Over the last three weeks, I've received emails about seven different viking-based games. I guess we have our new zombies. Vikings, though, have something that the walking dead do not: Viqueens. I am glad to say that earthy, quasi-political RPG Expeditions: Viking does not force me to be another Odinson.
Yes, I know about Shieldmaidens, thank you. They're ace, but I'm going with VIQUEENS and you can't stop me. For Honor has come out swinging on that particular front, but Expeditions (follow-up to Expeditions: Conquistador, which I'm afraid I haven't played but heard decentish things about) offers a slightly less meatheaded approach. Whatever character you create to be recently-crowned Thegn of an in-fighting Viking collective, you'll face heavy resistance, both moral and physical, from various other hide-clad rebels and grumblers, but choosing a woman definitely adds a little extra something.
Facing down male NPCs' barely-concealed horror that they are being led by a woman makes sticking an axe into their skulls all the sweeter. And the declarations from an enlightened few that of course, obviously you are a mighty and deserving ruler feel all the more significant because it is clear that this is a role that has had to be fought for, not simply bequeathed because I've got a beard and a bicep tattoo.
If it sounds like I'm banging on about one particular thing too much, well, yes, but my point is more that, given that it's operating on a fraction of the budget of a BiObsidian affair, Expeditions is a remarkably responsive RPG, starting from the kind of character you choose to be and then rolling onward with it. It's a game about behaviour as much as it is about twatting people with swords, this ongoing choice to (try and) be a benign ruler, a savage one, simply a blunt one or an ever-changing mix of all of the above.
Characters can be recruited to your 'hind', essentially a party but which also has a role to play in the management of your village, if you manage to impress them in conversation or in battle, or they can be lost forever - potentially even become a sworn enemy. Potentially even seizing your throne from you.
This is only a preview build of a full game not due until a few months into 2017, so I can't say for certain that its choice and consequences will be as knotty and far-reaching as it seems to imply, but certainly its first major chapter leans heavy on that stuff. It's more of a ruling sim with quests'n'combat thrown in than it is yer traditional hero's journey. Grant mercy to these guys, but piss off those other guys because you look weak as a result - that sort of thing. Also, inept wolf-hunting, honor duels and finding lost brothers. RPG norms but parsed through a slight history filter.
There's probably nothing new under the sun, sure, but it's put together with a certain density that makes this stuff feel convincing and foundational to who your beleaguered character is, rather than a series of transitory kerfuffle.
In order to embrace this role, you've got to shrug off a certain crudity in presentation, both on a graphical front and in terms of the rather functional dialogue. Any or all of this might improve along the march to release (and it needs a technical spit and polish too), but even so I reckon Expeditions is achieving what it set out to do.
It's a relief to play something comparatively buttoned down, that isn't going to drop dragons or prophecies on me and where individual people and individual political decisions matter. I 'failed' a few quests, but the world still turned, just quietly adapting to what I'd done, or not done.
The turn-based, faintly Jagged Alliancey combat is serviceable too. It feels a bit wooden and bloodless, so don't go looking for full Viqueen brutality here, but there's an impressive range of character skills and weapons which mean you're fighting somewhere between tactical and onslaught. You've got your guy who can hook an enemy's shield away with an axe, a lass with a spear who can stab people from three hexes away, stunning people with shieldblows, multi-shot archers and even a witch who can throw poison in people's faces.
It's just about on the right side of credible, and most importantly it's varied, though I don't know that I'd call it especially elegant. Maybe that's appropriate - certainly, I went into quite a few fights a long way short of certain how it would turn out.
One to keep an eye on, for sure. Expeditions: Viking is not exactly glossy, but it's refreshingly grounded compared to the RPG norm, and quietly very intricate. Hell, it even asked me to choose what kind of tree I want to build my longboat out of. And what I wanted to call it. I did the depressingly obvious. I'm so very sorry.
Expeditions: Viking is due for release in the first quarter of next year.