In 2013 Danish studio Logic Artists released the game Expeditions: Conquistador, and with a title like that, it wasn't difficult to guess that a sequel was in the making. This has finally arrived, and as with Conquistador, we're going back in time, as now we're visiting the Vikings. Having spent many hours with the Danish scoundrels, we've experienced both joy and frustration, the latter being due tot the game's bugs, but let us see if whether, despite this, the Vikings from Jutland can stay afloat.
The idea for Expeditions: Viking is indeed very interesting, as it's an old-fashioned turn-based RPG with no magic that tells the story of the Danish Vikings. This is an excellent choice since the Viking culture fits the format quite well, as there's a lot of mystery in the British and Danish world at this time, with witches, druids, and proud warrior societies all helping to create a classic adventure.
The game starts when you create a character who inherits the role as thegn of the Danish town Skjern. As thegn, you have to control your team and you also have to make important tactical choices, all within a Dungeons & Dragons sort of system. There are many decisions to make in the game, since you're threatened by the other thegns, and you desperately need alliances. These, however, must be found in Britain, since diplomacy apparently wasn't your father's strong suit.
Your goal, then, is to build a ship and recruit enough men and women to form a crew. Already at this point you can see how the RPG elements require strategic thought. Do you build a trade ship, a warship, or something in between? What kind of crew will you make? Is the goal to build close alliances, trade routes, or do you plunder when you reach Britain?
This interesting concept is actually quite well executed in many areas. The period is depicted in a believable manner, and the developers seem to have done a lot of research on the Danish and British setting in the 6th century. It's a text-heavy game, and the well-written dialogue makes for believable and deep characters. From negotiations through to the reactions from your hirdmen (teammates), the dialogue appears authentic, and as a whole the game world is very immersive. All of this makes you want to continue, which is quite impressive in a game with almost no spoken dialogue.
In the spirit of our age, the player can romance NPCs, and not only in terms of heterosexual relationships, as you can romance your friend Ketill who, after you spend the night with him, becomes an unwavering companion. This is great in terms of loyalty, but not all of the hird (team) is supportive of the homosexual relationship.
The journey of the Vikings is well-written, and the story, as well as the characters, is coherent most of the time. The choices of the player are woven together with the story nicely, and this makes for a narrative that feels very much like your own. This leads to the big question in Viking; what kind of Viking do you want to be? Do you pillage the local monastery and share the loot with a group of bandits, or do you make the bandits run for their lives, in which case you win the favour of the locals? The good folk at Logic Artists didn't make this easy as, for example, the bandits in the game are actually just shipwrecked citizens struggling to survive. There are many interesting choices to make, and it's never clear what outcome to expect.
Gameplay is turn-based and isometic, and when you're not in battle or strolling through cities, you'll find yourself in a big world map where you can make camp or travel between local areas and cities. For fans of RPGs with a knack for strategy, there's a lot of detail to delve into, from abilities to upgrading your homestead. There are many decisions and opportunities to customise the experience and characters to your liking, as this is both a complicated and long game.
Here we arrive at the more technical section and must look at the many systems found in the game, which are unique to an extent that might surprise, especially after seeing the generic UI. For instance, in the game you only receive skill points from completing quests, in contrast with most modern RPGs, where your swordsmanship rank would typically improve if you fight a lot with swords. It's an open D&D-like system where you can create very versatile characters, and this is because all abilities are open to all characters, as long as they have enough strength, finesse, perception, and so on. You can therefore create an archer who can also heal, or a berserker who can use a slingshot if you want to. Not all combinations make sense, but they're nevertheless possible.
In terms of the turn-based combat, there's plenty to see here. It's a fine combat system where your characters move on hexagonal tiles, and you can use abilities and items against an opponent or to heal your allies. You also need to find cover to avoid arrows, and have to make sure that men without shields are still protected. Perhaps most interestingly, you have to avoid triggering the enemy's attack of opportunity too, which happens when you pass them. The fights are both fun and challenging, and are mostly straight-forward.
Some of the systems in Viking play against each other. For instance, your ability to trade in Britain depends on your reputation, and for a long time it's impossible to acquire new weapons by trading there. It's only when you're almost a local hero that the system grants you fair prices on weapons. On the other hand, it's possible to gain decent prices on lumber and other wares through completing certain quests. This slow trading system is part of the reason why much of the fun in the game is saved for later, and this isn't helped by the fact that loot is quite dull for a while. This is why we wanted the game to open up a bit faster in order for players to engage with the world much earlier.
The Homestead system is another part of the game that only become relevant at a later point, when you can trade for lumber and other wares. By upgrading your homestead with more farms, better protection and so on, you can gain weekly rations for your men as well as a stable income, but can also be better prepared if neighbouring countries invade. The power and prosperity of Skjern can also be improved by upgrading the homestead which, while only relevant in the long run, is a fun addition that adds an extra layer to the game.
Another fun addition to the gameplay is that you have to make camp from time to time, in order for your men to rest, eat and so on. If you forget this, your hird will starve and become fatigued, and their illnesses will grow worse. When making camp, your hirdmen will tend to each others' wounds, cook, and hunt, and because of the camp, the game relies less on potions and trade when compared to similar RPGs. For the most part your crew is capable of repairing equipment, gathering food, creating medicine, and healing wounded party members all by themselves. Incredibly, a Level 3 repairman can repair 14 pieces of damaged equipment in two hours, a process that only costs salvage, which you find all the time. It seems a bit unnecessary to pay for this at the blacksmith and it would therefore seem that the developers have "killed" that part of the game.
Moving on to the audio-visual side of the game, it's a mixed bag. The surroundings look great, but without a lot of detail, and the character design could use a bit more personality. They often look somewhat alike, for instance, and the immersion suffers because of it. On the other hand, the portraits look great and add to the personality of the most important characters, while others tend to be overused. The soundtrack, on the other hand, works really well. The tones are similar to the medieval sounds of The Witcher, and the audio effects are a bit simple, but they get the job done. The use of voice acting is rare, but the ones used are decent.
In spite of many great ideas and concepts Expedition: Viking is, mildly put, rough around the edges. Apart from a partially odd design that can seem a bit outdated, some parts of the game feel unsatisfactory. A minimap would have been nice, for example, and the map that the M-key grants access to is simply incomplete. Because the map doesn't show everything you need it's hard to gain an overview of the merchants and other points of interest in the cities, as some are shown and others aren't.
An overview of other parts of the gameplay is also missing. For instance, the many wounds and illnesses that the party members can suffer from are never explained in detail. They simply exist, and only time will tell how they affect you. For some reason, it's impossible to access the inventory/character index while in conversation too, and in the same way you can't pause or skip while the enemies take their turn, even though combat is a bit slow.
None of this is game-breaking, but something does come close: Viking is among the buggiest games we've ever played. While the biggest issues have fixed, many less fatal crashes and problems remain post-Early Access. In combat the game can freeze on the enemy's turn, for instance, and because you can't pause or skip this, everyone just stands still, and you have to kill the game in Task Manager. Other times the game crashes in the more conventional way, and sometimes it takes several minutes to load. This kind of bugginess is a detriment to the experience in such a way that we can hardly recommend the game at this point, turning an otherwise exciting title into a frustrating experience.
Now that we've complained at length about the unstable state of the game, we need to look again at the thing that Logic Artists has done so well here; they have created an exciting world that is both unique and old-fashioned. The music, script, and the surroundings all add up to create a fantastic and authentic atmosphere. The game is well-written, and with simple descriptions including little details such as trembling lips or shaking hands with characters, the script is able to bring the lesser characters alive. The combat is fun as well, as long as the game doesn't crash just as we're about to win. The many choices and ways to play the game also gives the player a reason to start all over again.
At the end of the day, it's a difficult thing to score such an interesting title when the bugs are so vicious. We don't doubt that the developers put countless hours into this project, and we deeply respect that they dedicated themselves to telling the tale of our ancestors through a classic turn-based RPG. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend Expeditions: Viking wholeheartedly before it's in a more stable condition. On the other hand, do follow this title closely, as it could be a unique and exciting experience, but wait until the many bugs are (hopefully) fixed.