With its blend of spatially-focused strategy/RPG combat and big-picture team management, Expeditions: Conquistador is a little bit of XCOM, a little bit of Oregon Trail, with some choice-focused story elements thrown in for a twist. It hits several high notes from those prestigious titles, but falls a bit flat in other areas. I can also tell you from personal experience that it’s the sort of game in which – despite assurances to the contrary in the game’s introduction – it is totally possible to paint yourself into a corner that can only be escaped by starting the game over. Perhaps that’s a flaw, but I am fortunately the sort of dude who finds such do-or-die challenge rewarding.
The premise here is to take command of a squad of 16th century Spanish explorers as they quest about early colonial Hispaniola and Mexico. Fill your group’s 10 roster slots with soldiers, scouts, hunters, scholars, and doctors, and keep in mind that each class brings different abilities to the table both in and out of combat. The game has two major phases: exploration and combat. You move about the overworld with double-clicks of the mouse, finding your way down paths on your way to objectives and occasionally picking up helpful resources and trinkets along the way. Choose your path carefully, though, because you only get to take so many “steps” before you have to camp for the night.
It turns out that camping is as big a part of the exploration phase as actual movement is. Each night of camp is about finding a balance of necessary chores: patrolling for interesting stuff, hunting for supplemental food, crafting equipment and medicine, tending to your wounded, and guarding your camp so thieves don’t steal your food, medicine, and gear. There aren’t enough hands to do a perfect job at all these tasks at once, so it’s up to the player to read context-specific cues and decide what needs some extra help and what you can let slide for the night.
If you get a kick out of tinkering with personnel and resources, then this game is aimed straight at your wheelhouse. Be warned: you need to find some sort of balance, because the wheels are quick to fall off if you neglect any of these chores too much. The various classes bring different abilities to your camp efforts. You’re less likely to have stuff go missing if the soldiers hold down guard duty, and your hunters have a higher chance to score plentiful game. The game gets difficult (and interesting) in situations where your back is against the wall. You’re out of food, so you need to throw a lot of bodies out to hunt, but you’re also low on medicine for your sick scholar, so you need guards to ensure it doesn’t vanish in the night. Make your choice and hope for a favorable roll of the dice.
For a $20.00 game, there’s a lot of story going on here, at least in terms of sheer volume of words. I’m torn on whether or not to be critical of the tell-don’t-show text-based delivery of story, because this is a Kickstarter project – obviously they couldn’t do animated cutscenes and dialogues. I feel like a technologically entitled brat with low attention span to feel like “Yeah, yeah, get on with it,” when I’m reading through a paragraph that’s attempting to set the scene, but I can’t help it. If you can’t abide a wall of text, then the story will try your patience. If you do have that patience, then the story can be pretty fun and will reward attention paid. Most encounters with the game’s characters (including random, Oregon Trail-style events in camp) involve dialogue and decisions that determine outcomes ranging from price haggling to whether or not you have to fight a band of thieves. Furthermore, every one of your squad members has an established backstory that influences how they will react to your decisions. My pious doctor doesn’t like when I pass up an opportunity to convince the natives to come to Jesus, but my inquisitive scholar would prefer if we learned about native culture rather than evangelize it. These decisions nudge the characters’ morale in one direction or another, which affects their abilities. Doling out extra rations can sooth a squad member’s butt-hurt over something you did, but it’s hard to keep everyone happy. The challenge for a game that wants to deliver story is to make the player care about the characters, and while I won’t oversell the virtues of this game in that department, I can report a few moments of legitimate feelings. That says something to me.
Combat is where I start to draw similarities to XCOM, except there is more emphasis on melee attacks. Most characters can either shoot or stab, but only the hunters are very effective at range. I have the most success when I just do a soldier charge and overwhelm my opponents with bodies, traps or unfavorable terrain be damned. Unfortunately for me, the game does occasionally require a touch of finesse to win fights (that’s a good thing), but in my defense, the fights suffer from some balancing problems. In one particular boss battle, I had a huge terrain advantage, essentially overlooking my enemies from the lip of a hole. I wanted to just maintain that spot and shoot down at them, but the only one who could reliably hit anything was my hunter. I didn’t want to make a risky charge down into the hole, exposing everyone to enemy fire on the way, so the fight awkwardly plugged about at range until some of the enemies inched close enough on the path up for me to engage at melee. I also have a real easy time forgetting some critical points about combat, such as how my doctor can’t heal herself and passing within one tile of an enemy gives them a “strike of opportunity” at me. Attention to these details can make or (frustratingly) break the battle.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out aggravation about overworld movement. I completely understand the decisions here from a mechanics standpoint. The game is ostensibly about exploration, so they wanted to force you to focus on your movements. You can’t just wander around; you’re limited by the number of steps you can take. I hate how I have to pan the screen around with the WASD keys to see where I’m going and then double-click to move to that spot. Let me just use the mouse to shift my view of the world. Furthermore, the path-finding, especially through rough terrain, can sometimes get messy when you discover what you thought would be a few steps over a hill actually requires you to backtrack and go completely around the hill. Now you’re having to spend another night in camp and burn through some more precious rations. I yearn for some feature to inform me at some distance what ground is passable and what isn’t.
Poking around the woods and camping is amusing enough for me not to feel overly disincentivized, but I wish there were a bit more reward for the risk I’m taking and resources I’m using to do it. There isn’t much depth to the overworld exploration; let me stumble upon the Fountain of Youth or something off the beaten path, rather than just bounce back and forth between objective points on the map. In terms of depth, most of it seems to be in the leveling of squad members’ abilities, tweaking them to provide the boosts you need to make a specific soldier the exact right one for a specific tactical situation. With limited capacity to rank up your crew, you will also have to choose these abilities wisely. This is the part of the game that truly shines, and I’ve been having a blast planning out which soldier to design into a hard-charging slugger, and which is one better equipped to pick her way through an area I think might expose her to traps or poison. Should my hunter get more mobile or more accurate? Developer Logic Artists deserves props for delivering the best team-tinkering I’ve played since XCOM.
At $20.00 on Steam, Expeditions: Conquistador is a solid case study in good gaming coming out of Kickstarter. Some nagging issues keep the game from being a 9 or 10 out of 10, but a few tweaks or a fleshed-out expansion or sequel could make this thing a pretty big deal. If you’re looking for a new strategy-RPG game, I think I’ve found the spot for your Andrew Jackson, and it deserves to fly like hotcakes if it ever goes on sale.
This review is based on a review code for the PC version of Expeditions: Conquistador, developed by Logic Artists and bitComposer Entertainment.