My first attempt at exploring Expedition: Conquistador’s 16th Century shores ended in absolute disaster. I’d opted for an ‘Ironman’ run, being familiar and comfortable with the consequences of a lone saved game from the brutality of XCOM. Surely this Kickstarted project about Spanish inroads into Central America wouldn’t be as harsh as XCOM?
At first, all was well. My rag-tag party of ambitious hunters, proud soldiers and a racist nun (look, when a game offers you a racist nun what are you going to say; no?) had emerged from its first proper combat encounter with a few injuries, but the doctor was taking steps to patch them up.
Then, our camp was attacked in the dead of night.
Thanks to my tactical stats being above the level of “Enemy bad. Kill enemy,” our band was able to form up in the center of the encampment. That proved to be a double-edged sword, as we were quickly overwhelmed by a two-pronged attack. Bowmen darted in and out of the woodland, loosing poisoned darts and arrows at my hapless soldiers, who in turn were firing near-blind into the darkness. Meanwhile, warriors overran our rearguard and picked off the stragglers. In the aftermath, my best hunter was butchered before my eyes and the caravan was looted for every valuable we had.
I was playing on ‘Normal’ difficulty. Conquistador can be a punishing game.
In the interests of actually seeing enough of the title for review purposes, I restarted a regular game. A little combat experience goes a long way, because things went much smoother on a second attempt.
Conquistador has a pair of campaigns for you to tackle, one based on the island of Hispaniola and the other in Mexico. The terrain and important quest locations stay the same each time, so from an angle of pure exploration it probably isn’t too replayable. However, the combination of party members (selected from a static pool of 31 at the start of the game,) the choices made in quest dialogues, plus your chosen approach to key battles, can make for quite a different experience.
Each of these party members (plus a few others you meet and potentially recruit along the way) has their own set of traits, backstory and attitudes. On a straightforward level, this means any racists in your group will be annoyed when you’re not slaughtering native peoples, the pious will be miffed if you attempt to extort priests, and the courageous feel aggrieved when you don’t charge headlong into a fight. Taking actions that annoy people will lower their morale, which will, initially, affect their critical hit chances in the turn-based combat and may ultimately cost you their service.
But further than that, Conquistador gives each individual party member their own backstory and events. They all have a personality, a history and feelings about your expedition, which are revealed through conversations and encounters whenever you make camp. This elevates party members above the level of ‘useful set of numbers with a blade and bow,’ and makes them feel like actual characters. Interactions with your group are a regular highlight, and if you lose someone in battle, it hurts.
Unless they were a racist nun.
Moment-to-moment movement on the game’s campaign map works a bit like a King’s Bounty title, with you controlling a lone horse representing your party. Each in-game ‘day’ allows you to travel a set distance before the need to camp arises.
Developers Logic Artists have opted to keep a severely tight camera on the player in this main map (you can fully rotate, zoom out a small amount, and pan an even smaller amount, but that’s it,) presumably in order to imitate the limitations to sight when exploring jungles and other unknown locales. That makes sense to an extent, but the same feeling could be achieved with a ‘fog of war’ type effect, negating the need for such a cramped viewpoint.
Problems can arise when you’ve moved close enough to a ‘point of interest’ for the game to mark it on the world map screen, but still have to struggle to work out how to actually travel there in the campaign view. This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does it feels a bit ridiculous; and it should’ve been avoidable.
The camping screen is the fulcrum around which the rest of the game rotates. You’ll see this screen more than any others, as it pops up whenever you need to rest at the end of the day’s travel. It’s when random events will trigger, where you get to converse with your party, delegate the night’s tasks (guard duty, hunting for supplies etc,) nurse injured members of your team and put together traps from found or purchased resources.
It’s decent way of keeping much of your resource and person management in one place, and is thematically sound, but the actual delegation process could be a little better. You can auto-assign rations (which works well, as it just defaults to keeping everyone fed,) but auto-assigning tasks rarely produces the desired result. For some reason, auto-task thinks that a doctor’s preferred job is hunting; even when their are sick people to heal. As a consequence of that, you need to micromanage camping tasks a bit more than perhaps should be necessary.
If there’s one thing in the game that crops up more than camping, it’s reading. We’re not talking Planescape: Torment levels here, but every quest and encounter has multiple dialogue choices and outcomes, fleshed out with plenty of character development and setting flavour. Happily, it’s for the most part very well written. Conquistador is well aware of the cultural and racial issues surrounding Spain’s involvement in Central America, and your expedition’s behaviour can fall anywhere on the “native peoples are disgusting savages and should be killed” to “try to respect everyone and resolve issues peacefully” spectrum.
The game doesn’t really promote or reward either method above the other. Different ethical choices will give you different outcomes, and will affect your party members according to their own beliefs and preferences. Some of the dialogue can stray towards the anachronistic side (I’m not sure how many sassy, sarcastic shaman the Taino people really had,) but this is usually to the benefit of the game overall.
Likewise, there may only be scant evidence of women being conquistadors, but it’s terrific to be able to play as a woman (and have it affect dialogue at times); along with hiring other women as soldiers, scouts and the like. Yes, Conquistador is reflecting a certain period of history, but it also never forgets that it is, primarily, a game.
Inevitably, your party will end up in battle. Diplomatic solutions are often possible, but not every foe will be content with a firm handshake and a basket full of gold. When this occurs, you’ll almost always be given options on how you wish the conflict to play out. For example, do you take on some rebel soldiers while they’re still working in a quarry, or wait to ambush them at the entrance? The former will give you a height and distance advantage for ranged attacks, while the latter may allow for more flanking actions.
Combat itself is a turn-based, hex-centric affair between (for the most part) skirmish parties. You’ll usually have six people on your team (but sometimes three-five) and be up against similar numbers. Six versus eight may sound especially daunting, but if you get complacent the enemy AI can take you apart. Troops who go down on the battlefield may pick up an injury, so if you get crushed in a six-on-six match you could end up with a severely overworked doctor and the chance of losing someone.
Knowing the strengths and talents of your group is crucial; from the quick, hit-and-run scouts to supportive scholars. It’s also handy to know that playing defensively tends to be key. Make good use of traps, look for flanking opportunities (this occurs when you’ve got someone on each direct side of an enemy) and utilise your troops’ abilities. It helps to know what skills your foe might have too, but unless I’ve missed it there doesn’t seem to be a way of finding this out. Instead, you just have to learn what (for example) a shaman is capable of.
Combat is also where I encountered my most serious bug; an infinite death loop that forced a full quit from the game. I’ve also hit one that reset my leader’s scouting stat to five (ignoring the points I pumped into it at the beginning of the game,) and at one stage was unable to turn in some completed quests. Though that latter issue was solved by doing some other activities for a bit and then returning to the area.
Overall however, Expeditions: Conquistador can be added to the growing list of Kickstarter success stories. It’s a game with unusually strong character interaction and satisfying consequences to your actions. Those interactions are the heart of the game, carried along by strong writing and decent tactical combat. Throughout, you’re presented with a broad range of moral dilemmas, and have to juggle your personal views on the subject with the immediate needs of your expedition and beliefs of your party members.
In short, Conquistador is a great strategy-RPG hybrid that’s a patch or two away from being an exceptional one.