Expeditions: Conquistador Review for Mac OS X

I think one of the few great ideas George Lucas had was to make archaeology something exciting, rather than stuffy and academic. But even then, he still had to set it in the 1940s, when it was believable that there were swathes of the world still undiscovered. Roll back a few of hundred years before Google Earth, and there was so much still to explore in the world that there were people who dedicated their entire lives to it. Think about that for a moment, that notion of laying eyes on something that perhaps no human has ever seen before (as an aside, it’s a long-held belief of mine that eventually things will come full circle, with video games able to offer this same sensation).

Expeditions: Conquistador is a celebration of those people and that lifestyle. Set in the 16th century, you and your crew sail off in search of adventure and new lands. Before you can do any of that though, your ship is impounded by the local government, who tasks you with carrying out a number of tasks before you can go on your way. The game has it roots firmly planted in history, to the extent that I actually wanted to read through the “codex” entries, which recount the characters and events the game is inspired by.

The gameplay borrows much from the likes of the King’s Bounty series. There’s a great big map to explore, with various mineral and treasure deposits to claim, and quests to undertake. You pick from a pool of companions (or “followers”, as the game calls them) who travel with you. Each of these followers has a class (soldier, scout, doctor, scholar, hunter) and, rather delightfully, a set of personality traits such as “racist”, “peaceful” and “narcissistic”.

The game is completely turn-based, with each turn representing one day in the game, and your caravan able to move a certain amount per day. You’ll go further per day when travelling by road, and leaving the road to search jungles, mountains and beaches will slow you down.

What’s particularly unique about Conquistador is that at the end of each day, there’s a camping metagame. Each night when camping, each of your followers will consume rations (the number of rations you give them can sway their loyalty towards your cause). Additionally, any wounded members will need treatment, lest their condition worsen, and the camp itself will require adequate guarding, or risk being overrun by thieves, bandits and rivals. There’s also the opportunity to hunt for food (which can be eaten or preserved as rations on subsequent nights), research various improvements, refine raw materials into more useful items, and patrol for anything of interest.

All of your companions pull their weight (provided they aren’t injured), and can be tasked with guarding, patrolling, hunting, refining, healing and research duties overnight. Most of your entourage can be assigned to one of several tasks each, though they will usually specialise in a particular area (and when they level up, you can pump points into skills as you like). The conditions change depending upon where on the map you are when you run out of moves, so you can’t really just make the assignments once and then forget about them (mercifully, there are options to auto-allocate various resources for those for whom this is simply too much micromanagement).

But perhaps more interesting than that are the occasional “events” that occur, usually at night or at a certain point during a quest, and reminiscent of The Oregon Trail. Frequently these will involve specific followers, spilling light onto their personal history, in a manner not unlike the conversational diversions with your companions in Dragon Age: Origins. During these events, you’ll choose between different reactions and responses (I feel at this point it’s important to note that this is all text-based; there’s no speech in the game). Though some of these might have dire consequences, the reality is that mostly these will alter the morale of various members of your team (“your greedy followers have lost morale”), or a loss or gain of some resource. The outcome of the decisions you make are perhaps more predictable than say FTL, but rightly so for this particular game. The best thing about the events though is in the writing. Great care and attention has been made to ensure the prose is as thoughtful as in any big-budget RPG, expertly touching on themes of dogmatism, patriotism and freedom as any other game I’ve played. It’s also rather funny at times, for example:

The door to the shack opens to reveal Esteban. He’s wearing no shirt, and his muscle-bristling torso easily fills the doorframe, leaving little room for his head, which is adorned by the most impressive and unreasonable beard you’ve ever been challenged to comprehend.

There are four primary resources in the game, “valuables”, “medicine”, “rations” and “equipment”. With the exception of valuables, each of the resources is needed to keep your army in good shape. Medicine is used when healing injured followers, rations are consumed when camping, and equipment is used to outfit companions for battle. There are a few places in the game that will trade each of these resources with you, and there’s even a supply/demand mechanic in play here too. Trade a resource in high demand for one in low demand and you’ll profit (although on top of all this there’s also an overall modifier of how “fair” the pricing is, given your standing with whomever you are trading with). You can directly influence the demand, so buying up all of the medicine from a trader will cause it to go into very high demand, meaning that the price skyrockets. It’s a really elegant system, though I did find that because 3 of the 4 resources actually have value to you as a player, there’s not much point in trading them unless you have a significant excess (and equipment in particular is so hard to come by, and so essential to winning battles, being that you use it to directly “power-up” specific followers, that there’s a tendency to just buy it up at any price).

It’s not all economics and conversation though. This is a game about being a conqueror after all, so you can expect some killings too, and again Conquistador doesn’t disappoint in this regard. Any time you enter combat (which can be the result of a dialogue choice, an event, or running into an enemy on the map) you pick a number of healthy followers and are whisked onto a tactical map.

The tactical map is a thing of aesthetic beauty; I was constantly impressed of how representative it was of the larger map, with points of interest seemingly recreated to the tactical map’s scale, and everything seeming purposely designed (that beauty does have a tendency to get in the way at times though, with foliage and other decorations regularly obscuring units and interface elements).

There’s a set-up phase, where you can position units and special equipment such as traps and barricades, and then it’s straight into the turn-based combat. Each turn, each of your units get to move and perform an action, a little like in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. However, you don’t have to use all your movement in one go, and you can move or perform an action in any order. This means, for example, that your ranged hunter units can pop out from behind cover (cover providing partial or complete immunity to ranged attacks), take a shot at an enemy, and then slip back behind cover in a single turn. The interface is rather helpful in terms of illustrating where you can move, and actually the amount of movement most followers can make per turn is rather generous (you can also sacrifice your action for additional movement). There are also one-shot items that can be used within a battle, such as lanterns that ignite parts of the battlefield, and torches that negate visibility penalties during night battles.

To mix things up a bit each character has a zone of control. Any enemy leaving a space adjacent to one of your characters (including merely walking past them) will trigger an “attack of opportunity” (a free attack) from that character. This can work against you, of course, and attempting a ranged attack whilst next to an enemy will also trigger such an attack. Mastering this rule though will mean often the difference between winning and losing the battle, but it requires a bit of attention, as characters will use whichever weapon they happen to have equipped (many can switch between ranged and melee weapons at will, but ranged weapons aren’t guaranteed to score a hit), and moving characters on the battlefield might inadvertently cause them to walk right past enemies if you aren’t careful. The combat is really, really good.

The combat is also hard. You’ll often face superiority in both numbers and statistics, and although units tend to be quite resilient, I lost more battles on the “normal” difficulty setting here than I did on the “classic” difficulty in XCOM, but this game is at least more forgiving of failure. Followers that are incapacitated in a battle may become wounded and/or lose some of their equipment, and require treatment when camping. Neglect injuries and they may deteriorate, ultimately leading to the followers death.

Battles award you with experience, and the occasional bit of loot (in the form of resources or one-shot items). Experience is available in a shared pool and can be allocated to followers as you choose (as opposed to the ones who participated). The upgrades feel a bit lacking; a follower is awarded a predetermined skill and some points to spend on each of the camping skills. There are only a limited number of levels available to each follower, and some of the skills obtained don’t get to see any use (depending upon your playstyle, of course), and the maximum level may only be obtained by one follower.

I don’t think that Conquistador perfectly nails the correct pacing. There’s probably too much backtracking involved for one thing, as you’ll often need to cross the large maps for no other purpose than to restock supplies and complete quests. In doing so I found the random events that beset me along the way to be an annoyance; I just want to get this done quickly, not fuss about with more battles on the way.

There are so many good design decisions throughout the game, that the more questionable ones stand out. If there’s one thing that nearly ruined the game for me, it was the inability to scroll the map independently from your character. It’s such a minor thing, and clearly designed to prevent you from finding hidden secrets, but it makes it nearly impossible to plot a route correctly, even if you know exactly where you want to go. The inability to simply plot a long route back with a single click, coupled with having to backtrack, made for an unnecessarily miserable experience (I say that because this is a problem that has previously been solved in games such as Heroes of Might & Magic).

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by XCOM, but I found that the rate at which characters progressed and I discovered their new abilities simply took too long (or perhaps just didn’t seem interesting enough to warrant the acquisition time). In a game with such an interesting setting, I found many of the upgrade paths (particularly in terms of the research that can be done during nightly camps) to be too generic and bland; incremental updates along the lines of “gain 5 extra metal whenever you find metal”.

Discovery though. That’s what Conquistador is about, in terms of its varied and wondrous locations, its storyline and world, and its game mechanics (as are many of the best games). There are points of interest on your gradually uncovered map to discover, sure, but there are also the backstories of your companions, and their upgrade paths. I’m strongly convinced that the foundations of the game are completely solid, that even if specific mechanics don’t provide enough impact to warrant your close attention, their presence at least isn’t detrimental in any way. The beginning of the game is particularly good, when you’re presented with (but not overwhelmed by) a variety of things to look forward to tinkering with at some point.

It’s interesting that not long ago I strongly criticised a game that tried to cram too many influences into its bones, yet with Conquistador I find its gameplay patchwork harmonious. Giving the followers personalities traits that cause them to react differently to your decisions was an interesting idea, if a little superficial. But then having them as the subject of various events, and gradually revealing each of their backstories makes them feel like characters with texture, rather than interchangeable minion with a cheap gimmick.

I don’t know if Expeditions: Conquistador will be a runaway success. There’s an awful lot there to like, a unique and interesting setting, a combination of strategy, tactics and RPG that intertwine as smoothly as oils on canvas, but something about it feels niche, as if replacing Spaniards with Marines or Aztecs with Orcs would help the game find a bigger audience. Thankfully Logic Artists didn’t take the path of least resistance. Instead, here we have a game that’s refreshingly original, enjoyable and downright reverential of the person playing it.

Performance & Quality

It would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention that I encountered a number of bugs during my playthrough of my pre-release copy of the game. That said, most if not all of them seem to have been addressed as I write this, shortly before the game’s actual release. The game autosaves each turn, and you can save any time you’re on the world map (but not during a combat, which seems a bit daft as some battles can take quite a long time).

There’s a good set of graphical options to tweak, and the game plays nicely with the Mac OS. The presentation overall is impeccable, with good animations and sound effects, and an intermittent, rousing soundtrack.

Multiplayer

The game features both hotseat and internet-based multiplayer, where you can build and equip a team and battle on one of the tactical maps.

Mods

The game has provisions for mod support.

Gameplay Video
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