During the course of his career, the brilliant (and now sadly late) Iain M Banks coined the phrase “Outside Context Problem” to describe the encounter between two groups where a vast technological gulf exists – much like the arrival of the Spanish in South America and the consequent social, economic and political upheaval of the area’s indigenous people. In Expeditions: Conquistador, you are that Problem. Well, not quite – some Context first. Your band of merry brothers and sisters arrive on the Latin shores sometime after the Spanish are well ensconced, but not everything is peachy; splinter groups of the Spanish army are revolting and the locals aren’t entirely happy with the New World Order either. How you deal with the brawls, missions and exploration is entirely down to you.
At the very start of the game you select your companions from a pool of different RPG archetypes. Soldiers act as tanks, Hunters provide ranged damage, Doctors can heal and so on. Your choice must then extend to personality types – racist, greedy, pious, bold among others – which determine how your followers interpret your actions and the impact of these on party morale. Looting and pillaging will please your aggressive and greedy types but upset the namby-pamby peaceful brigade. If you prefer an enlightened diplomatic style, however, your deal-brokering and silk tongue will upset all those ruffians who are spoiling for a good fight. Maintaining good morale is crucial for keeping the party working effectively together - or together at all.
Generally the companion system works very well, much better than equivalent systems such as that of Mount & Blade. Allowing you to select roles as well as personalities ensures your group will favour your preferred playing style (or not if you want to make the game a bit harder!). The impact of your decisions on morale is transparent and illustrated immediately in a game log, which also discreetly notes every event of consequence as you play the game for your reference.
You can get to know your companions better through dialogue boxes which appear at key points, such as when you encounter a point of interest on the map. They might give you advice, debate philosophy or tell you their backstory. If you’re not interested you can skip or skim most of these scenes which are presented through rich (but lengthy) dialogue panels, as are all other interactions with NPCs throughout the game. This might leave Expeditions: Conquistador a bit text-heavy for some, but those putting in the time will discover a well written and distinctive storyline. The sensitive topics of colonisation, slavery and religion are handled remarkably well. In one early mission, where you are sent to expel an indigenous tribe from a trade route, you encounter their members dancing and chanting around severed heads on poles. What appears at first to be a bloodthirsty ritual is in fact a sacrosanct memorial for deceased friends and relatives - but you only discover this by talking to the leader and not charging in for the attack. Learning a bit more about the context of an encounter may radically change your own behaviour in the game. This subtle and remarkable subversion of gaming norms stands in stark contrast to, say, the sexy loincloth antics of Risen 2 and its ilk.
Events driving the story forward occur when traversing the world map across which your party avatar gallops with gay abandon. The map is pretty but unremarkable - exploring is slightly haphazard with metal deposits and chests strewn at slightly random intervals (who would hide their valuables by a main road?). When you’ve exhausted your moves for the day, you’ll trigger a camping phase where you must allocate tasks to party members such as hunting, guarding camp or preserving meat. Followers with an expertise in crafting can fashion items for use in battle (such as caltrops) or exploring (such as better carts to increase the distance you can travel each day). Getting the hang of dividing up jobs takes a little getting used to but the tutorial system is clear and concise, and there’s always the auto-allocate button if you’re not sure what to do. Ostensibly you should aim to select good camping spots where you’re more likely to find food, or less susceptible to night time thieves, but in reality you’ll just stop whenever you run out of moves. This does make camping a sometimes arbitrary and annoying break in events and can prohibit exploring when you start to run out of rations, the lifeblood for your travels.
The real meat of Expeditions: Conquistador is in the turn-based battles on Civ V-esque hexagonal maps. Generally these revolve around “kill or be killed” scenarios although there are the odd deviations, such as holding out against a foe for X turns. If you have a preparation phase (usually possible unless you’ve been ambushed) you can set up traps or barricades to assist your troops, and positioning is important not just to protect weaker support troops but also for controlling the field. For example, units passing by or moving away from enemies on an adjacent tile will automatically be hit (as if they’re turning their back on someone very close, very hostile and very armed). Additional rules of the field can be added or removed with follower perks, such as Stealth (negating this passing by/moving away rule) or Relentless (chance of additional turn for that unit). Perks are obtained and chosen by levelling your followers (same old, same old) but parties earn XP as a group, not individually, so you won’t have a horrible, ever-increasing imbalance between troops you use and those you don’t (a nice innovative twist).
Sadly it’s not all peaches and cream. Some units and abilities feel horribly underpowered. Scholars, who are critical for the crafting mentioned above (which in turn is essential for the more difficult stages), can bolster other units with additional actions per turn but it’s easier and more effective to just have another unit in their place altogether. Ranged units, which should dominate given the theme, are very weak; their hallmark ability Quick Shot (two reduced accuracy shots) is almost entirely useless. Troops can be upgraded with equipment but, as another scarce resource you barter for along with rations and medicine, there’s never enough to go round, so preparation before each battle involves a tedious reallocation of kit to whoever you’re sending to fight.
Although most levels are well laid out there are inconsistencies. In one example I had surprised my opponent and was given the option to set an ambush. Despite this advantage, I was thoroughly trounced. After reloading the battle to try the other option - a direct challenge on the open field - the revised map was actually much more advantageous than the layout for my “ambush”, which had spread my troops out too wide to be of much use. In other cases levels are a bit busy with foliage or items and it can be hard to accurately select and move your troops. This can be potentially fatal when you’re on the verge of winning or losing and you accidentally send someone in entirely the wrong direction.
Despite a few flaws, it’s easy to recommend Expeditions: Conquistador for a number of reasons - the storyline, the strategic battles, the exploration and levelling. As an example of any one genre it’s hard to pin down, as it (generally) succeeds in trying lots of things and combining them into a fun and challenging experience. The result is a rewarding and nuanced game with few peers.