Analysis – Expeditions: Rome

Few things fascinate me as much as an RPG that makes me have feelings that go from “Heavens, why doesn't this end” to hours after I blurt out a “No, wait, please don't end it” . More and more the genre has been less present in my life, given its long hours, dense story and sometimes lacking a good scissor in editing. Expeditions: Rome by Logic Artists (Steam / GOG) and its more than 80h duration would have fallen very well in this category, but the strength it has in holding you is uneven. Well, arrest you and lose you. It's a complicated interaction.

The third game in the franchise – one I've always had a fondness for, for trying to stand out, from Conqueror to Viking – is the safest of the three. After all, Rome may not be a very present theme in RPGs, but it's prominent enough in other types of media that you already have a certain expectation of what it's going to be. That's where Logic Artists comes in with its magic and breaks most of those expectations.

The developer does not hide its little interest in maintaining some degree of authenticity or historical plausibility. The social structure of Rome as a Republic is maintained, but the story itself diverges greatly from the events of Rome's history, being more focused on the player and his companions.

The concept itself is interesting as he is a “power fantasy” of being a Legatus (commander of a Roman legion) at the same time he pulls out that notion of power. This article is not the place to discuss the details of the multiplicity and evolution of the legions of Rome, but the background of his character indicates at the very least that he came from a family with a certain influence in the Senate. So much so that the kick-off of the story is the murder of his father and his escape from Rome.

From there, a legion of Rome is given to you hand in hand (as if it were that easy) and the mission to conquer Asia Minor. Still in that same beat, the game makes a point of reminding you at all times that Rome was not friendly with its neighbors or vassals. It was to arrive at a place and there would come the “Hey there, these Romans pissing me off again”, and me wanting to stick my face in a hole and answer “Yeah, right, sorry for being like that and such” — it got to be funny if not it was tragic.

Expeditions: Rome
The game's regions are incredibly detailed, but don't expect the inhabitants to be appreciative of the presence of a Roman legion.

It is in this bridge between power and the absence of it that Expeditions: Rome manages to find its narrative line and also extract its main mechanics. In them you also see this concept of “inverted fantasy”, but from both a personal and an impersonal point of view.

As explored in other games in the Expedition franchise, territorial conquest is one of the foundations to push the story forward. The region where each chapter of the story takes place is divided into sectors that must be conquered in order to advance. The system itself goes a little beyond what Expeditions: Vikings did, but it still ends up generating a little (or a lot depending on the difficulty level) of boredom.

In short, you choose the legion, send it to certain locations (cities or forts), start a battle that is closer to a minigame than a strategic battle itself, and see the results pop up on your screen. After that you still have to go through a quest or pacification mission. The latter are tactical battles — which I'll talk more about soon — or in some cases just another minigame of moving legions to a point and waiting for time to pass.

At those times I just wanted to say “Ok, can we integrate this part with Total War: Rome 2”?. I've been a longtime fan of strategy games, so this aspect created a strong disconnect with what Expeditions: Rome was about: it was too impersonal. There were rarely any risks, other than my troops' numbers decreasing or increasing according to the battle. But every time that was about to come crashing down and take away my desire to play Expeditions: Rome, Logic Artists played the card up their sleeve that pulled me back: their characters.

As much as some of them do not escape the stereotype of their typical composition of a group of “Dungeons & Dragons”, such as the “barbarian” who wants to solve everything in the fight, the rogue who seeks a more stealthy approach, the warrior who is there your side for any and all battles (all adapted for the Roman-themed equivalents of these classes of course) — they serve as an immense foundation, being your only friends throughout multiple campaigns.

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Because deep down, I've always felt alone throughout RPG history. I earned the title of Legato because of my father's position in Roman politics, the achievements I had were not necessarily the result of my efforts but a set of factors, many of them rooted in the privilege of being a citizen of Rome – since a history about Rome can rarely be told without a privileged point of view due to the structure of its society at the time. Every battle and every triumph was only more important to me when my companions were safe and sound.

Expeditions: Rome
You will spend a good deal of time on the “strategy map”, and believe me, it is big. In certain moments, as in Africa, even too much.

Halfway through Expeditions: Rome, I was more concerned with ensuring their happiness than more territorial conquest for Rome. I feel surprised by this interaction, as I feel a deep disinterest towards the characters of an RPG, either by the way they are inserted or imposed on me in the story, or by my interest in focusing more on my story.

Yet there they were, increasingly occupying a larger space in my heart, collaborating with the general narrative that occurs between chapters and making them more engaging. I would return from some impactful event thirsty to find out the opinion of my companions. I think I grew emotionally in the game as much as they did.

I'm even relieved to have them as a foundation for my actions, as Expeditions: Rome has a competent degree of choice and consequence that knows when to catch you off guard. At one point in the game, during the conquest of Africa, I made a decision hastily and without thinking about the impact it would have throughout the game. It was late at night and I just wanted to “finish” that section of the game – perhaps one of the longest and most tortuous. As soon as I noticed what I had done I felt bad, terrible. It was a stupid decision, and even as I'm writing this piece, I still feel guilty about it. If that's not the hallmark of a good RPG, I don't know what is.

But it's not just about “grand” battles that look like mini games and characters that Expeditions: Rome is loaded with. A big part of it is tied to its tactical combat, which can be equally fantastic and frustrating.

In the tradition of the Expeditions series, you can be sure Rome won't hold your hand and tell you what to do every minute. Pay attention to the initial tutorials and see how to shape your team so you don't end up penalized in the rest of the plot. It's a concept that I find really interesting because, at first glance, it's relatively simple — three base classes with three subclasses — but the mix that you can – and should – do so that the basic elements talk to each other is fantastic.

Expeditions: Rome
Large-scale battles are nothing more than a mini-game that gets tiring over time.

Every class and subclass is viable in one way or another, and combat requires double or triple attention than other games in the Expeditions franchise. Much of this is tied to the fantastic AI improvement Logic Artists has achieved with Rome. No more of this story of your opponents being isolated or isolated. They don't hesitate to use special abilities, heal themselves (which some might see as a downside), or negate a zone of control from you with fire or clouds of poison, which forces you to bend over backwards to find a viable path.

One of Expeditions: Rome's best examples of combat in action is siege battles. Separated into stages, you need to use every tool at your disposal to overcome them. Some steps involve taking out a bridge with a turn limit or holding the rear while your troops advance. Crucial choices were made each turn, such as using the Veles class to eliminate weaker enemies — restoring action points — to deal high damage to stronger enemies. In the midst of this, my archers were shooting arrows that caused poisoning, and my front line, made up primarily of soldiers with shields, tried to isolate enemies with Greek fire or laying traps to make them bleed. It's a fantastic system and, perhaps, one of the biggest advances of Expeditions: Rome in comparison to the previous ones.

The biggest problem with the system is not necessarily related to it, but to the longevity of Expeditions: Rome. It's a long RPG, too long for certain systems to survive the 80+ hour march of gameplay. The tactical system starts very well in the first act, as there is always a new concept to explore. As soon as the second act starts in Africa, it slows down so absurdly that the urge is to crawl to see the end of the act – this being one of the reasons that generated my stupid decision mentioned earlier.

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Only in Gaul, the third act of the game, does this part find its rhythm — you have access to more “unique” weapons and more interesting situations than random encounters around the map or battles with more strategically peculiar objectives. But even when the pace returns to what you expected, you still have to deal with some questionable design decisions.

One of the “stains” of this impersonality that Expeditions: Rome carries is seen in its system of legionaries and centurions. This is like a “secondary team” that takes part in pacification missions and leads your troops during battles. What actually happens is that you have 10 more characters that you have to "take care of", and that don't contribute anything to the narrative. When I say take care this includes: choosing the type of equipment, assigning abilities, defining what kind of subclass they will follow. The system had already appeared on a smaller scale in Expeditions: Vikings, but the attempt to make it more prominent for the player in Rome backfires.

Expeditions: Rome
On the other hand, Expeditions: Rome doesn't hesitate to put you in tense situations when it comes to tactical battles.

For example, a region pacification mission might be a tactical battle. In it, instead of taking your companions into battle, you must designate only one companion, and the rest will be made up of legionnaires whose name you've forgotten hours ago. Now, do you think I cared whether so-and-so died? Of course not; my concern was for my companion. If the enemy set fire to the legionaries, poisoned them, filled them with arrows, I didn't even care. Did my companion make it out alive? Excellent.

A part of me believes that Logic Artists wanted to explore the theme of the impersonality of war through this legionnaire system, but all they managed to do was create something banal and often irritating.

To make matters worse, the game uses one of the worst crafting and equipment systems I've seen in an RPG in recent memory. There is no way to separate the different weapons by category and each of them has specific abilities that are assigned to them when you craft them in your camp or when you find them on the battlefield. Now think about the work it is to keep all of your companions with the correct weapons (which for some bizarre reason are removed in certain scenes, forcing you to rearrange everything), your team of legionaries, and knowing which of the five “Gladius IIIs” in the your inventory is the one with the skill mix that matches your tactics.

My greatest luck in this regard was being a somewhat curious person and scouring every corner of the map to find “legendary” weapons with special attributes. They carried most of my team through the rest of the campaign. Had I not done so, I believe that Expeditions: Rome's hours of play would have been doubled or even tripled. Yes, that's the time you spend crafting items in your camp – which takes time – and adjusting for your team composition.

Would Expeditions: Rome be a better game if this system were cut or its duration reduced? In parts yes, but a better game doesn't mean a more interesting game. While I criticize how it gets “lost” in the Africa section, shortening it would mean making its biggest twists have less impact. Would increasing the amount of side quests make some elements less boring? Yes, but it would also divide my attention even more and even make me ignore certain flaws in the game.

In the end, Expeditions: Rome would be nothing without my fantastic companions who followed me through the 80+ hour journey.

And it's okay for a game to have its ups and downs – and Expeditions: Rome has very low lows as much as it has very high highs. It can last its 80 hours there and not always maintain the quality, but if it wasn't for those 80 hours, would I have connected like I connected with the characters? Would I be so intrigued by the central narrative and the secondary narratives that were presented to me? I'm the last person to say this, but sometimes an RPG needs time to flourish. Expeditions: Rome isn't afraid to take that time, even though I don't agree with many of his decisions and believe that some equipment interface improvements are more than necessary.

“Please don't end” ; it's a phrase I reserve for RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Pathfinder, Baldur's Gate and so many other classics; It's not one I expected to talk about with Expeditions: Rome.

But it is from this complicated interaction — personal and impersonal, of privilege and fantasy of power and the usurpation of the same — that Expeditions: Rome manages to carve its identity. He holds your hand and says “the journey will not always be pleasant, but it will be worth it” . Expeditions: Rome makes it worth it, even when he stumbles badly along the way.

Total – 9


Expeditions: Rome takes what can be read as a “safe theme” and explores it in different ways, creating interrelationships about personal and impersonal aspects, fantasy of power and privilege. It's not always consistent or hits the target in terms of mechanics, but it's still an excellent RPG and another big step in Logic Artists' maturation as a developer.

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