It can be difficult to fit Abby Games' Renowned Explorers: International Society into a single genre. It's a strategy game, a role-playing game, a choose-your-story game, a roguelike, a board game, and more, yet not quite any of the above in the most conventional sense. Renowned Explorers is its own beast; a unique mix of elements of multiple genres blended with a heavy dose of frustrating, but rewarding, narrative-driven challenges.
Starring a cast of quirky personalities, each map is essentially a stage set for the player-built team to live their dreams of world renown and prestige. Throughout the game, a selection of three from a greater roster of prospective heroes will battle to secure hidden artifacts, study rare wildlife, and engage in the politics of a beautifully hand-drawn and painted world. Characters are fully animated during combat, each skill prefacing a short cinematic battle animation similar to the scene switches of the Fire Emblem series. Animations are smooth and a joy to watch but, thankfully, also come with a toggle that allows players to skip them once their glamor has worn thin.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jq-D_GOq8Ck
The adventures themselves start simple enough. A team of three prospective explorers are put together by the player and sent on their merry way towards doom that is most definitely certain. The party is moved around a board, each landing zone a likely marker to a random event that rewards the player with tokens that function both as currency and as renown, with the aim of the game being to collect as much of the latter as possible. With each map node triggering some challenge that must be surpassed, danger lurks around every corner. Enemy strength and the complexity of their tactics rise as each map becomes more difficult, but they also become more abundant with resources and treasure. This escalation is where it gets especially tricky.
Battling in Renowned Explorers is unlike anything that is likely to be encountered in other tactical RPGs. While all potential explorers come with the ability to melee their way through a fight, this tactic on its own is seldom enough to prevail due to the unique addition of an often ignored but very valid element of battle: Emotion. Every single action in battle is both prefaced and followed by a feeling. There's excitement, joy, anger, sadness, fear, and more, each with its distinct advantages and disadvantages. Emotions so profoundly affect related characters that their skills and animations even change to reflect their demeanor and character portraits. Anna, for instance, stands tall and proud by default, but hunches over in Sadness, hair covering her face like a creepy Japanese ghost.
Emotions also accumulate on a global level, changing the enemy army's relation to your own to “Friendly”, “Deceptive”, or “Aggressive”. In addition to your emotions, and your enemies, these three further effect every unit on the field, and are complicated by multiple versions of themselves based on the combination of attacks used. Starting a battle “Friendly” might trigger a reduction in armor for your team, but follow that with an “Aggressive” action, and now your team gains bonuses for confusing the enemy. Unless, of course, the enemy was friendly, then you'll still become “Aggressive”, but you'll be seen as a bully, which confers unique debuffs.
Seems like a lot to consider, no? There's more! Combinations of these emotions can be used to buff and debuff individual skills to the advantage, and also disadvantage, of the player. One enemy might seek to Sadden the player and reduce their status, Exciting a separate enemy that will now do extra damage, on top of already doing double damage to enemies who are Saddened. Now, the game forces you to make a choice: Do you continue to attack and whittle away at an enemy team that outnumbers you so they less have the opportunity to attack, or do you go on the defensive and clear your debuffs, but leave yourself open to being mobbed by minions?
The element of “choice” is the foundation of the game, and tough choices are what Renowned Explorers excels at most. Even before battles begin, players must choose from a roster of potential explorers, some who compliment each other's emotions and abilities well, others who would lead to disaster. Then, once the adventure starts, players must choose which nodes to visit. Each node uses up a very limited stack of rations, far less than there are places to visit, yet players must explore as much as possible to reach the renown required to win the game. Exploring without rations inflicts devastating debuffs on the whole team, but those debuffs may be a necessary evil to ensuring success at the end of the game.
Faithful to the style of the choose-your-story genre, enemies are just one of the many dangers players will face. There are traps, angry villagers, even in-fighting among your teammates. Resolving these problems will require the careful planning and distribution of Attributes such as Survivalism, Diplomacy, and Fitness, that will be taken into account when it's time to roll the dice on your future. Success means walking away with a cache of invaluable resources, but failure can end the adventure before it even begins.
Despite the overwhelming amount of decisions a player has to make and the deep investment in their team necessary for success, each playthrough is relatively short. From start to completion of the final expedition, a game might only last an hour, give or take. The short sessions of gameplay compliment the difficulty of the game well, as newer players will most certainly fail more often than they succeed. That, however, is an anticipated part of the journey. Each time you fail, you restart wiser to the ramifications of your decisions and various explorer synergies. There's a separate “Discovery” mode for players wishing a slightly less frustrating session that quickens progress, allows saves whenever one likes, and lets players restart failed battles. While the overall challenge level remains the same, this mode is far more forgiving than the primary “Adventure” mode, where failure removes the session from the game entirely without second chances.
While not necessarily a major strike against the game, the lack of strong voice acting hinders what could otherwise be a thoroughly engrossing, story-driven series of adventures. Grunts, groans, and laughter are sprinkled throughout combat, but the gameplay is otherwise a relatively silent affair. The characters themselves rarely lend their voice to the writing, their actions and emotions driving the written story instead. With the narrative vibe being so strong and such an essential component of player investment, an actual narrator would have given more life to the storytelling.
Missed narrative opportunities aside, Renowned Explorers is a welcomed departure from the typical single-player experience. Already randomized content continues to grow with each passing update and expansion, including More To Explore, modifying the original game to include The Andean Adventure and The Lost Island as two completely new maps to explore, the latter a new end-game alternative to Shangri-La. The Andean Adventure is especially exciting for players who prefer to fight deviously, taking place in the Andes where wild animals and overzealous denizens can spell disaster without careful planning. The Lost Island on the other hand, will test your skills regardless of our chosen attitude and team makeup. Ripe with Research nodes, the new 6-Star difficulty environment is born of "anti-explorer" sentiment in the pacific. Battles are abound, complete with powerful new enemies and a huge map to explore that will test management of player rations. Hint: When in doubt, smile.
The DLC also deepens the player's bond with the full cast of potential explorers through a new Campfire system, accessed once per map, where cards can be played that can increase resources or allow one crew member to teach another a new trait. As games are completed, points are earned towards booster packs that unlock powerful new cards, some of which will open up new stories that flesh out the characters and go into their pasts in detail, strengthening that specific explorer for the rest of their journey with new abilities that diversify their potential strategies. Finally, treasures have been upgraded to fit better into developing player strategies. Previously, all treasures came with a static bonus that might have proven useless depending on the direction of the game session. Now, all treasures come with four potential abilities, giving players the chance to choose an effect that most benefits their strategy. As an added bonus, resident voice of reason Pinkerton offers a suggestion for one of the four options, based on what the game feels might be the best choice for that session.
Renowned Explorers: International Society was already one of the better indie ventures in recent memory, and continued support from developer Abbey Games promises an even brighter future for an already shining example of indie fun.
Renowned Explorers: International Society (including the More To Explore DLC) was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.
Challenging but rewarding, a mix of role-play and exploration with a fun cast of characters and unique combat mechanics.