Renowned Explorers discovers an exciting new kind of combat

, | Game reviews

Combat in Renowned Explorers, an exploration game with a tactical combat core, isn’t called combat. It’s called “encounters”. Because you don’t always use combat. Sometimes you use friendliness or deviousness. Combat is just one of the three types of attacks.

Are you falling for this? I sure wasn’t. I know when something is just the same thing but with a different name. A “combat” system in which aggression trumps friendliness, which trumps deviousness, which trumps aggression? How is that different from a combat system in which infantry trumps cavalry, which trumps archers, which trump infantry? Nice try, Renowned Explorers. This isn’t my first time around the block. You just changed the names of stuff.

After the jump, Renowned Explorers trumps me.

Renowned Explorers is pretty forgiving at first. You do the tutorial bit on Viking Island. Then you go to, say, the Hungarian Fort adventure. Then maybe you do the Pyramids or the Scottish Highlands. I’m trying the Scottish Highlands. My party bursts into an abbey. We’re looking for treasure, taking the aggressive bullying route because we’re two fighters and a scout. But the abbess is all about trumping aggression. The more aggressive you are with her, the stronger she gets. I try my usual gambit of opening friendly, then turning aggressive for an attack bonus. But that’s a mistake. Once we resort to aggression, the abbess herself seems nearly invulnerable. Her nuns are coming at us faster than we can take them down with our sword, fists, and arrows. We succumb to the onslaught of nuns and their abbess’ faith attack. It is the end of one of my most promising expeditions. It is also the beginning of wrapping my head around what I thought was a reskinned set of infantry, archer, and cavalry trumps. Here’s where I start to love Renowned Explorers.

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The encounters aren’t just a paper/rock/scissors system of aggressive, friendly, or devious. The more pertinent choice is whether you’re going to talk or fight. Either approach has distinct rules, with some characters suited to one or the other. How well can you stand up to talking or fighting? How well can you dole out damage by talking or fighting? Which of your characters’ unique skills favors talking or fighting? And what about your opponents in any given encounter?

Once you’ve decided to talk or fight, you puzzle out the interplay among aggression, friendliness, and deviousness, managing a shifting matrix that determines an overall mood. Renowned Explorers is about learning and then managing that mood matrix. Decide when you change your attitude. Toe the line between one mood and another. Finessing when or whether to transition. It turns out there’s no equivalent in the interplay among cavalry, archers, and infantry. Boy, was I wrong.

The developers at Abbey Games (ah, no wonder the abbess was such a tough cookie!) have created a thoroughly charming encounter system that sets it apart from the usual tactical combat. Until you understand it, you’re liable to dread the encounters on the map. Oh god, one of these again? Okay, let’s get this over with. But as you start to wrap your head around the system, as you start to learn to manage these little three- to five-minute encounters, as you start to understand the place of your characters and their unique skills, as you start to control the mood matrix, you’ll find encounters are perhaps the most gratifying part of Renowned Explorers. Those monkeys with their insults, those pirates with their swords and flintlocks, those nuns in the abbey with their friendly faith-based attacks. It all makes sense even when it kind of doesn’t make sense. Why do mummies want to hug you? Why is one of the most effective taunts to make fun of someone’s underwear? How is it that giving a wolf raspberries will drive it away with its tail between its legs? Don’t ask. Just enjoy.

Renowned Explorers reminds me of a god game called Reus, not so coincidentally created by Abbey Games. Reus’ unique selling point is its intricate and wildly imaginative ecology. The deeper you dig, the more you find crazy synergies. Eventually, it gets complicated and even difficult. Renowned Explorers’ encounters are similar. It’s about managing an intricate interplay of attitudes and moods, exploiting a matrix of synergies to your advantage. When I burst into the doors of the abbey and encounter the abbess, I need to figure out how to exploit her friendliness rather than defeat it. These encounters are about setting up situations and taking advantage of them. They’re about learning and managing a unique and intricate ecology of moods.

Renowned Explorers also reminds me of of solitaire/co-op boardgames where your characters run around a map and level up. Eldritch Horror and Agents of SMERSH, for example. Move a character on the board and then resolve an encounter. Those boardgames involve tokens, card draws, die rolls, character stats, and snippets of text to describe encounters, as if you were sitting at the table with a dungeonmaster telling you what happens. Renowned Explorers does the same thing, but with a spinner in lieu of a die roll. Snippets of text describe the encounters. You manage your characters’ stats. You scoop up tokens which you’ll cash in at the end of the adventure. I’m not sure whether this is the videogame version of those experiences, or whether those are the boardgame versions of this experience. They’re all contemporary expressions of those old choose-your-own-adventure books. Your own patchwork adventure.

I don’t think I fully appreciated how I was over the 8-bit retro graphics aesthetic until I’d spent time with Renowned Explorers and its lovely hand-drawn artwork. There is no disconnect between the character art and the ingame assets. I immediately recognize the characters by their pictures, during encounters and outside encounters. They are vividly realized and expressive. I almost don’t need an icon to tell me whether a character is sad, enraged, or impressed, all important parts of the encounter system. I can tell by her picture. Just as Reus is a beautiful game with the personality you only get in the sweet spot between 3D artwork and 16-bit retro graphics, Renowned Explorers is full of lovely pictures that breathe life into the gameplay.

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After a few playthroughs, it might seem like there’s not a lot of content here. You’re liable to feel disappointed when you see how little of the Earth is available to explore, and you’re especially liable to feel disappointed when you’re doing the same expeditions again. Sigh. The same Caribbean? The same Hungarian Fortress? Been there, done that, got the T-shirt and campaign tokens.

But it’s important to realize two things. The first — and if I had a nickel for every developer that said this, I’d be going on actual expeditions instead of virtual videogame expeditions — is that Abbey Games says they intend to release new content updates “regularly”. What does “regularly” mean? Who knows. But given that the expeditions aren’t just a mess of procedurally thrown together tiles, this is an exciting possibility. The different areas have the feeling of being hand-made, with unique maps, enemies, rewards, and writing. As much as I appreciate the direction of The Curious Expedition, an exploration game with an 8-bit retro look and procedurally generated maps, it feels like a mish-mash of stuff that landed where it was thrown. Renowned Explorers, on the other hand, has the feel of crafted places. I’m excited at the prospect of Abbey Games creating and providing more of these.

But the second thing you should realize before you fret about the smallness of the world making Renowned Explorers less replayable is that the world is only part of what should be considered “content”. What really gives this jewel its replayability is its cast of distinct characters. All the characters are available as crew members, but some of them have to be unlocked before they can lead an expedition and bring into play their captain bonuses. How do you unlock characters? By bringing them along on expeditions! Basically, by getting to know them. And Abbey Games has done a fantastic job assembling a rogue’s gallery of renowned explorers, each of whom you’ll want to bring along.

If there’s one way to get you attached to an aggressive combat approach, it’s nimble Turkish archer Hatice Ataman’s ranged attacks. You can double up on ranged attacks by bringing along Harry Walker, who’s packing a gun. Emilia Karwowska isn’t just an archeologist with a mighty shovel, but she’s a naturalist with unparalleled healing powers. One of my favorite things about Emilia is that when she leads an expedition, she brings along a free tool to improve her odds for any challenge. Frenchman Victor Signac and his impressive mustache is a great way to appreciate the advantages of having along a tactician. He’s especially useful for betrayal; he can turn an encounter friendly with his Peace Treaty ability, and then exploit it with his powerful attacks and combat buff for the rest of the party. Canadian mistress Yvonne Lefevre’s whip is almost as cruel as her derision. When she’s in charge of the expedition, you get a bonus for resolving encounters with deviousness. Argentinian seductress Maria Rodriguez will make her victims especially vulnerable to any speech ability. Greek mercenary Bia Hekaton’s stealth attack lets her fight someone without souring the mood. If an opponent is terrified, her triple slash is the most powerful attack I’ve seen so far. When you play Renowned Explorers, you have to choose three characters and only three characters. With 20 to choose from, the synergies are daunting.

The game also manages a hearty amount of replayability in its research tree. Instead of peppering it with the usual +1’s or 10% bonuses, it’s full of “ooh, I really want that!” goodies, including rewards for completing sections of the tree. Research can give you overall bonuses, or bonuses for very specific situations. Again, it’s all about synergies. But, this being a short game about going on only five expeditions, in which research competes with other valuable resources, you won’t get nearly as many advances as you want. You’ll just have to play again.

One serious ding against Renowned Explorers’ replayability is the lack of a persistent score list. The gameplay is ultimately about how high your renown ranks on a list of explorers. Can you beat the guy at the top? If not, how close can you get? This renown score is the ultimate goal and it figures into some important decisions. Unfortunately, your hard-earned score vanishes into the aether as soon as the game is over. There’s a dismaying futility when you realize that, unlike real explorers, your exploits will not be remembered, no matter how spectacular they were. This almost single-handedly kills my desire to do well. It very nearly drops Renowned Explorers into the bin of one-and-done games. Fortunately, the amount of content has kept me coming back.

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Finally, a quick note about a misconception I had about Renowned Explorers. I assumed it would be redundant with The Curious Expedition, a promising roguelike currently available in Steam’s early access program. I only started playing Renowned Explorers because I really like what Abbey Games did with Reus. But even then, as I was learning the game, a little voice in my head kept saying ‘it’s not as good as Curious Expedition’. Eventually, that voice trailed off as I realized how different it is from Curious Expedition. Curious Expedition is a modern throwback to Seven Cities of Gold, with a randomized map, and strategic level decisions about resource management, and quick abstracted die-based battles. But Renowned Explorers, which has elements of these things, ultimately comes down to its unique encounter system and how it ties into the different crafted characters. These are very different games. One does not supercede the other.

Will we be fortunate enough to get two fantastic roguelikes about exploration during the Victorian era, each distinct from the other? We’ll know for sure when Curious Expedition eventually comes out. But for now, we’re plenty fortunate to have Renowned Explorers.

  • Renowned Explorers: International Society

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Renowned Explorers is a strategy adventure game. Assemble your team and use their beauty, brains or brawn to resolve any encounters they come across during their expeditions. Become famous by discovering the most prestigious treasures in a fictitious 19th century!
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