Turn-based combat has never stood out to me on its own. In strategy games like the Civilization series, it’s an efficient way to solve zero-sum military situations. In squad combat as seen in the XCOM games, it can make for tense and unpredictable tactical scenarios, where a few moves can completely turn the tide of battle. These applications are tried and true, but usually garnished with minimal backstory and thin character development (if any) – and as a player who’d rather be wooed by great stories than contests of skill, they haven’t held my attention thus far. Then, as if out of nowhere, Expeditions: Viking appeared, a diamond in the rough waiting to be enjoyed by story seekers everywhere.
You play as the son or daughter of your village’s recently deceased “thegn,” or leader, and are immediately exposed to a driving source of conflict in Viking: pride. Your father hasn’t done the best job leading your clan, according to some clan members and leaders present at his funeral feast, and a few even question your right to the throne. It quickly becomes obvious that not everyone is ready for leadership to simply be handed down to the late thegn’s son.
In conversations, several options usually appear after any given statement or inquiry from an NPC, and the player’s decisions actually change the outcome of conversations. For example, if asked what you think of another clan and your opinion lines up with the person you’re talking to, your relationship with them might improve. Brash decisions can lead to personal or clan-wide conflicts or even full-fledged combat. The opening of the game demonstrates this system very well by having the player speak to several clan leaders with varying views of the main character and the late father, while using the mother’s guidance to discourage the player from stirring up trouble. Of course, trouble inevitably shows up, forcing the player into combat. Picking apart the game’s beginning sequence makes it sound fairly systematic: talk to people, say what you think they want to hear, and deal with conflict when you have to. In execution, however, everything that happens in Viking is seamlessly interwoven using well-written dialogue and convincing characters. The motives of everyone’s actions are generally easy to relate to, or at least understand, and the characters therefore seem very human. Now, don’t get me wrong: the combat and action elements are what given Expeditions: Viking its substance. But in its narrative, its relationships – where many strategy games seem to falter – it quickly and persistently develops meaning behind its gameplay, and to me that’s what makes it worth playing.
Down to the nitty-gritty: in Viking, a leader is only as good as his word – and his word is only as good as his strength in battle. Some conflicts can be resolved with diplomacy, but most are ended with the sword, and Viking attempts to add some fresh twists to the trusty turn-based hex-tile combat system. Each warrior has action points that can be spent on movement or skills – normal attacks don’t consume these points, so warriors can cover big distances in order to meet their opponents and strike a blow. Some skills consume all action points; meaning, once a warrior moves, several of their skills become unusable. Attack/defend events factor in warrior’s stats in strength, endurance and finesse (offense, defense, and critical chance respectively) as well as equipped items and proficiency with those items. This is where the RPG aspect of Viking plays a role: as characters level up, their strength, endurance, finesse, perception and sense stats can be raised. The first three directly influence proficiency with various weapon types, and perception greatly affects accuracy with bows, making it a primary stat for archers. Interestingly, these stats also have other effects, some even outside of combat. A shield-wielding warrior, for example, will want endurance, not only for its boost to total hit points, but for its base damage reduction and block chance. The sense stat, which affects mental resistance and stamina, also appears in dialogue sometimes and can allow the player to persuade others. Perception can also reveal things during conversation that can help the player determine a course of action.
Building characters to hone in on specific strengths (my character is an archer with a focus on the sense stat, labeled “healer” because of my skill selections) is key to building a powerful team, as is using warriors to their strengths. The “attack of opportunity” feature makes this easier to do, as moving away from an enemy while adjacent to their hex (or trying to run by them) gives them a free hit. Warriors setup for strength and endurance can rush to engage stronger opponents and soak up damage, and they’ll be less likely to disengage and attack supporting warriors. Playable battle areas are quite large, so using archers to lay down damage and melee warriors to soak up damage can become a matter of using the map to your advantage. The game also features a cover system, with half-cover and full-cover scenery influencing whether warriors can be hit by arrows or fire from behind cover – and it’s all based on line of sight, which is why archers are the funnest characters to use in my opinion.
The core pillars of a strong game have been well established in Viking – and then some. The combat feels tactile and violent. Hitting an enemy will lock the camera on their head temporarily so you can see its damage. Killing blows cause characters to ragdoll and collapse with heavy thuds, before they continuously bleed on the battlefield. Rich environments filled with realistic natural and man-made scenery elements and cover obstacles make every scene a feast for the eyes. Small details like snow flurries (and fire particles that will be blown in the direction of the snow), rich ambient noises and carefully-crafted scenery (every one in a while a bird will fly by, right in front of the camera) make the world feel alive and in motion. Whether its systems remain balanced and rewarding in the long-term remains to be seen – and a few more voice-overs wouldn’t have hurt – but all in all, Expeditions: Viking is simply captivating. After hours of scrapping, surviving, and sometimes even thriving, I keep returning for more.
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