‘Expeditions: Rome’ review: an attentive historical strategy that aims high

Worth its salt

With all the strange fascination we still hold for gladiatorial combat, it’s easy to overlook Ancient Rome’s more mundane forms of entertainment. “The skill of Agathinus, the master juggler, is overwhelming,” wrote the poet Martial. “With swift limbs he hurls the shield up in the air and catches it on his foot, on his back, on his head and on his fingertips.” Expeditions: Rome, the latest entry in Logic Artists’ Expeditions CRPG series, deserves similar praise. This is a sprawling, ambitious RPG that skilfully keeps multiple genres in motion, and does so with focus and grace. I quickly found myself a captive audience.

Role playing, tactics and grand strategy all play their parts here. While these different layers aren’t necessarily equally interesting or developed, their presence, and alternating demand on your attention, create a convincing illusion of a grand, urgent, and complicated epic. On the ground level, you’ll engage in skirmishes, subterfuge, and politics. You might send five elite agents to sneak into a warehouse and secure a tactical document, only to play out the consequences this new advantage has on tens of thousands of troops. Pacifying a region after weeks of conquest might involve a long fight with dozens of combatants, or it might mean winning a battle of wits with a disgruntled senator. Some of the action might be abstracted but, crucially, it all takes place on screen.

The result is an enormous sense of scale that could feel impersonal in a game that didn’t also take the time and effort to develop its central cast. But everything you’d expect from a character focused RPG is here, from romance subplots to entire ways of solving quests unique to certain personality choices. A few gameplay concessions aside, your party aren’t immortal fantasy heroes. From freed gladiators to aging athletes, Expeditions: Rome allows its cast to be private and flawed and petty, while also setting their personal journeys against the history and politics of the time. “Women in Roman society weren’t given first names”, the character creator informed me as I chose my protagonist. The consequences for this simple choice, right at the start, turned out to be much further reaching.

I’m not enough of a buff to speak to how many liberties the game takes with real history, but the sense of passion and love for detail is still palpable. Sure, otherwise natural dialogue can occasionally feel like it’s veering off into a history lesson, but when a setting is purely historical anyway, this is understandable as world building. I’m still trying to place when I last played an RPG without even the slightest element of fantasy or sci-fi, and I’m having trouble. So it’s wonderful that Rome still manages to feel romantic and stirring without these elements to fall back on.

Expeditions: Rome
Expeditions: Rome. Credit: Logic Artists.

A historical setting still offers its own challenges, of course. Go too far one way, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed style historical fanfiction that has you building nukes made out of olive oil with Leonardo, or whatever. But have no interaction with famous figures and events, and you run the risk of the player’s journey feeling insignificant. So, while I’m not sure I drew the line at say, rescuing Cleopatra from a prison wagon – yes, this happens – I at least started to consider where that line is. Mileage, vary, etc.

Despite the variety and long stretches of pure exploration and dialogue, Expeditions: Rome is still primarily a turn-based tactics game. This is where most of the critical action takes place, and this is where you’ll most keenly feel the consequence of tactical choices and resource allocation made elsewhere. Your main party and the legionnaires you recruit to fill supplemental roles do have classes, each given suitably Roman military analogues. Princeps are tanks, Veles are DPS, Sagitari are archers, etc. But the abilities your combat party has access to change depending on their equipment loadout. Fittingly for the time period, shields play an enormous role in combat. Not everyone can equip them, but those who can have access to a secondary armour stat that nullifies arrows and soaks up damage until it’s dealt with – most effectively with spears.

Flanking bonuses, morale, status effects, battlefield manipulation abilities, a secondary special resource called ‘focus’ used for different feats, and the chance to restore spent action points by finishing off foes opens these fights up considerably. This is a small thing, too, but I feel a trick that a lot of turn-based tactics games have missed since the post-XCOM boom is how much of that games’ success was because its violence felt, in many ways, just as satisfying as an action game. This is all to say that, when one of your tiny Romans disembowels a tiny Greek with an even tinier sword here, it fucking sounds like it. Yes, I am entertained. Thanks for noticing.

Expeditions: Rome. Credit: Logic Artists.
Expeditions: Rome. Credit: Logic Artists.

So, it’s all nicely complex and satisfying, but Expeditions: Rome’s real trick is the exciting narrative framing it lends to what can occasionally be a static and halting genre. One early mission had me running back and forth between a bonfire and hurling light torches at boats. Later, a siege involving two different parties, subterfuge, and frontal assault, and catapults, absolutely sells itself. Rome loves, and I mean just absolutely swoons over, letting you set fire to things and people. See a man? You can burn him. He can burn you too. Horrible, disfiguring burns for everyone.

This all sounds very promising so far, so surely something has to give? Navigating non-combat areas, particularly climbing up ladders, is a painful affair. You’ll watch as your entire party of five politely scale a ladder at a glacial pace, single file, and courteously hang around at the top waiting for everyone to have a turn. Then, more than likely, you’ll open the single chest you climbed up for, and repeat the whole affair in reverse. While often visually impressive, there’s rarely many sidequests or optional distractions in these cities. Spending an age hoofing from one side to the other, sometimes multiple times, isn’t great. And by “isn’t great”, I mean, “I audibly shouted ‘This is bollocks’” at my monitor more than once.

There’s also the occasional smattering of jank, although commendably little for an RPG of this size. A few forced reloads, a couple of instances where my characters forgot how to walk. The combat can occasionally devolve into high farce when multiple characters’ morale break and start running around screaming about not wanting to die, poking friendlies with spears, etc. But mainly it’s smooth sailing.

Expeditions: Rome. Credit: Logic Artists.
Expeditions: Rome. Credit: Logic Artists.

That morale, by the by, leads us into the strategy layer. Between locations, you’ll travel over a world map, keeping an eye on your food and water while resolving random story encounters. This part is great. Plenty of variety, tonnes of great writing, and a lot of texture added to the journey. At the same time as your party is traveling, you’ll be able to send your legion off to do some conquering, which I’m reliably informed the Romans quite enjoyed.

This is the slightly more tacked on element. Battles abstract to a strategy-map style overview, and your only real agency here is to employ stratagems which affect some statistics in mostly uninteresting ways. I’m yet to lose a battle, or even a single commander. I’ll freely admit that I still don’t understand what everything here does, though. It could well come to life on the hardest difficulty. As it stands, and as I’ve mentioned, despite this all being a touch thin, the context it lends to the rest of the game makes it a worthwhile inclusion. Also, it reminds me a bit of Suikoden, so I’m instantly a sucker for it.

The strategy and tactical RPG layers meet via camp management. Here, you’ll upgrade by ‘spending’ the locations your legion has captured on the strategy map, and assign pretorians to things like healing the persistent injuries earned in combat, or crafting new tactical items. Like torches, so you can burn more men. It’s also where you can up that morale so less of your party go hide in a corner during combat. Again, nothing groundbreaking. Again, it’s still enjoyable, and lends to the overall sense of managing every aspect of your campaign.

Overall, I’m seriously impressed with Expeditions: Rome. Yes, it’s a touch janky. And yes, not all of its systems are equally interesting. But there’s very little else where you can go from planning huge battles between thousands to sucking up to senators at a Bioware-style party scene. The game transitions from the personal to the grandiose well, and often, lending a weighty sense of forward momentum to the journey. As long as you’re happy to commit to the expedition for the long haul, I think you’ll find this one well worth its salt.

Expeditions: Rome launches on January 20 for PC

The Verdict

A few small annoyances aside, Expeditions: Rome is an impressive, huge, and exciting CRPG. Massively ambitious in its combination of genres, and competent enough to make the variety work massively in its favour.

Pros

  • A massive and exciting sense of scale, where different genres each lend context to the other, giving the sense of a grand epic to the whole campaign
  • Tight and varied turn based combat, with plenty of different objectives to keep things great
  • Solid presentation, music, and voice acting

Cons

  • A smattering of classic CRPG jank
  • Non combat exploration is ponderous
  • The occasional jaunt into AC-style historical fanfiction
Advertisement

More Gaming Stories:

Advertisement