explores the map. Exploration is limited to only a few moves before the expedition’s stamina bottoms out and a camp will have to be set up. While in camp, expedition members are able to complete a number of tasks. Each of these tasks is vital in maintaining resources and keeping the team in fighting condition. Failing to adequately assign your team to the necessary jobs drains the party’s resources, which very quickly spirals out of control. However, different terrain alters the demand for each need. Camping atop a barren mountain, for example, makes guarding easy but hunting and scouting difficult. Having so many factors to juggle makes every movement feel significant.
Further depth is added by the injury system. Not only is an injured party member unable to perform any task in camp, but the doctor treating them is also left out of commission for a time. Losing a skilled hunter or guard to a random illness in risky terrain makes just moving around the map feel tense and challenging. Likewise, when an ally falls in battle, they’ll likely sustain an injury that will make them unable to help the expedition in the exploration parts of the game. If multiple members are knocked out in a tough fight, then even the strongest team can become vulnerable. The game is excellent because of, not in spite of, how quickly disaster can snowball, making every threat feel that much more credible.
The biggest threats come from the game’s very difficult combat. Friendly and enemy forces are arranged opposite to one another in hexagonal spaces in a large map. Often, the result of a conversation just before the fight will determine which side is given more advantageous positioning. Before the fight begins, the player and the AI lace the battlefield with traps and barricades to restrict and dictate enemy movement. The player chooses up to six combatants from their party and then each side takes turns moving and attacking.
The ten distinct overworld classes perform uniquely in combat. Units can attack with melee or ranged weapons or use one of up to five abilities (depending on the unit’s level). No class can win a fight alone. Even the best equipped and highest leveled member is subject to strict strengths and weaknesses. Every class has their role, and depending on the degree to which they’re allowed to carry it out, can be devastating or completely worthless.
That being said, the AI is excellent at disrupting the player. Most of the challenge doesn’t come from how strong enemies are, but rather from how they’re able to tactically pick the player apart. Enemy teams strategize in very human ways: they hide traps in choke points, they target medics first, they burn down the melee-only scout with ranged attacks before he can break their lines, and they stun, isolate and surround your tanks away from your squishier units. As your team gets stronger and gets better equipped, more encounters begin with your team outnumbered or surrounded to nullify your advantage.
Combat is always risky. If you lose a fight, the enemy raids your supplies and injures (or outright kills) members of your camp. Moreover, experience is rewarded through progressing quests, not from winning battles, so the risks associated with fighting are not always worth the rewards. Because combat has such deep implications on exploration, it’s never undertaken lightly. The fighting is well designed, simple while being extremely difficult, very risky, and always meaningful. It’s an elegant balance that Logic Artists have managed to maintain with impressive results. Each member of your team is vital to the whole and putting any one of them at risk is never something to take lightly. Because each has skills necessary to explore and balance resources, even characters that will never engage in combat contribute in camp.
On that note, the members of your team are also salient to the group in terms of how they’re written as people. When composing the starting members of their expedition, the player is not just choosing from their favorite bundle of stats. Each prospective member is given a well-written backstory that explains how the protagonist knows them and why they want to explore the New World. Each character is given a beautiful portrait stylized after an era-appropriate oil painting. Moreover, each character has three personality traits such as greedy, peaceful, narcissistic, adventurous, and so on that determine how they will react to your decisions. Some will gain or lose morale (which could result in a mutiny) depending on the choices that you make.
What’s really impressive, though, is how these personality traits and backstories actually return in the game. Occasionally a team member will approach you in camp and discuss things related to their unique history, or they will comment on events as they happen in ways appropriate to their personalities. By improving their morale enough, they begin to refer to the player-character by their first name. They’ll even butt in and converse with one another about recent or current events during the expedition.
Also impressive is how the developers have made the characters and world come to life with almost only text. There’s very little animation and conversations occur entirely in text-boxes with an accompanying portrait. The writing is excellent, not just in conversations, but in how it compensates for the lack of visuals. A good deal of the writing between dialogue—the “stage directions” so to speak—is colorful and detailed without overstaying its welcome. The descriptions of approaching a house, the sights around the house, the person answering the door, their appearance and demeanor give a sense of detail and voice to the narration. Even with minimal visuals, the visceral prose is able to make the New World feel concrete. It isn’t perfect, and there are a few times when the wrong pronoun is used or an awkward, era-inappropriate phrase shatters immersion. However, for the most part, the writing is excellent.
As a game, it functions with few problems. The controls aren’t always very responsive, the pathing is flawed, determining where allied units can move in battle is occasionally unclear, and it’s easy to lose track of enemy units. But on the whole, it’s a truly excellent game. That such a tightly designed game can come from just six full-time and four part-time staff speaks volumes about the talent behind the project. However, what is most immediately noticeable about the game is its subject matter. It’s a game about colonialism where the player simulates the conquest of South America.
The complicated and delicate premise of the game deserves its own treatment, but for what it’s worth, the press preview that this review is based on approaches the content in an intelligent and interesting way. Expeditions Conquistador doesn’t romanticize its source material, but it also seems to deliberately make light of it at times. There’s sometimes a low tolerance for ambiguity when it comes to how art approaches social justice, but the caveat is that Imperialism is not a respectful process. The developers appear to know that. It should be said that, according to the Kickstarter page, the finished game will include a campaign from the perspective of an Aztec war band. There was also a stretch goal that would have included a campaign set in the Inca empire that was not reached, though hopefully plans for it have not been totally abandoned. The game boldly walks a thin line, but until a finished product can be evaluated, it can’t be said whether it succeeds or not with regards to its racial dynamics.
Mechanically, the game is sound. There are a handful of eye rolling annoyances but nothing that can’t be forgiven. The emotional investment in the game and its characters is impressive and the exceptional writing reinforces the connection to the world. It’s punishingly difficult, and it tackles some heavy material. However, it doesn’t tackle that material carelessly. Depending on how the finished game works with what is established in the first ten hours or so, it could easily become required playing.