One of the great pleasures of being a game critic -- or even just a fan with wide-ranging interests -- is that every once in a while, an excellent product arrives unexpected and unannounced, having flown in under the radar. Such was the case with Expeditions: Viking, a new turn-based RPG from the studio that created Expeditions: Conquistador. Set in the tumultuous period post-Roman empire, Expeditions: Viking combines a deep and satisfying combat system with an evolving story that feels unusually --in a good way -- dependent on player choice throughout.
Your character is the son or daughter of a recently deceased 8th century Norse ruler, whose life, death and reign were besmirched by failure and poor decisions and whose people treat his legacy -- and you -- with a mixture of contempt, disrespect, and desperate hope. Your tasks are many: to revive the settlement from which you came, to bring honor, wealth and prosperity to the people, to earn your inherited power, and to eventually sail to Britain to investigate your father's death as well as establish mutually beneficial trade.
Along the course of your adventure you will encounter dozens of enemies and allies and quite a few who will change their allegiances, depending on your choices, behavior, and success in combat. The game's initial character creation tools barely hint at the complexities that are to come, as moment-to-moment decisions and Expeditions: Viking's complex and multilayered upgrade paths begin to work in tandem with character interactions and squad-based combat. For a game that is about an historical period in which the region's culture was changing on a very large-scale, Viking is essentially a story told in many small-scale, personal interactions. While the dialogue options usually telescope their intentions there are a much wider range of interpersonal choices than in most RPGs and sometimes choices have unforseen consequences later in the game.
There is much to consider and happily, the game introduces its complexity in relatively small bites, though it takes a long time to become comfortable with the game's interface and really start to make intelligent choices. There are many upgrade paths and options to consider: weapons, armor, skills, personal traits all impact the outcome of battle and knowing when to camp, rest, heal, and hunt has a major impact on the success of your party. The game's hex-based battles are incredibly interesting, with weapon loadouts, skills, and positioning -- not to mention your choice of squad mates -- all playing a part in the outcome. Expeditions: Viking is not an easy game, and battles must often be replayed but I appreciated the way in which the game made most choices and weapons viable.
Expeditions: Viking is about a clash of cultures and geographies and this is well represented in the hand-painted backdrops, architecture and design elements, all of which were closely based on historical sources. At the same time, I often felt a bit of visual fatigue because of a lack of contrast and clarity in the graphics -- which look a little dated, unfortunately -- and I was frustrated by the unresponsive camera and a view that was never able to zoom in quite enough for a more visceral experience, or far enough out to really get a lay of the land.
Getting just the right tone in dialogue is a challenge for an historical game, as it has to strike a balance between speech that sounds believably archaic yet comprehensible to modern ears. Viking largely succeeds, with excellent voice acting and only occasional lapses into profanity-laden colloquial English that jars us out of the period. Really, what sells the story are the characters and overall arc they are following.
Expeditions: Viking features some admirably nuanced turn-based combat that is in service of a larger story and interesting characters. It is a game that probably demands -- and certainly rewards -- multiple playthroughs both to gain mastery over the systems and to explore different choices in the story. Relatively minor quibbles with the game's visuals, camera, controls and occasional bugs aside, playing Expeditions: Viking is an unexpectedly rewarding experience.