22nd May2017

‘Renowned Explorers’ & ‘The Emperor’s Challenge DLC’ Review (PC)

by Matthew Smail

Full disclosure: I’ve enjoyed my time with Renowned Explorers much more than I thought that I would. This charming, beautiful and deceptively detailed adventure game is everything that makes independently developed games such a rich and diverse source of engaging content. I say that because being a little bit frank, there’s a lot of goodness hidden inside Renowned Explorers, but like the buried treasure so often found in the game, you’ll have to dig for it a bit.

The concept of Renowned Explorers should be obvious enough from the title, but with that said, it’s amazing how few games actually focus on The Golden Age of Exploration in the way that this one does. Essentially, players form a crew of three characters that must then undertake a series of five expeditions, each of which takes place in some historically recognizable place such as a pyramid, or on a Caribbean island. The overall goal is to either gather the most renown through the actions of the crew, or in the latest DLC (The Emperor’s Challenge) to gather the most porcelain points, which can be achieved by broadly the same means.

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This high level explanation unfairly simplifies Renowned Explorers however, because the game features many interlinking systems that the player must manage in order to achieve success. Firstly, there are four different characters classes to choose from that encompass scientists, scouts, fighters and speakers, and within each class there are six individual characters. Each of these characters has different strengths, weaknesses and skills or abilities, and from them you must decide whether to choose a balanced team, or to focus on something highly specialized like pure science.

Once your crew is formed, you’ll be able to choose which expedition to undertake from a handful of three or four on the world map. The locations remain common, but the expeditions themselves (including the enemies, treasures and other factors) are procedurally generated, so there is always some risk involved in tackling them. The world map also features a ton of other information, which will initially mean little, but it will become more familiar over time.

One thing I particularly liked about Renowned Explorers was how thematic and interlinked the games systems are with the characters and the story. For example, a scientist who also happens to be good at speaking is likely to be able to lecture (and therefore make money, research points and reknown for the crew) at an archaeological college much more effectively than a fighter who is athletic but inarticulate. On the other hand, many of the situations that the crew will encounter on expeditions requires broad strength or athletic prowess, so that same scientist is likely to come a cropper in those situations. In the right situation, scouts can sneak, speakers can influence and so it goes on. In Renowned Explorers, there is no such thing as a useless character and no real imbalance of jobs for each of them to do, as is often the case where similar systems are used.

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When out on expeditions, the game is (once again) deceptively simplistic at first glance. The crew moves around a map of the expedition area following a basic grid system. Each move costs supplies (usually one) and each new point on the grid will have one or more possible events associated with it, each of which is hinted at on the map before you get there. Some of these result in fairly lengthy text-based challenges, such as herding lost sheep, or navigating a cave system to find some treasure. Others result in encounters (which in any other game might simply be called battles) whilst some combine the two by allowing players a chance to resolve differences through negotiation, but ultimately ending in an encounter where it cannot be avoided.

For me, encounters are perhaps the most memorable thing in Renowned Explorers, because what initially seemed to be a dull, turn based slugfest has ultimately turned out to be yet another interesting and well developed riff on the overall theme. You see, each encounter has a mood, and only some of them are actually a fight, whereas others might be a heated debate or a raucous dance off; but, you have to use your imagination a bit. Let me explain, because the game does a poor job of doing so: each character has abilities that are aligned to aggressive, devious and friendly behavior, and whilst some of the friendly ones may buff allies, if targeted, they will also act to convince enemies of your cause. So when you happen upon a flock of friendly sheep for example, you need not kill them all, you could simply win them over by being friendly, or you could be devious and coerce them. Or, I mean. You could kill them still.

On face value this system is no different to any paper, scissors, stone kind of logic, but what makes it important in Renowned Explorers is that winning each encounter in a particular way will result in a different outcome. For example if you defeat the sheep aggressively you might win some supplies, but if you coerce them, they may lead you to a cave filled with treasure and in turn that might yield money, renown, science and more.

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There are yet more systems in Renowned Explorers, but I’m not inclined to go into detail on all of them because there are just too many. At a high level though, the interlinked theming that I keep referring to is what binds it all together, so buying books will increase speech power, higher speech power increases persuasion chance and also the yield from certain jobs on the world map. Gathering tokens for research, secrets, money and renown is linked to character development and items (both collected and bought) too, because these tokens are traded in at the end of an expedition and you will receive bonuses based on characters you have and followers in your entourage. As an example, the more journalists following you, the more renown you will get for winning encounters, so technically speaking, these things would be multipliers in any other game.

I love how Renowned Explorers weaves the interesting and appealing theme into so many other parts of the game. In fact, it does this so well that the traditional systems remained hidden from me for a good few hours of playing time. Each game lasts for only five expeditions, so your time with each crew will end after about two hours on average, and because this is a rogue-lite, it can be game over if you fail a single encounter. Sometimes the game can be punishingly hard, and that does feel harsh because each play through can be longer and more involved than is typical for the genre, but the game gives you the option of an adventure more where it is possible to retry failed encounters.

When all is said and done, I think most gamers would be as pleasantly surprised by Renowned Explorers as I was, but you really will need to commit to it and push through the first two or three expeditions. I can’t really comment on The Emperors Challenge DLC as a standalone offer, as I have never played the game in isolation, but I can say that as a bundle, Renowned Explorers offers excellent value for money. It provides the veneer of something completely new and different as well as an interesting and thematic concept that is well interwoven, yet as familiar systems begin to appear, the game becomes more interesting rather than less.

***** 5/5

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