Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador Follow-Up
Quite some time ago, I wrote a preview article on Logic Artists’ upcoming game, Expeditions: Conquistador. More recently, though still in the rather distant past, the game itself was released. I played it quite extensively before other demands on my time required me to put it away, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it.
First things first: This game is enormously long. Even after sinking nearly twenty hours into it, I had only managed to complete the tutorial area, that being the eastern half of the island of Hispaniola (the region of the modern-day Dominican Republic). There is no lack of content to be found, and believe me, I absolutely scoured the map. Aside from the main quest, there is also an array of smaller sidequests and a menagerie of random encounters and events sprinkled liberally across the game world. In addition to those planted in the map, every time you stop to camp for the night there is the chance of a random event occurring, and which party members you have posted to various nightly duties (such as guarding, patrolling, or hunting) and their accumulated skills affects both the event you get and its possible outcomes. The events themselves can range from comparative nonentities like your hunters stumbling across a particularly large boar to a deep conversation with a member of your party – your responses to which determine not only the party member’s immediate reaction, but alters the next conversation as well.
The writing is, in fact, the game’s greatest strength. From the moment you arrive in Hispaniola to the time you leave it for the mainland, the descriptive text and written dialogue – for there is no voice-acting in this indie title – had me enthralled. Characters whose apperance and actions were described through mere words, assisted only by the stylized oil portraits that head the dialogue boxes, leapt to life far more convincingly than the most lavishly expensive CGI cutscene and voice-overs have ever accomplished. E:C’s writing managed to reach me in a way few games, or indeed other forms of media, manage to do; at various points I was laughing, I was infuriated, and when I failed to save one of my party from their death, despite the roaring defiance of our charge towards the broken ruins, the description of their death and final words moved me to tears.
There was also one other quality to the writing which I deeply appreciated: It was raw, and it was honest. Logic Artists did not shy away from the realities of what happened in the 16th century. In the Spanish colonies, there is slavery, there is oppression of both the native peoples and the Spanish colonist-peasants, there is ambition and betrayal, and there is bloody murder. History is laid bare; you must confront the deeds of these long-dead explorers, conquerors and slavers. However, and this is to the developer’s credit, how you deal with these issues is in your hands. You can exploit slave labour, or go to the extra expense of hiring paid servants; you can put the natives to the sword, trample their culture under the banner of Christ, or reach peace and understanding; you can stay loyal to and defend the duly appointed authorities, or take hand in their overthrow by the ambition of others. Moreover, these choices are not presented as binary options; there is no bipolar “Renegade” and “Paragon” response to each situation. Instead, there is an array of potential choices presented to you, many of which are modified by your personal and your party’s collective skill in various fields such as diplomacy, medicine or soldiering, and often with multiple ways to choose the same response, but with different wording, allowing you to roleplay your character’s attitude.
While there are some reviews which choose to characterize the unflinching portrayal of the realities of the era as morally repugnant, as a historian I counter that whitewashing these black marks of history in a media product would be moral cowardice. Expeditions: Conquistador does not endorse these things, but merely incorporates the reality of them – for the did exist, and to ignore them is to ignore the harsh lessons those dark chapters of history taught – into its complex and remarkably complete historical backdrop, and leaves it for you to choose how you would respond to being confronted with these horrors of the past, which to the virtual world around you, are a facet of everyday life. Apart from the small but telling fact that propagating slavery and oppression pleases racist party members and horrifies the open-minded, the game neither condones nor condemns your actions, leaving you free to role-play your way through an accurate and believably consistent world.
For this is, make no mistake, a role-playing game. So much of what you do relies upon your skills, chosen at the start of the game, and the modifiers applied to them by your party members, most of whom are chosen at the beginning and the rest of which can join with you during the course of play. A player who wishes to find non-violent solutions, for instance, will begin the game with a high Diplomacy stat, and stack their party with Scholars, who provide bonuses to such, while one who wishes to conquer will max out Soldiering and appropriate to themselves a great deal of infantry. These statistics also affect how you handle random events and certain game mechanics, so leaving skills like Medicine to perish will be done at your own peril – or rather, those of your wounded party members who can no longer be adequately cared for.
Your party members also level up, and can be given stat increases in one of four skills. I found specialization to be the best route, but it never hurts to have some all-rounders to plug any holes left by sick, wounded or killed party members. Leveling and increasing their skills also unlocks abilities for use in combat; doctors can heal or revive, soldiers can stun enemies, scouts can dash past enemies without provoking attacks of opportunities and strike them in the flanks, and so forth. Each of the five classes has their own role and use on the battlefield, though personally, I never did bother sending my Scholars out – while their attacks would have exposed the enemy to extra damage from others, I found I preferred having a bulky Soldier with a hefty halberd to simply deliver extra damage directly. That halberd, of course, came from one of the perks I chose to give the soldier on level-up; these being passive abilities which improve or change how the party member fights in small but telling ways, and the available list of which is massive – though which ones a given character can take depends, of course, on their skills.
It is a role-playing game, and like any role-playing game, you need to plan ahead. I did not wish to indulge in racism and oppression, so I gave my character a decent diplomacy score and selected my starting party appropriately, sacrificing a few direct-combat troops to give myself some Scholars whose learned arguments would assist my efforts at persuasion. I also paid attention to the small lists of traits which defined their personalities, avoiding any who were racist or pious as much as I could, for racists would be unhappy when I treated kindly with the natives, and the pious would take umbrage if I chose to respect their believes rather than impose the word of the Christian God upon them, and I wished neither sort to be causing upset in my ranks. I carefully assembled a grouping of mostly like-minded people, at least in the matters which most concerned me, before setting forth with my brave band of men and women (party members and the player character come in both genders, and neither has any effect upon their stats – well done, Logic Artists) on the shores of the New World.
Mechanically speaking, the game is sound. Combat is turn-based, and it’s easy to grasp the basics, with more advanced strategies revealing themselves later with experience and the addition of unit abilities as they level up. It’s rather fun and satisfying, too, and often provides a decent challenge, but the difficulty curve is a bit wonky – I found myself mauled several times early on by enemies, plot-mandated enemies, who simply overwhelmed me, but as I approached the end of the tutorial I had so much equipment and gear to outfit my troops with that, although I would take wounded here and there, I never lost a fight, or a soldier, again. They often felt close, and the beginning of each was always nail-biting, but at the conclusion I would inevitably have nearly every man and woman on my side still standing.
The overworld map is somewhat less exciting; although there are resources to collect as you wander about, and the occasional roving warband, generally it is simply a matter of moving until you run out of movement points, then camping for the night. Although the terrain where you camp affects the difficulty of the various tasks you can post your troops to during the night, such as guard duty, hunting, medical care or research, I never found it to be much of an issue, and the overworld is so bountiful with resources that you can easily survive a night of your patrols missing a thief who makes off with a few bits of equipment. I did, I will admit, nearly starve once or twice early on, but once I got my hunters leveled up and remembered to preserve leftover meat, it was never again an issue. My primary complaint, however, and only real grievance, is how the world map matches with that you can call up on your menu – or rather, does not. In several places, notably the mountains in the northwest, quest and location markers are extremely unclear as to where they are placed in relation to local geographical features. While this may serve to simulate the uncertainty and unknown which faced the actual Spanish explorers, as an element of gameplay it can be very frustrating, especially when you end up travelling down the wrong side of an impassible mountain range which takes four or five days to ride around while you are hurrying to complete a time-sensitive quest.