Expeditions: Rome Review – I came, I saw, I ended my turn.
All the way back in 81 BC, it was a turning point in the life of a young Gaius Julius Caesar. He was stationed to a garrison on the island of Lesbos, and he played a key part in the siege of Mytilene, being awarded the civic crown for his valour. This boosted his military and political career, setting him on the path to becoming the ruler of the Roman Empire and one of the most famous leaders in world history. But what if things had played out differently? What if some other young aristocrat, effectively exiled from Rome because of the tense political situation, had stepped into the limelight instead? This is the story of Expeditions: Rome, a tactical RPG with a scope just as sweeping as its alternative historical setup.
Starting off, the player has to create a character. Immediately it’s clear how all-encompassing the process is. Not only do you choose your character’s archetype for their combat prowess, but also the social style they use to interact with others. Some characters can use their authority to project a commanding presence, some use logic and sound argument to reason others into agreement while others use emotional oratory to play on the emotions of others.
Combat is something that’s introduced pretty much as soon as the game proper begins. The protagonist and a group of fellow travelers to the island of Lesbos are ambushed by pirates. It soon becomes clear how much satisfying scope there is for skilled planning. For example, an archer can use an ability to shoot arrows which cause a target to become “harried”, reducing their movement and damage. A character with staff can then hit harried characters to knock them down to the ground, putting the target a a further disadvantage. Characters with the deathblow ability can do extra damage to knocked down adversaries, performing a devastating “coup de grace” style attack that can fell enemy leaders from close to full health to death in a single strike.
Trying to initiate devastating combos like this though, need to be balanced with good positioning to avoid your own party members being similarly battered. The grizzled soldier Caeseo is of the “Principes” or “tank” archetype and with his shield, he can not only deflect arrows from enemy archers entirely but absorb melee blows with his shield up to a certain amount each turn. If he’s placed at strategic chokepoints on the map, he can tank damage directed at him and commit attacks of opportunity of those who try and get past him to your weaker party members. Character classes are definitely well rounded and there’s sense of synchronicity between them which makes the battles feel satisfying to complete.
Travelling across the map is always an eventful experience, with countless random encounters occurring along the way. Characters need rations and water to keep going, so it’s important to visit wells to refill water and buy plenty of provisions. One encounter might involve climbing a mountain to have a mysterious hermit give you a choice of skills to learn. Another, might have a group of foxes trying to attack your campground to scavenge for supplies. Resisting the hungry little creatures might save the supplies, but leave one of your party members with a nasty wound in the process.
Injuries are serious business in Expeditions: Rome. Even a light wound can progress to a worse malady without treatment. Curing a character completely can require them to spend whole days recovering in the dispensary at camp, meaning it might be needed to hire extra praetorians beyond the primary party members to help fill the ranks. Expeditions: Rome is always does a good job of simulating the hard-scrabble life of a Roman fighting a grueling military campaign. Of course, the passage of time while out exploring is profoundly important to the broader tactical picture when the player character gains more influence.
Not long after the story begins, the player is appointed legatus of an entire legion, and the leadership decisions can be quite daunting. From the overworld map, the player can assign the legion to different spots, order the legion to seize resource gathering points such as tanneries, iron mines and lumber mills (which can, in turn, be used to build upgraded facilities for the camp). When conquering new areas of defending against invading armies, mass battles occur, and the outcome largely depends on which centurion you choose to lead the battle and how well prepared your army is. Though there are various choices that came be made at each stage of the fighting, the battle, as they say, is usually won or lost before it begins.
The legion often requires slaves for various missions to be completed and it’s important to spend them wisely. Denarii is usually in short supply and there’s often difficult choices on whether to use it to recruit more legionaries to keep the legions numbers strong for future battles or to buy slaves and resources.
The graphics are a combination of incredibly bright, colourful, vivid landscapes with minutely detailed character portraits during conversations. Fans of classical history are really going to be in for a treat with beautiful renderings of ancient locations. Each of the main party members has various little side quests to do, and they’re all intelligently written. One features the protagonist’s mentor Syneros coming across as the grandson of a rival he had cheated out of a wrestling match in his misspent youth. The climax of the questline really showcases the excellent writing and integration of the player’s social skills as the player helps Syneros solve a series of riddles. A logical character can work out a more traditional riddle like “how can a man‘s clothes be soaked yet not a hair on his head is wet?” However, an empathic character can emotionally intuit how an impatient Alexander the Great legendarily undid the Gordian Knot.
Each of the characters has an approval system that determines their morale, and how likely they are to panic in a dire combat situation. Morale is affected by the choices the player makes. After the initial ambush on the ship journeying to Lesbos, the player is afforded a choice of whether to kill the ship’s captain who is suspected of treachery. Though some characters approve of a choice to show mercy, the grizzled gladiatorial veteran Bastia looks poorly on such a choice, reasoning that such weakness will only get more people killed.
The characters definitely have more subtle philosophies than simply “good” or “evil” and there’s a lot of nuance in the ways they can react to things. I found that this only adds to the richness of the narrative. A lot of party members I didn’t think I’d like initially turned out to grow on me because of their complexity – all of them ultimately trying to do the right thing, though their differing views on how to do it is absolutely vast.
With military campaigns that stretch from Greece to Gaul to North Africa, there’s plenty of lifespan here to suit the epic scope of the game. However, the flaws in Expeditions: Rome lie in the limits of its great ambition. As it is excitedly introducing you to new challenges and mechanics, sometimes clarity gets lost in the shuffle. An example would be the legion’s morale stat. There’s one, very brief, explanation of how it works and what it affects. Naturally, it’s given in the middle of explaining several different aspects of the legion battles. I wanted more detail and looked through the codex for more info but found it difficult to find anything. In terms of keeping the player informed about all the different systems, the game’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp.
In general, the battles with the legion feel a bit disconnected. The overhead perspective of armies marching towards each other feels rather static, with simple squares emblazoned with symbols representing different divisions that aren’t very evocative of what is happening. Numbers flash up showing troop losses on both sides as sound effects blare out but none of it feels tangibly connected to the multiple choice decisions you’re making at points in the battle. Though it is enjoyable to win battles and gain territory, expect more of a generalized simulation, not something in the style of Total War.
The combats involving your character and their praetorians though certainly have one substantial niggle too. There are often upwards of ten enemies on the battlefield at any given time, and they are often spending entire turns simply guarding their position or moving from one side of the map to the other. Since there are lengthy animations for characters vaulting over the scenery or climbing down from walls, watching this unfold can sometimes get tedious, and some sort of “fast-forward” button might have been handy for times when not much of importance is happening.
Expeditions: Rome is a profoundly in-depth RPG that manages to achieve much of its lofty ambitions with verve. There are a few potholes in this otherwise flawless Roman road, especially with how steep the learning curve is, but they should get smoothed out in time. For those who loved the tactical machinations of X-Com, but wanted a bit more character development and a personal story, Expeditions: Rome is more fun than visiting the Circus Maximus and Colosseum with a full amphora of wine.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC(Reviewed); Publisher: THQ Nordic; Developer: Logic Artists; Players: 1; Released: January 20th, 2021;
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Expeditions: Rome provided by the publisher.