19th century London. Captain Victor Signac, formerly of the French military, draws an x on a map of the Scottish highlands. Charles Templeton, his right-hand man whose biggest flaw was being born an Englishman, nods to an outrageously unclothed Ashanti called Kwame. The colorful trio from around the world are to embark on their airship on an exploration mission due tomorrow, and as recently established explorers in the international society they must not disappoint.
Renowned Explorers: International Society was made by Reus’ developers Abbey Games – much of the art style, fonts and design choices in their new game comes from their first indie production. That’s not to say it plays like their god game: this roguelike, not-a-hex-based tactics game is something unique and different from anything I’ve played recently.
The first time I created my group I decided I’d go for a party that’s mostly friendly with the people and creatures they meet on their journeys. I figured real history was already chock-full of ambitious, gold-lusting Spaniards and deceivingly nice Portuguese navigators, so I might as well show explorers could be nice, too. That choice was only made possible because in Renowned Explorers you can, of course, make a wolf so sad by telling it it has dirty underwear or that it smells like cheese that it’ll run away.
You’ll play on a board-like map with several nodes hidden across it, each with different types of events and encounters that you can, up to a point, ascertain the nature of before venturing into them. Your crew members’ skills – tactician, diplomat, beguiler, engineer, rogue, athletic, survivalist, quick thinker, archaeologist – will define what you can do and how likely you are to succeed in disarming a bomb, sneaking into a smuggler’s den or convincing a nun to let you have a look at the treasure in her abbey. Success will net you points in different resources and, once or a few times during each expedition, a treasure. Combat is a turn-based affair on a grid-map, where your characters have attributes that define how well they can defend themselves and attack their enemies, enhanced by how well you play the Friendly-Devious-Aggressive imitation of rock-paper-scissors, and skills, that go from AoE bombs and piercing bowshots to area-based taunts and pinning strikes.
I’d just dispatched an angry mob of highlanders by enduring through their strikes and punches and replying with compliments on their hair and skills with the bagpipe. They came thinking they’d rob me, they left telling the world how swell a guy I was. Looking at the map, I see there’s an encounter on the node to my left – more of the bagpipe players. They’re talking about gold and treasure and I manage to convince them to share it with me, to which they reply “Of course, unless one of you bawheids is English” or something along those lines (never was good with Scottish accents) – an offense that English patriot ruffian Charles Templeton just couldn’t let by. If only I’d taken that German archaeologist…
Renowned Explorers is chock-full of these interactions – I’d venture a guess that if everyone who played the game wrote a review they’d all have different events that happened to them. As you venture into the game’s varied locations, from islands in the Caribbean to the pyramids of Egypt and the woodlands of Transylvania, you’ll improve your characters, entourage and gather renown. The game has a nice sense of progression as with each concluded mission you can buy items and upgrades in an expanding overworld hub, where you can research new benefits to your party, lecture in Berlin or buy unique goods in Moscow. And you’re all doing it for one reason:
Smearing your fame in the face of this asshole. You’ll meet him in your first mission as he snatches the treasure you initially went looking from beneath your eyes, smiling at you as he leaves a Cleopatra look-alike to hold you back. I haven’t actually beat him yet, but I guarantee I’ll feel all fuzzy when I do.
With each completed mission you’ll accumulate renown from the game’s varied tokens and huge amounts of it from finding treasures: you’re guaranteed one treasure per run, but if you want to win you’ll have to scour the maps for special encounters. As you improve your renown you’ll climb a leaderboard, aiming to reach that elusive two-thousand point mark achieved by Rivaleux. There are two modes to play from: one where you can load a previous save if you lose, and the roguelike Adventure Mode, where failure means your expeditions are over.
If you haven’t guessed it from the ludicrous premise, the entire game comes wrapped in the absurd. I’ll concede that there were several moments where I exhaled strongly from my nose or my face curled into half a grin – it’s hard not to when you’re defeating shotgun-wielding nuns (yes, shotgun-wielding nuns. I mean, why the fuck not?) by telling them how awesome you are, or when befriending a giant ape nets you his treasure: a golden banana. Your actions can also carry out and have implications further in the game, as treating a group of hunters well rather than mocking them might mean getting their help against the lurking werewolf in the regions.
That’s not to say the game doesn’t have its flaws. More than a few times I’ve had to give up on an encounter and return to the menu because when I ended my turn it didn’t start the enemy’s, or resources didn’t show up on my status bar once I’d completed a mission. I also felt like the game suffered from a lack of varied locations, something that becomes more evident the more you play: having to choose between going to Hungary or the Caribbean grows old by the third or fourth time, and while the locations it does have are all sprawling and unique, with secrets you’ll take several playthroughs to discover, I felt a craving for more variety – and I can imagine this being a shared sentiment if you fail to progress into four-star+ missions multiple times.
Renowned Explorers: International Society is an outrageous little gem of a game. The colorful setting, large roster of unique characters and several branching interactions within each scenario and event chain means there’s plenty to try and see in the golden-age of temple-crawling exploration. It’ll bring you in with its antics and varied ways to play and keep you there with its overarching progression system, with a plethora of achievements to unlock and treasures to find and place in your collection.
Renowned Explorers: International Society was played on retail code provided by the developers.