Being a Viking wasn't easy. Between the icy winters and all the fighting, it's a tough life. Enter Expeditions: Viking--a game founded on the intrigue that lies between Jutland and the British Isles centuries before they grew to be the modern marvels we know today. It's a premise that the hardcore tactical RPG wields with enthusiasm, but its performance isn't the most refined. Rampant bugs trigger frequent crashes and make portions of the game unplayable, but when you catch a smooth multi-hour stretch, the strategy game will entice you back with solid storytelling, deep combat, and satisfying role-playing.
Expeditions: Viking opens (as these stories so often do) with your father's passing. He died on a journey to the British Isles, so his position of leadership falls to you. Immediately, you're berated by some of his most bitter enemies and dissenters, and you're tasked with holding everyone together and bringing glory to your tribe.
As a setup, it works well enough--and does a wonderful job of inviting you into this world. But it's also an early sign of the game's blemishes. While bands of drunkards challenging your claim to rule on the night of what amounts to your coronation is exciting, it also leads, inexorably, to some basic questions, but there aren't too many answers. Some say your father was too focused on conquest, while others claim he ignored the needs of his people.
It's a confusing tangle of different, conflicting accounts. Some of those issues fall away soon enough, however, as more vibrant, nuanced characters come into focus. Stitched between the dialogue, you'll find rich descriptions that round out the development of your gang. As they worm their way into your adventure, though, it's tough to shake the feeling that Viking is nudging you away from the man behind the curtain, so it wows you with its cast and the novelty of its setting. And it works...mostly.
The needs of your people aren't as straightforward as you might expect. There's an entire pantheon of gods whose favor you'll need, not to mention requisite arcane knowledge of the lands and its medicines. These sorts of crisp details play up the role and mystique of magic in the world without breaking believability. Divine presence is faint but palpable, and that imbues the world with a certain vitality. Vikings, like most Dark Ages folk, were a superstitious lot, and Expeditions: Viking shows you that perspective as clearly as it can.
Morality, too, has to be viewed through the eyes and conscience of the era. It's a notable challenge, but it's also a fun one to play with. There aren't any deep, profound revelations about humanity to be found here, but novel ethical frameworks are the bread and butter of most role-playing classics, and it's wondrous to see a backdrop leveraged to such effect. Resources are scant in the frozen north, and staying the slaughter of conquered combatants isn't always prudent or kind.
Combat keeps to that theme. It's slow and painful--you'll take losses and often face permanent consequences along the way: arrows tear through bone and sinew; axes break bones and shields; no one gets out unscathed. That's all a natural part of Viking life, though. Battles are hard, but fair--especially as the game opens up its tactical options.
Fun as political jockeying in the 700s may be, mixing it up with blood and iron is even better. Expeditions: Viking borrows heavily from its tabletop forerunners like Dungeons & Dragons. Bulky warriors grab axes, nimbler fighters use bows or slings or knives, and everyone else can pick from an array of simple sidearms. When you're ready to bop some baddies on the head, you'll have plenty of skills and abilities to complement your tactics. Taken together and spread across your party of marauders, techniques are a tactician's dream, offering all manner of precise or circumstantial benefits to exploit. Archers can spot for one another, offering each other battlefield support, while a wall of shieldmaidens can choke an enemy advance and help you crack opposing lines. Just about any approach is valid--as battles get tougher, though, you'll have to think to keep moving.
If you do lose, you'll face the usual game-over screen and have to restart--but not every time. Early on, the game is quick to suggest that failure isn't a big deal, and that you may see new story or plot regardless of the outcome. While that's true, the concept gets short shrift. Vikings are, to reiterate, brutal and bloodthirsty. It's rare that you'll be allowed to walk away from defeat. And that's a shame, because there's so much that Viking nails. Deep connections between plot and play yield powerful synergy, at times. The choice to switch to non-lethal attacks at the right moment for the right person might net you a bargaining chip for later. Similarly, exploration and trade will outfit your fledgling fighting force--at least until you hit a modern term that pulls you out of the experience.
So much of the game is spent being a bit too pedantic about Norse culture for it to escape critique when it drops the pretense. That would be fine on its own, but a lot of that world-building crumbles with quest design, too. The nature of the setting lends itself to politicking, and to a degree, that's explored. You'll need to rework some relationships and build alliances to cement the legitimacy of your rule, after all. But it's hard to stay in the moment when you're told you need to collect generic "trade goods” in order to progress.
Those headaches compound a few hours in when excessive, intrusive bugs start to hit. Conversations might fail to load and progress, loading screens will hang and then crash to the desktop, and Viking seems to be so poorly optimized that at one point, it pressed an eight-core processor and a GTX 1080 graphics card close to their thermal limits. That's far more disruptive than it may sound, and players may find themselves stalled for real-world days trying to figure out ways to advance that don't crash the game.
Viking lives in its atmosphere, so it's appreciated that most of the game is a spirited romp. For now, that experience is mangled by dozens of technical hiccups and anachronisms. At its heart lies an earnest drive to recreate a slice of Viking culture, and those looking for just that niche will find nothing better. But for everyone else, it's impossible to recommend until it's given some major help. There's a lot to be gained from stepping into the 8th century, but be prepared to have your journey hindered by bugs.