This month I was given the chance to check out an early build of developer Logic Artists' Expeditions: Viking, the second game in its historically-themed tactical RPG series following Expeditions: Conquistador, which launched back in 2013. The game puts players in the role of a new Viking chieftain, who hears of stories surrounding a certain set of islands to the west of Denmark full of riches, of which claiming would go a long way to helping them and their settlement. In the seven hours I played it, the alpha preview build certainly had enough going for it to hold my interest and keep me curious about what lies ahead in the full release.
Players start by creating their Viking before diving into the linear tutorial section. They have recently inherited the clan leadership after their father's expedition to plunder the recently-discovered British Isles ended in failure, with his demise. After dealing with the initial drama of his funeral feast and a challenge to the leadership, it becomes apparent that another visit to claim the riches of this far off land is the only way to prevent the machinations of another leader and save the settlement. The preview build dealt with the first of the game's acts as players prepare for this adventure by recruiting an expedition force, gathering supplies, and building a boat, with the game giving free reign as to the order they go about things.
Various companions join the player as they go about their business, with a maximum party size of six for combat or while wandering around towns and other locations. The developer stated that game has four romanceable characters, two for each gender, though I was unable to see how this progresses in the preview. Many decisions are characterised (sceptical, aggressive, etc.) and those decision improves the standing of the player in the eyes of those who share that trait — or drops it if they have the opposite trait — though again it was too early in the game to see how exactly this plays out when players gain particularly high or low levels of loyalty. In terms of narrative the game does a decent job of directing progress, however, players shouldn't expect too much. The individual quests in the preview were a bit lacking in content and seemed over before they've really got going, but came together as a whole well enough.
The game is good at offering a variety of ways for players to go about their dealings. One quest requires players to make a human sacrifice to gain access to a treasure-filled cave, but players might be able to use more subversive means to enter at the risk of starting a fight with the locals if caught. Character attributes play important parts in conversations, aiding skill checks and unlocking options that can open up alternate pathways to progress. We will likely need to wait for the full game to see just how great of an effect player choices have in the grand scheme of things, however. Will sparing an enemy come back to bite the player? Will focusing on trading with the Picts rather than raiding prove more lucrative in the long run?
Expeditions: Viking uses a turn-based tactical combat system with a hexagonal grid. Each side takes it in turns with every combatant receiving a move and an action, though players can forgo their action for extra movement. Depth is added through various skills as well as use of the environment, which can provide some cover from arrows and hazards such as entangling vines and slippery ice. The time I spent indicated that the best way to win was very much by focusing on reducing the enemy ability to hurt players (either by stunning them or simply reducing their numbers as fast as possible) as both sides hit pretty hard. If a party member goes down they will be back at full health for the next battle, however, the longer they stay down the more likely it is that they suffer a lasting injury that hampers them in future battles, such as a fractured arm that reduces strength by three points. These can only be healed in camp. The game's combat is one of its strengths so far. Battles have generally gone at a quick, satisfying pace, barring a couple of technical issues and a frequent need to draw the enemy out a bit in the first round or two in the larger maps.
Traversing the world map is not quite as a straightforward as just clicking the next destination. Travelling takes time and if the desired destination is far enough away players will want to rest at camps, likely after having to clear out the occupiers. Camping is a fairly neat aspect. Rather than receiving an automatic "everyone gets healed, carry on", players have to determine what everyone is doing in the four time blocks. This includes gathering supplies such as food and medicinal herbs, scouting the area, guarding the camp from thieves, healing, and stopping for some much-needed rest; without it, issues can arise amongst the party.
There were some bugs that affirmed the game's in-development status, such as enemy turns seemingly taking longer than they should while the game thinks about what to do next. The game could also greatly benefit from allowing the camera to zoom out further, particularly in combat. I would often have to spend several seconds scouting the battle map just to figure out which direction the enemy was actually coming from. Nevertheless, the game has an appreciable level of depth without being too bogged down in the minutiae and should be worthy of a spot on many PC RPGamers' radars when it launches in 2017.