I’ve been doing a lot of globe-hopping lately. Myself and a bunch of friends from all around the world have been travelling to exotic sites, meeting unique locals and collecting valuable treasures. Oh, there’s been some troubles along the way, but it’s been a wonderful adventure overall, and I can’t wait to tell you about it. Once you hear about my journeys, I think you’ll want to start planning one of your own.
Renowned Explorers was developed by Abbey Games, the makers of previous cult hit Reus. RE is yet another take on the Roguelike genre, a clever one, admittedly. Players and their self-selected crew travel the globe in search of ancient historical treasures. They’ll encounter restless natives, compete with dastardly fellow explorers, and uncover all kinds of amazing artifacts on their journey. In the end, their goal is to become the most renowned explorer of all time!
The aesthetic of RE is very 19th-Century Victorian adventure. Players travel from place-to-place in a dirigible to divest locals of their valuables. The game does its best to just focus on fun, so if you’re inclined to be upset about a game where players are encouraged to take advantage of the ‘simple’ natives, well, keep in mind there’s a reason this game isn’t called Politically Correct Explorers.
That irreverent and self-deprecating tone carries over to your choice of crew. You have twenty individuals to choose from, each piled into four groups of five people with various general abilities: Scientist, Scout, Fighter and Speaker. Scientists are good at science, fighters are good at fighting… Rocket science, this ain’t. Each character also has his or her own unique abilities beyond their own class. So, some will be better at offense than defense, or will do better at one kind of fight than another (I’ll explain in a bit).
Again, these characters intentionally fit into very specific stereotypes. The Russian scientist is cold and calculating. There’s a fists’ first female Mexican luchador, a proud, egotistical, rapier-wielding Frenchman. And yet… and yet… the characters are really what make the game. The developers did a good job of creating interesting and memorable companions. The over-the-top personalities bring a life to this game that a more serious take on the topic would miss.
To begin their grand adventure, players choose three of the total twenty characters. Players must pick a captain, plus two other support characters. At first, there are only four captain options (one for each class). Captains get special abilities that the regular rank and file don’t have. Eventually, every character can become a captain, but players must first unlock them by using the normal version of the character as part of their party.
I spent almost as much time messing around on the character selection screen as I did in the adventures. Because each companion is unique, it’s fun to create various groupings and see what different directions they take you in. The game will suggest certain combinations, but they’re just suggestions, and you’re free to make any group of three that appeals, including ones of all one talent if you so desire (with an accompanying achievement if you manage to win with them).
This is not just aesthetic either. Your choices make an important difference in your experience with the game. A group with a lot of fighting ability, for example, will get crushed by enemies who are good at insults. A group that’s low in science or does not get a lot of gold will find themselves unable to access the more powerful items. But then, creating a very balanced party will leave you with the opposite problem: your group will never be good enough at anything to really succeed. In the end, like the best game systems, players will find themselves making tough decisions, forced to accept what often seems like the best bad choice rather than the obviously good one.
With a crew selected, the game drops players right into the adventure on tutorial island. It’s a good introduction to how things work and is the setup for how the rest of the game will play. Players see their characters, a map, and several locations to choose. When players click a location, the party moves to it to resolve an encounter. Once resolved, new paths will be opened. Eventually players will explore the island and uncover the big boss.
This is so FTL-like, it’s almost impossible for me to describe RE without referencing the infamous Faster than Light, itself. Like FTL, most of the encounters in RE will be battles, but there are others challenges that offer a chance to win additional resources, buffs, or debuffs. Like FTL, your willingness to explore is limited by a resource, in RE’s case these are called supplies. If you run out of them, the party will lose certain powers and, eventually, fail the mission. Like FTL, you will eventually make your way to a “gate” that lets you finish that “sector.” In RE, that’ll be a major archaeological site that can be explored/looted.
I love FTL, but I’m not sure I wanted to play the same game all over again only with 19th- Century trappings. Fortunately, almost everything else about RE isn’t just different than FTL, it improves upon some of its inspirational systems. For example, the random non-combat encounters. In many places you’ll be given a choice and, unlike other games of this ilk (BED… LAM!), there will be an actual decision to make. Further, your ability to resolve each encounter satisfactorily will depend on what characters you have with you. Certain events require sneaking – if you have a sneaky character, they will be more likely to “win” the encounter, i.e., get you the best stuff.
The combat encounters give players a lot more to think about than waiting for cooldown timers. RE employs a sort of rock, paper, scissors combat system. Whenever a unit is close to an enemy, there are three options: fight, insult, or compliment. Opponents will suffer damage from health, just like any other game. But they can also be defeated with hurtful words (becoming too sad to stay in the fight) or kind phrases (liking you too much to want to hurt you). Each enemy will have different strengths and weaknesses. Some baddies only get stronger when physically attacked and need to be verbally put down. Others will literally kill you with kindness.
Adding to the complexity of your strategic choices, each attack can actively influence the entire battlefield. So if you choose to fight an enemy that is strong in insults, not only will your attack do poorly, but it might also make all future attacks twice as likely to fail. At least until you’re able to change the ‘mood’ of the battlefield back to something more favorable, that is.
This is not just “OK, he’s got a sword which is weak against staves, so I’ll use my spearmen…” kind of strategic thinking. You’ll have to really consider where your team is strong and weak, what the enemy is attempting to do and the overall status of the battlefield. That’s… not easy and honestly, I’m kind of simplifying it further for the purposes of this article (there are different types of insult/compliments that will have further, differing effects on enemies).
This is RE’s biggest trap, you see. It looks all cute and fun and happy. But holy cow does this game delight in kicking your hind end all over the virtual map. RE is hard. Its systems are unforgiving. The game fools you into thinking it’s just a little excursion off to a pretty little island, you get twice the shock when those funny little caricatures wipe the floor with your heroes. It’s like The Killing Joke as illustrated by Skottie Young.
Renowned Explorers isn’t just lifting game mechanics because they’re neat – it takes its Roguelike heritage seriously. At some point, you’re going to have to admit that you lost, big time, to a bunch of monkeys. Of course, the other side of all that is, once you figure it out, it is rewarding. Winning feels like… a win. No participation trophy here.
When you’re not exploring, beating up tribal members, hoodwinking nuns (yes, really), you’re back at home base where there are many more decisions to sweat over. Each successfully completed encounter gives the player useful resources such as gold, research, status, and victory points (called renown).You can spend your well-earned goods upgrading your group with better equipment that helps you in battle, researching new special abilities that act as buffs for your party, or hiring a posse to stand on the sidelines but increase your earnings from encounters. For example, pay Doctor Voodoo 250 game bucks and he’ll give you one or two extra research points every time an archaeologist character succeeds in a challenge.
Once again, choosing how to spend your hard-earned goodies involves a lot of option weighing. Is it better for me to buy the book that makes my insults better or to get the buff that increases my gold income? In the end, that’s going to be for the player to decide, and honestly, it will depend heavily on who you’ve added to your exploring entourage in this session.
For each playthrough you’ll have four expeditions out of a total of about 10 or so (the developers are always adding scenarios, so your own experience may vary from mine) to do your best. If you gain over 2000 renown points, you’ve won. If you don’t you… don’t win. So there. It hardly matters, honestly. Like a drive to Buffalo, the fun is in the journey, not the destination. Playing over and over to get the win will be unsatisfying. The treasures are neat, but it’s not like you get anything from them.
What will drive you to keep playing is the chance to try the different character combinations. If you replace the Brazilian fighter with the the massive French sailor, how will that affect your adventure? How will changing up your crew change the experience in significant and tangible ways?
Like the best vacations, RE was bug free. It’s also a little on the short side. I’d like to see the developers add more locations and treasures, but based on what I’ve seen in my time with the game, I’m sure that’s going to happen.
Renowned Explorers is currently on Steam for $19.99. It is the odd game that is more than the sum of its parts. As described, it sounds like a lot of different games you’ve already played. In reality, RE has that… something. That spark of great creative people doing fantastic, passionate work. If RE captures even a little of your fancy, I recommend giving it a shot. You never know what you might find in the wilds of this wonderful world.