In Victorian London, just around the corner from the legendary Reform Club, on the Southern side of Pall Mall, lies the headquarters of an international society, the Renowned Explorers, where the rejected of the lesser aristocracy, the not-so-distinguished academic, and the occasional inquisitive brawler can still apply for membership. Teams are formed here, plans laid out, and supplies procured before launching expeditions to Transylvanian forests, Egyptian deserts, or Caribbean islands, all in search of as many artifacts as possible in order to earn the title of Most Renowned. Part of Renowned Explorers: International Society’s gameplay takes place in that base where, not only do you organize your team’s next outing, but also take advantage of the spoils from the previous one. There are profitable lectures to be arranged for Paris, Berlin, and other European capitals. You can perform research to unlock improvements or purchase equipment to boost your characters’ statistics. And you can use your newly gained status to attract an entourage of helpers and specialists to assist you with future adventures.
Preparations complete, the view changes to an overhead one of your destination, mostly shrouded except from your point of arrival and that of your final target. The two are linked by a gradually revealed weave of intermediate stops, most of which feature either a shorter random encounter or a longer, scripted one in a manner reminiscent of the excellent FTL: Faster Than Light. Should one of these chance meetings turn sour, the camera zooms in and you take control of each character individually, in traditional turn-based style. Much has been made of Renowned Explorers’s core mechanic, which presumably allows you to resolve battles amicably. This is utter hogwash: Just because a Fireball has been labeled Inspire and its victim now loses Spirit and wears a smile instead of hit points and a scowl doesn’t mean the cogs underneath are radically different to those running, say, the original Dragon Quest three decades ago.
The premise and its presentation, along with a generous difficulty curve, ultimately, if barely, saves the game.
The problem with Renowned Explorers isn’t so much its lack of innovation, though one can still locate its main issues in that convoluted, counterintuitive central mechanic. There are three main approaches (Attitudes) one can adopt for each battle by using their respective attack options: Aggressive, Devious, and Friendly. So far, so straightforward. Your crew’s Attitude, however, combines with your opponents’ to create a grid of nine possible Moods like Persuasive (Friendly vs. Devious), or Provocative (Devious vs. Aggressive), each of which activates a different modifier for the battle. Moreover, some of these effects seem to be completely arbitrary: A Tyrannizing mood results in a -25 Speech Defense for your party? Ah, of course—must be because it activates the Arrogance debuff according to the reference chart! Abbey Games have brought a screwdriver, a spatula, and a turquoise piece of Lego to a rock-paper-scissors fight and, rather unsurprisingly, failed to improve on the formula.
Nevertheless, the premise and its presentation, along with a somewhat generous difficulty curve (meaning that you’ll have cause to revisit that chart only for the toughest missions), ultimately, if barely, saves the game. There’s joy conveyed by the game’s vibrant colors and rousing theme, and opening a chest to uncover the gleaming artifact inside always comes with a Kinder-Egg sort of anticipation that persists even at the hundredth playthrough. The locations to be explored are regrettably few, but the randomly generated maps provide plenty of replay value, especially with some of the more elaborate, scripted encounters. These are more than simple opportunities for extra loot, unfolding into longer subplots over several moves, introducing secondary characters and often requiring particular assortments of skills and classes to successfully see through, much like Sunless Sea’s brilliant sidequests.
Fun as it is, Renowned Explorers might have even turned out great had the developers decided to spend more time on designing more locations for your escapades and ironing out its minor bugs and less on an unnecessarily complicated combat system whose superficial innovations fail to conceal the archaic scaffolding underneath. After all, Friendly Excite to Devious Cultist is still Fireball to Ice Beast by that, or any other name.
Abbey Games’s Renowned Explorers: International Society is available now for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.