Turn-based role-playing game Explorations: Conquistador casts you as a Spanish noble in the New World, contributing to another glorious chapter in white European history by robbing the continent blind. You start off in the colonial province of Hispaniola (modern day Dominican Republic), where the Spanish forces have established a microcosm of their home kingdom. The Europeans have a trade relationship with most of the local tribes here, although there are roving groups of warriors who are understandably cheesed off with the invaders. Hispaniola functions as an elongated tutorial where you learn the key aspects of gameplay. After you’ve finished the introductory quests it’s time to head into Mexico, where the game opens up a great deal more.
Most of the time in Conquistador you’ll be exploring South America from a top-down view that will be familiar to anyone who has played the Might and Magic series or its relatives. Click anywhere on the map and your little party of explorers will travel to that area, gradually using up their allotted travel points for the day. There are three types of collectable resources that appear on the main map- gold, herbs and animals for meat. It’s a shame that there isn’t more to find, as some areas of the map can feel quite empty and dull to explore. Conquistador doesn’t quite capture the exotic wonder of the New World, either. Colours are disappointingly muted, and the surrounding scenery is fairly unspectacular.
Each member of your party possesses ranks in several different skills, from hunting game and refining herbs into medicine to patrolling the camp. When you rest for the night you get the option to assign each member of your team to a different task, including several contextual ones that pop up in certain areas. Planning your activities for the evening becomes extremely important when you’re out in the wilderness – forgetting to task someone with salting and preserving your meat, for example, can lead to it spoiling overnight. Not ideal when your grumbling troops are one empty stomach away from mutiny.
Generally the base organisation is fairly simple, but there are issues with it. You can auto-assign everyone, but that typically leads to your wise old doctor merrily sodding off into the woods to hunt squirrels while half your team bleeds to death, so be wary of using it. Herbalism and preserving meat don’t seem to get auto-assigned either, and constantly having to go in and tell people to do it is a pain. That said, I appreciated the attempt to add a little complexity to exploration.
Spotted around the map are various towns, both large Spanish settlements and smaller native villages. Here you can trade your loot for various supplies you’ll need on jour journey, and pick up quests from local figures. Quests in Conquistador offer a multitude of different options, allowing you to play anything from a vengeful zealot to an amiable explorer. Since I was essentially playing the role of a foreign invader looting an indigenous population, I figured in for a penny in for a pound- which lead to much burning of villages and slaughtering of heathens. The writing is good, and there’s plenty of decisions to make that will come back to haunt you or benefit you later on. The game doesn’t attempt to explain away the Europeans’ actions, and it doesn’t whitewash the greed and arrogance of the invaders. That said, it’s also made clear that the local tribes are no angels themselves. Overall the general feeling is one of almost universal greed, exploitation, cruelty and violence. It’s not deep stuff, but it at least conjures some of the brutal reality of the period.
Followers will react to your actions, brutal or peaceful, according to their personality. Pious, racist and aggressive followers will approve of the subjugation of heretics by force, but peaceful types will be appalled by random acts of violence. Occasionally you’re offered the chance to stay hidden from the enemy and wait for a better time to attack. Cautious followers will approve of your careful strategy, but aggressive ones will think such inaction cowardly. Each follower has a little background story to divulge, and they pop up with contextual comments and scenes often enough that you’ll find yourself attached to your cast of characters.
You can upgrade their abilities by expending a central shared pool of experience points, and each level allows you to select a talent that improves their combat performance. Rather than buying weapons for your group, you expend another resource, equipment, to improve their existing loadout. While this means that you can quickly shift around equipment if one of your team is incapacitated, it doesn’t really allow for the level of customisation available in other games in the genre. It also means more micromanagement fiddling, which is something the game could do with less of.
Combat is a fairly standard brand of Dungeons & Dragons style grid-based tactics. You control up to six of your party, using their various skills to defeat the enemy. Soldiers are your tanks, used to block off areas and protect your weaker units. Scouts are fast-moving heavy hitters who are vulnerable to prolonged melee, while hunters are ranged damage dealers who seem slightly underpowered, especially at lower levels. Doctors and scholars are support classes who heal your troops and provide combat bonuses respectively. Native troops have slightly different versions of these core classes, but everything falls into familiar categories for anyone who has played turn based strategy before.
Generally the combat system is fun. Careful movement is key, as running past an enemy will provoke an attack of opportunity, allowing the enemy to get in a free melee strike against you. There are numerous tactical options for the different classes to use. Soldiers can provide defensive bonuses to adjacent squares for example, while hunters can fire twice by taking a hit on their accuracy. Irritatingly melee attacks always hit, it’s just a matter of degrees, which takes away some of the unpredictability you find in similar games. A heavily damaged scout stuck next to an enemy soldier is simply always going to die. Oddly enough you don’t personally get the chance to enter combat, instead letting your underlings take the bullets and macahuitl strikes on your behalf. It’s a shame you can’t customise your conquistador for combat, especially when the options for him elsewhere are so varied.
Medicine and rations are fairly self-explanatory acquisitions, but you can also purchase equipment that can be dished out to upgrade weapons and armour and various bits and pieces that can be crafted into tactical items. Get enough metal and wood, and you can form makeshift barricades. Oil can be used to make flammable lanterns, which burst and cover several tiles in burning liquid that damages enemies over time. These tactical items become essential, allowing you to mould the battlefield in your favour. Most fights in Conquistador are stacked in the enemy’s favour, so channeling assaults through narrow gaps, forming choke-points and closing off flanking routes is vital in order to keep the melee contained.
Injuries sustained in battle can cripple an unprepared party. If your only doctor falls in battle you may find yourself unable to heal, and in the heat and dirt of the jungle cuts and broken bones can quickly deteriorate into mortal injuries. Without sufficient medicine a close-run victory can sometimes lead to a choice of which wounded man is left to die. Along with the ever-present risk of bandits, wild animals and understandably miffed native soldiers, there’s a real sense of danger out in the wilderness. Sometimes this can feel a little unfair, such as when your beleaguered, dysentery-ridden party is attacked by a larger force for the ninth time. On the plus side, it does mean that Conquistador is always challenging, and forces you to take a great deal of care on every venture. No task is insurmountable with careful planning and strategy.
There’s plenty to like in Conquistador. The mix of role-playing and strategy works very well, and there’s a well-conceived sense of threat that comes from exploring the wilds of South America. The story provides a nice backdrop for the exploration, and your party members feel like actual humans and not disposable toy soldiers. A few blemishes take away some of the charm. Combat is functional and mostly fun, but doesn’t quite offer the breadth of choice available in other turn-based titles. Some mechanics, such as the fiddly camping system, could have been polished a little more, and it’s not the most attractive game you’ll ever see. Expeditions: Conquistador isn’t perfect, but if you want a fun tactical adventure through a grim period of history rarely covered in video games, it’s worth a look.