By Adam Smith on June 14th, 2013 at 9:00 pm.
In 2013, the good ship Mancunia set sail for the New World. Upon arrival, my band of Conquistadors smoked a potato, ate some tobacco broth and became pals with the natives. I’m considering building a holiday resort on the coast of and below I’ll explain why you should pay us a visit, but when booking your stay, bear in mind that you might want to go home sooner rather than later.
When starting a new campaign in Expeditions, the pool of characters that can join the player-designed leader on his trip to the New World includes a racist nun. While the game resembles many others, not least of which King’s Bounty and Oregon Trail, it’s the dedication to the theme and the quality of the writing as a whole that allow the game to stand separate from the crowd. The gang of miscreants, misanthropes, pioneers and pissants are a far cry from noble clerics, savage orcs and shirtless barbarians. They have, and are part of, a series of histories that Conquistador is determined to explore, hacking through the foliage and exposition to discover a great deal that is worthwhile and unexpected.
For a good portion of the first of the two campaigns, I was all but convinced that Conquistador had turned out to be an excellent game, so it’s disappointing to discover that it’s simply a very fine one. While there is much to admire, there are diminishing periods of actual enjoyment as the repetitive parts of play gradually lose their interest. Despite those failings, at its best, Conquistador is hugely compelling.
At base, the game breaks down into four parts: exploration of the map, turn-based combat, party management and roleplay. It’s in the latter that the game finds much of its quality, offering meaningful choices during well-written dialogue, and decisions that have a bearing on the world, and characters’ relationships and concerns. The RPG aspects feed back into party management and while there is levelling, equipment and skills are doled out from a mass of shared resources, which diminishes the tales of personal progression. Equipment, particularly, is odd. Rather than finding items out in the jungle or buying them, upgrades are a numbered resource, which can then be applied to characters, moving their belongings up through the tiers that relate to their profession.
This is true of most objects – traps and barriers, used during the set-up phase of combat, can be constructed once the techniques have been learned. Medicines require herbs and the skill to mix them. Food, as might be expected, goes in the belly to prevent starvation. Some of these resources are purchased or discovered on the trail, but others can be created or preserved while camping.
While in the wilderness, the player’s party can make a limited number of moves before it’s necessary to camp for the night. This takes them into a screen where every member is given a task, whether scavenging in the area, guarding, exploring or hunting. Depending on the surrounding terrain, the chance of discovering certain kinds of item and the difficulty of keeping watch will vary.
At first, it seems like a fascinating system, precisely the sort of thing that brings some extra realism and interaction a the party management level, making the wilderness something other than a series of spaces to trot across. Unfortunately, selecting tasks and balancing resources quickly becomes a chore – a means of creating necessary supplies that would be better left automated if the automation wasn’t imperfect.
Eventually, then, the map does become a space to trot across while seeking out the beginning of a new task or the end of an existing one. Settlements are more interesting than the undiscovered places in between, simply because there are people to talk to and more significant choices to make. While random events add some colour and character to camping, they often have no real consequence beyond taking away or providing resources.
It doesn’t help that the jungles are uninspiring to behold. The camera doesn’t help, trapped so close to the party that it’s impossible to get a sense of the surroundings’ scale. It’s disappointing, in a game about stepping into the unknown, that the world can seem like a series of checkpoints rather than a landscape with life of its own.
Combat, though it does become repetitive, does not lack personality. There are opportunities for clever application of tactics, particularly as new skills and equipment become available, and most fights feel weighty with consequence. While the HOMM-style trading of blows between two units can seem comical, there is always the risk of serious injury or death. Characters cannot be replaced and I became attached even to the worst of them. The combat screen is also where the game plants the kind of visual touches that the map mostly lacks – fighting (massacring) a tribe for the firs time, it’s disconcerting to see the citizens hands trembling as they clutch knives meant for cooking rather than killing.
Although the writing, and its depiction of characters both American and European, doesn’t shy from the horrors of the situation, the portrayal has enough complexity to avoid generalisation. Indeed, it uses fantasy tropes – forbidden rites, abandoned temples, mysterious shaman – and then casts them on their head. The writers also avoid the temptation of creating pure and noble natives pitched against thoroughly nasty Europeans. The people, whatever their culture, are flawed, interesting and frequently unusual.
The characters and plotlines are the game’s strength and they’re strong enough that even when I was feeling the strain of yet more wandering, camp management and combat, I still wanted to continue, to see what happened next. In its depiction of the theme and times, the writing hits the sweet spot between historical accuracy and flexibility, allowing female characters much more active roles on the frontline than might be expected, and permitting the player to make decisions that are modern and almost entirely based on hindsight and an anachronistic worldview.
It’s also possible to be a complete bastard, which is jarring because not only are events believable and based in history, but the focus is often on the individual or family unit. The conquest may be driven by ideology or greed, but the choices are personal. Several times I found myself obeying orders that I really shouldn’t have obeyed, justifying my decisions either as necessary evils, for the good of my party, or an attempt to roleplay the misguided confusion of the time, strapping a blindfold across the hind-eyes.
Although I didn’t realise it until after I’d finished the game, part of the problem is the freedom offered from the very beginning. While the party have traits, the leader doesn’t. That’s just you. Now, I don’t know you, but you probably don’t believe that you’re superior to people in distant lands. I really hope you don’t believe you’re superior to the extent that you think it’d be a good thing to enslave or kill them.
The game could force those beliefs onto your character by limiting choices, or to allow for a sympathetic reading, bring about tragic and desperate outcomes by conveying a sense of fear, and having the party react without reason. The jungles are the home of an unknown people, following alien religions, and they are invisible in the wild places beyond the lights of the settlement. It would be sensible to fear them, particularly given the stories that are told. But it’s difficult to adopt that role – the game doesn’t do enough to sell the anxiety and instead allows the player to act from the other side of the screen, too easily separated from events by a few centuries.
I felt like I was making MY decisions, for me, with an almost condescending view of the least anachronistic people that I met. I almost wish – and this is so unlike me – that the early stages had offered less freedom in exchange for character building, perhaps defining my leader’s traits through early decisions, and restricting my ability to act with all of my 21st century smarts by removing some options while adding others. A kind of Fallout low intelligence playthrough, with empathy and rationality in place of the ability to form sentences.
It would be unfair to end on a negative. Expeditions: Conquistador is far more than a reskinned King’s Bounty, exploring a historical moment with confidence and skill. The combat system is effective and while some aspects of management become a chore, the focus on stories and characters means that there is almost always at least one interesting plot on the boil. The maps will be the same if I play again, so I doubt I’ll revisit but if there are more Expeditions to come, I’ll certainly pack a bedroll and hop on board.