The CRPG genre has been seeing something of a resurgence lately, with prominent titles such Pillars of Eternity, Tyranny, and Torment: Tides of Numenera cropping up like it’s going out of (or, rather, coming back into) style.
Logic Artists’ last big title, Expeditions: Conquistador, released in 2013, falling just short of this level of newfound attention for the genre. Its spiritual successor, Expeditions: Viking, is releasing at a time when bigger names force it to stand out and make its own mark. And by Thor does it deliver.
We covered Viking recently (twice, in fact!), and felt the game got off to a promising start and displayed a longship’s cargo hold’s worth of potential. As such, it’s a pleasure to report that from the snow-covered forests of Denmark to the green pastures of Britain, Viking lives up to that potential and proves an engaging journey from start to finish.
Where most CRPGs have a tendency to gravitate toward vast, expertly developed fantasy worlds full of interest lore tidbits, Expeditions: Viking eschews this tradition in favour of looking back at what many consider one of the most fascinating times in history. The game’s title should be enough to tell you that it takes place in the days of Norse raids on the nascent kingdoms of Britain. While it might frustrate historians that a great deal of the Viking lifestyle remains a mystery, this has given Logic Artists a great deal to work wit in terms of historical interpretation. The game chooses to stick with the most authentic experience possible, however, meaning that (apart from a few sequences that err on the supernatural side) you’re dealing with real-world affairs rather than doing battle with mythical beasts or journeying to mythical kingdoms. A nice touch is the use of authentic spelling for words such as thegn (thane), Valhøll (Valhalla) and so on. It may not seem a particularly major factor in the game, but it nevertheless manages to make the world feel all the more believable.
Like any budding RPG, Expeditions: Viking does of course begin the game by presenting players with a character creation screen. This is fairly standard: you can choose your body type, hairstyle, facial hair and clothing, as well as the character portrait that will appear in conversations. You also get to name both your character and their father (which gives you you surname) before being whisked away to pick your stats and skills. This can be rather intimidating to look at at first, but as the game boots you into combat very early on, you’ll soon know if you want to respec or experiment. Thanks to the inclusion of preset builds (Warrior, Skald, Hunter, etc.) this can be simplified for those who’d rather make do without the hassle. Stats include your standard fare: strength, endurance, perception, and so on, each governing a different role in combat as well as the occasional conversation: have a high Finesse rating, for example, and you might be able to stab someone before they have the chance to react. With enough Sense, you might be able to talk them out of fighting at all. Skills, on the other hand, are largely combat-based and come in both passive and active varieties, and each is useful enough that you’ll be genuinely pleased by the opportunity to invest in more after levelling up (though this, as one might expect, does not apply to your stats).
A few minutes into the game proper, you’re faced with your first real fight. Expeditions: Viking uses a turn-based system where characters move across a hexagonal tiles and have access to a variety of skills, weapons (which can be swapped out during combat) and items. Generally, you’re allowed one movement and an attack or ability, or else you can sacrifice the latter of extra movement. Positioning is key thanks to both a cover system and the concept of flanking – the former protects you from archers while the latter bumps up your damage considerably (or that of your enemies, if you’re the one on the receiving end of a flanking manoeuvre). It’s a fairly simple system – any complexity tends to come from the environment you’re in rather than the actual system itself, which is a testament to the clever design of many of the game’s combat sections. Holding a bridge against an onslaught of foes or doing battle in the streets of a village make for different experiences thanks to some clever map design in combination with the game’s emphasis on the importance of movement in battle. All in all, the game’s combat system is a fine way to send your enemies to the heights of Valhalla or the depths of Hel.
It’s important to remember that it’s not all about the fighting, of course. After all, that’s what made your father such an unpopular thegn! The game has an interesting Homestead menu from which you can build upgrades for your humble village in Denmark. These come with branching paths and various benefits to your power and reputation, as well as other handy rewards. While this is all well and good, I was most pleased to find that this is visually represented: upon constructing palisades to better defend my homestead, I returned from my travels to see them fully built and ready to ward off invaders. It’s a nice touch that really adds to the idea of building up your clan and serving as its ruler.
As important as combat and other systems are, the game truly shines in its story, character and world building. The Viking Age is a strangely untouched era when it comes to games, and what few games do make use of the setting tend to lean toward the idea of ruthless berserkers in horned helmets, doing battle with all manner of monstrous foes. Expeditions: Viking opts instead to present a far more immersive experience with a view into the lives of those often looked upon as nothing more than fierce warriors who’d plunder and pillage. Here, you’re given reasons for this need to raid the lands across the sea and are able to speak with members of Norse society who live ordinary lives. This is of course helped by the fact that everything in the game is well-written, and that a great many characters are thoroughly likeable. There is a little bit of voice acting to add to this, but is done in the true CRPG sense where only the first line of a conversation will be voiced (though in Viking, this seems to only occur at important moments). This can be somewhat jarring and, while the effort is appreciated, it may have been better to either have no voice acting or more consistent voice acting.
This is, of course, a relatively minor issue – and arguably even down to personal preference. The only major issue I encountered with the game was, unfortunately, a rather major one: there’s an opportunity near the start of the game to have an enemy character join your party. However, the character instead remained in a location in which he was not meant to be and couldn’t be interacted with. This is optional and the entire game can be played without recruiting this character, but as someone who likes to recruit every potential character when it comes to RPGs, this was a great shame.
It’s worth noting that choices like this are prevalent through much of the game – and appear to work as intended in every other scenario. There’s often the chance to gain new party members or turn them away – in some cases, they can even be killed or exiled. I reloaded some earlier saves to see how much of an effect these choices actually had, and the consequences were immediate. While the overall story certainly remained unchanged, the tone was altered by the lack of a certain character’s presence. This choice further extends even to combat itself, where a non-lethal option can be toggled on and off. Then, after the battle, you’ll often be given the choice of what to do with those you’ve spared, leading to further consequences down the line. As such, choice certainly plays a large role in Viking, and the developers have absolutely nailed it.
Expeditions: Viking will take you a fair bit of time to complete. Between the main story, side quests and chatting to as many characters as possible, it took me quite a while to even leave Denmark. But it’s a game that never overstayed it welcome, that has a certain charm I didn’t even experience in Pillars of Eternity. Its themes come alive due its roots in real history, making this an experience that’s truly about adventure and discovering (what once was) the unknown. Expeditions: Viking is a game I’ll be coming back to, and has certainly earned its place in Valhalla.