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Expeditions: Viking is the latest RPG from the Danish studio Logic Artists and a sequel of sorts to 2013's Expeditions: Conquistador. However, whereas Conquistador was something of a mix between King's Bounty and Mount & Blade with rudimentary role-playing elements and a strong focus on exploration, Viking is straight up an isometric RPG with bits of exploration and long-term party management thrown in the mix for good measure.
And while I greatly enjoyed Conquistador for its unique historical setting, tactical turn-based combat and the endless sense of wonder and discovery extremely appropriate for a game about exploring a new and untamed land, its character development was extremely basic. Viking, on the other hand, greeted me with a robust character creation screen and a new role-playing system. Intrigued and curious, I jumped right in.
In Viking you can customize your character's appearance, distribute attribute points and learn skills across 5 different categories with a total of over 50 skills, many of which have multiple ranks. Attributes improve your base stats and the efficiency of some of your skills, while certain skills, apart from being useful in combat, are also used in dialogues.
And while this system looks great at first glance, its biggest downside, in my opinion, is that by the time you complete the campaign you'll have enough skill points to learn every skill you can possibly need and then have some points to spare. It's hard to specialize your characters or make meaningful choices in regards to their development when you can pretty much be a jack of all trades with no trade-offs of any sort.
Still, it's a giant leap in the right direction for Logic Artists and as someone who enjoys figuring new games out, I greatly appreciate what they've done here.
The equipment system also got a complete overhaul since Conquistador and instead of abstract equipment points that determine the tier of your characters' pre-determined, class-specific equipment, in Viking you can outfit your characters with weapons and armor, and have them carry a couple of utility items that range from jugs of mead to poison-coated traps. This makes gearing up a more involved and engaging process.
Speaking of characters, in Viking you command a party, or hird, as the game calls it, of a dozen or so of them. Your hird consists of your main character, a number of story companions, and a few mercenaries you get to create yourself.
Each and every one of them, including the mercenaries, has a set of unique personality traits that are tested against your actions and decisions. Avoid combat and your aggressive party members will get angry, engage in diplomacy and your open-minded hirdmen will like you a bit more. This creates a careful balancing act between doing what you want and keeping your people happy, however since morale in Viking mostly just affects resistances to status effects, you don't have to worry about it too much.
All in all, in Viking you have a lot of options and flexibility when it comes to customization, but even though initially things may seem deep and complex, it's actually pretty hard to not create a functional battle-ready party. I would have preferred the game to not be afraid of punishing you for choosing poorly, however even as it stands, Viking's underlying RPG systems are competent enough to offer an enjoyable experience.
Story and Exploration
In Conquistador you traversed an expansive open map on your trusty steed and the majority of your interactions with settlements and points of interest happened through text, with combat being the big exception that took place on separate obstacle-ridden hex-based arenas.
Viking ditched this approach for a more conventional one. You have a painted overworld map peppered with locations you can freely explore and all the fighting happens in those same locations without any additional loading. This creates a more seamless experience and adds to the RPG “feel” of Viking.
This RPG feel is also strengthened by a more personal story. If in Conquistador you were a simple explorer and your reasons for coming to the New World were unimportant, in Viking, the entire game is based on who you are and what you have to do.
The game starts with you being appointed a thegn, or chieftain, of your village in 8th century Denmark. Your father, the previous thegn, was a notorious but less than successful raider, and after he falls in battle you have to take over and lead your dilapidated village to glory while a rival nobleman plots your downfall and attempts to make your strategically important village his own. In order to stop him, you have six months to find new allies and make your village prosperous enough for the king to acknowledge you as its rightful ruler.
Important to note is that the time limit is there mostly for story purposes and doesn't actually limit you that much. Even if you take your time and do everything, chances are you'll finish the game with a few in-game months to spare. So, if you're not a huge fan of time limits – worry not, it's not a real issue in Viking.
To save your village, you'll have to travel West, to England, where you'll be able to raid, pillage, form and break alliances, participate in the famous Lindisfarne raid, find out what exactly happened to your father, meet some Romans, and even retrace King Arthur's journey.
With that in mind, the game manages to strike a great balance between historical accuracy and introducing some fantasy elements like curses, gods, and mystical creatures, where depending on how you interpret things, you can either accept that you've been visited by Odin's alter ego Grimnir, or you can attribute your dreams of Valhalla to sharing one too many drinks with an elderly traveler.
And since the developers are themselves from Denmark and the game revolves around their country's history, the writing and the general atmosphere are quite authentic for the most part. My only complaint in that regard is that there's quite a bit of swearing in the game and the frequent f-bombs seem sorely out of place among all the crossed Os, thegns and knifrs.
As you explore the Kingdom of Northumbria and its surrounding areas, you'll visit plenty of towns and forests, get to see Hadrian's Wall and traverse a swamp or two in the process. All these locations are filled with NPCs, enemies, quests, and loot.
And while every other part of Viking's exploration ranges from great to at least serviceable, looting is actually tedious and not fun. It seems like wherever you go, there's some barrel or crate you can rummage through and oftentimes they have valuable but extremely boring things inside. You're incentivised to loot everything, but it's extremely tedious to click on what seems to be hundreds of objects per map and get oils, ropes, and random pieces of scrap. You can use it all, and some of it is quite valuable, but the activity of looting is mindlessly mechanical and pretty much the definition of boring.
As for the quests, while they can be interesting from a historical standpoint, the writing is pretty good, and the amount of unexpected reactivity is pleasantly surprising, the actual part where you do them mostly consists of going to a location marked by a quest marker and either fighting or talking to someone. A few quests do break this mold but there aren't enough of them to tip the scales into the “great quest design” territory.
Camping, on the other hand, a feature many disliked in Conquistador, is now a more engaged process and a much less frequent one, so if you didn't enjoy camping before, there's a good chance you'll find Viking's take on this system much less disagreeable.
Also, another thing that's probably only relevant to those who played Conquistador, is how similar Viking's main story is to its predecessor. Strip away the viking aesthetic, forget about the other vikings that try to thwart your attempts at finding riches and glory at every opportunity, and you're left with a story that revolves around a couple of rival factions (Picts and Northumbrians in Viking's case). You can help them both until a certain point where you have to support one of them or decide to play them against each other, and when they're both weakened, swoop in and take their lands for yourself. This is almost exactly how Conquistador's story developed and I don't really get the logic behind Logic Artists' decision to repeat the same thing twice.
The combat, on the other hand, went through a lot of welcome changes. Sure, you're still fighting in a turn-based fashion on a hex grid, but since you're not limited to a few pre-determined classes and there are significantly more skills now, you have a lot more flexibility in what you can do.
And the most amazing thing here is that you have plenty of viable ways to approach encounters and pretty much every weapon, skill, or strategy can be useful. In Conquistador my battle party consisted of a single healer, one tanky character, and a bunch of mobile high-damage scouts who could quickly surround the enemies and deal with pretty much everyone in a single turn. I experimented with other setups but they all felt useless in comparison.
This is not the case in Viking. You can have a couple of warriors with shields and a bunch of archers, you can create an impenetrable shield wall, or you can get creative and have one or two high-damage units supported by a bunch of healers with the Leadership skill that allows you to take bonus turns. It's quite rare to find a game where so many approaches are viable and at the same time feel unique, and because of that, Viking's combat is pretty much its best quality and something I never got tired of during my playthrough.
And when it comes to difficulty, Viking has four difficulty presets and an optional Iron Man mode, but on top of that you can customize the difficulty to your liking when you begin a new campaign. However, since you probably won't know what any of those sliders mean during your first playthrough, you should keep in mind that the game is quite easy on the Medium setting and if you want a bit of challenge, you should probably just start on Hard right away.
And finally, while your hird is fairly large, you usually control only six characters in combat, but the key word here is usually – on some occasions you will need to use your entire hird and for those rare moments, it's wise to have everyone decently equipped.
Viking uses the Unity engine and as a result its areas are usually quite small, and when they aren't they're not exactly packed with objects or encounters. Even so, the game takes its sweet time loading and while it's nowhere near as egregious as some other Unity games, over the course of a playthorugh these loading times add up to the point where they actively discourage exploration. Around the time I was about to complete the campaign, I caught myself thinking, “do I really want to do this side quest or should I just skip it and not deal with all the loading involved?” This isn't what you want to be thinking when playing a game about exploration and discovery.
Additionally, a couple of times during my playthrough the loading screen got “stuck” and the game refused to load, forcing me to restart. Thankfully, unlike some other Unity games, saving in Viking is pretty much instant, so there's nothing stopping you from hitting F5 every few steps and using several manual saves on top of that just to stay on the safe side.
Some other annoyances include the fact that at times it may be tricky to find the right pixels that allow you to interact with items, and a few minor bugs too many for a game that's already received its last major update.
The music is good, even great, but I would have preferred there to be a bit more of it. Voice acting is pretty scarce and consists of some banter between your companions and a few instances of voiced dialogue, usually during character introductions.
Expeditions: Viking sits in a curious spot where it could have benefited from being both more and less focused. It should have packed its locations with more quests, NPCs, and things to do, and at the same time it should have tightened the existing quests and made them more engaging and complex. With a limited budget, it may have been impossible to do both, but at least one would have made Viking a much better game.
As it stands, I can't really call Viking a great RPG. It has a great setting, great combat, and a role-playing system that's a lot of fun to figure out, but its derivative story, wonky engine, and some questionable design decisions make the overall experience less enjoyable than it otherwise could have been. But even so, I think there's more good than bad in Viking and I can't help but recommend it to anyone looking for a decent RPG. Just don't set your expectations too high and you won't be disappointed.