Renowned Explorers was like an oasis of calm and colour in the cavernous halls of Gamescom. It’s a game about travelling the world in search of impressive artifacts to show off at the World Expo, but rather than making the journey into a nightmare of scurvy and resource management, developers Abbey Games have opted for a sort of turn-based tactics adventure that combines Tintin, Indiana Jones and Jules Verne. It’s a game in which scientists wield Tesla guns and the Mexican contingent of the expedition is a lady Luchador who can pin pirates to the ground while her buddies charm the peglegs off them.
Abbey Games previously created Reus, the god game that seemed like a puzzle game but was actually a strategy game. I think. What I know is that after talking to Manuel Kerssemakers (AI, design programming) about Renowed Explorers at Gamescom, I was left with a strong desire to revisit Reus. Kerssemakers explained the intent behind Reus so clearly that I’ve seen its lumbering giants through fresh eyes since playing again. It’s a game about balance, which requires a slow build of components in order to set its scales.
The studio’s follow-up is a much more immediate treat. There are three layers of play and each is most likely reminiscent of something you’ve experienced before, although there are plenty of wrinkles in the underlying mechanics.
Layer number one is the planning stage, where crew members are assigned and a destination is selected. It’s the only section of the game that wasn’t covered by the demo I played at Gamescom and it’s not entirely clear how the discoveries in one location will affect the player’s decision when choosing the next. The game is short-form, always ending at the time of the World Expo, and it won’t be possible to visit every area during one playthrough. A museum housing artifacts from every trip is the one confirmed feature that is persistent across campaigns.
Kerssemakers told me that FTL was a significant influence and this is most evident during the second layer, which sees the chosen party of explorers seeking treasure at their chosen location. The zoomed in map contains a random selection of nodes, each represented a possible type of encounter. There is a similarity to FTL’s sector maps but the theme runs through each location – nodes might be temple ruins, jungle clearings or the literal ‘X’ on the map.
Selecting a node might lead to a short textual encounter or a visit to the game’s third layer, which takes the form of turn-based tactical combat. Some of the tiles on these maps (also randomised) are hexes but the number of sides varies, the terrain sliced into unequal portions. This complicates positioning, as some locations are easier to defend, harder for multiple characters to surround and assault in synchrony. That division of land is one of several seemingly small tweaks to a recognised formula that require an extra level of foresight and planning.
The most unusual feature of combat is the ability to avoid violence altogether. Every character and enemy has two core elements, denoting their physical and emotional strengths. The luchador is handy in a fight, pummelling opponents into submission, but a more charismatic adventurer might be able to chisel away at a pirate’s ‘emotional stamina’, causing them to submit in a different way but with the same result.
Essentially, this means that characters have two sets of hitpoints, each of which is affected by one type of attack, and that in itself is a decent proposition. As well as considering tactical positioning, players must balance their team and their on-field alliances to ensure that they don’t end up draining from both emotional and physical resilience, effectively forcing themselves to take an opponent out twice. Concentrating emotional attacks in one area of the battlefield and physical ones in another is one possibility, but some enemies are vulnerable to one type of attack over the other, and their own forms of attack must be taken into account as well.
There are also special abilities to take into account. Some restrict movement, others turn enemies into allies, and there are many more besides. Alongside their stats and skills, characters can also suffer or benefit from an overriding emotional state. These become active under certain conditions and can be a help or a hindrance. During the short demo that I played, my team charmed some monkeys, pummelled some pirates and became invigorated by their successes. Even a brief experience of the game reveals a potential complexity that the bright and cheerful surface doesn’t necessarily lead one to expect.
Such expectations are nonsense, of course – whatever the moody melancholy of Dark Souls might lead anyone to believe, there is no correlation between a grim aesthetic and an inner complexity. Renowned Explorers’ colour palette and whimsy are as refreshing as its tactical nuances and sense of gleeful (as opposed to, say, dreadful) discovery. If it were a cocktail it might well be a beach-worthy creation in a tall parasol-clad highball glass, but it’d contain more than enough liquor to burn on the way down the hatch.
The comparison to FTL doesn’t entirely hold up on closer investigation but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Renowned Explorers is shaping up to be more than a theme-swapped echo, it’s an intriguing game of procedural exploration, with a few tricks concealed within its tactical trousers. Out later this year, it was another of Gamescom’s pleasant surprises.