There's a point, early in Expeditions: Viking where your delicate and helpless older brother, who just wasn't "Viking" enough to lead the clan as its "thegn" and left the job to your character, laments his weakness. He's had a tough week: his dad just died, his sibling took over a fractured and weakened clan, and now raiders just started looting his mom's house while he just stood there watching it happen.
My character tried to give him the old "there's plenty of things you're good at, and look how sweet you are" pep talk that typically falls to parents after bad Little League outings. But my character also chose that moment explain that big brother's virtues are not suited for leading a Viking clan in the Dark Ages. He's a sensitive compassionate thinker, in a time when people only respect strength and violent prowess. "In a better world," my character said, probably clapping on arm on his brother's shoulder, "You would be thegn."
The problem is that midway through my character's speech, it dawned on me that my character, too, is a sensitive, delicate thinker. In the world my character was describing, where a person's worth is determined more by how well they wield axe and shield, I had chosen a character who could barely heft a knife and who fell over in a stiff breeze. In a game that makes all-to-clear what minimal value your brother's coffee shop acoustic guitar act has in the the Vikings' black metal world, I had staked everything on my ability to talk my way out of an axe-blow.
Viking doesn't reward you for going in that brainy/chatty direction at first. The first thing that happens is your cousin challenges you to a fight for leadership of the clan and you cannot talk your way out of it. Nor can you talk your way out of the fact that he's a heavily-armed and armored bruiser whose approach to the discourse is to get in your face and beat the shit out of you.
In fact, I thought I'd completely ruined character creation when I lost that fight and watched my NPC buddies turn Viking into Fargo-on-the-Fjords, complete with a grisly coverup and pledges to never again discuss what happened within the challenge circle. Furthermore, a whole stack of raiders showed up immediately afterwards and crushed my attempts to defend my clan, despite repeated reloads.
That's when I realized that Viking never asks what difficulty you want and, by default, serves up one onslaught after another. If you turn the difficult down just one tick, however, the game goes from a Norse nightmare to a much more manageable and friendly tactical RPG. You still can't talk your way out of much, but you can at least survive long enough to have your burly pals do some persuasion of their own.
Many battles and conversations later, however, I'm still not sure what kind of game Expedition: Viking is ultimately going to be about. That's partly a function of its extremely long runway into the "main game", whatever that might be. After ten hours I'm still adventuring in my own neighborhood, doing fetch-quests for strangers and trying to find crew for the longship that's under construction in my home village. There's signs of a clan politics and village-management game here, kind of like XCOM meets Thea: The Awakening, but do they feel underdeveloped because they're too simple or because I'm still somehow in the extended tutorial? Are all these "bring me the mossy bark from the Troll Tree" type quests a sign of what's going to be happening throughout the game, or a way to level-up my party in preparation for the real adventures to come?
I keep making choices about who is in my party, what my character can do, and what kind of village I'll rule but I'm still not sure where any of those choices are pointing me. That's a little nerve-wracking in a game that walks somewhere on the border of party-based RPG and strategy game. I'm making choices that will shape the experience to come, but I still don't know what that experience will be. I only know that I hope it's one that goes a little deeper.
Still, there's a lot of charm here. Without really being a story-driven RPG, there is a lot of life given to the relationships between party members and the larger Viking society you're trying to navigate. Old honor grudges abound, but so do powerful customs of friendship and camaraderie.
It feels like a world where reputation and image matter as much if not more than reality. The things that motivate many of the quests, and that drive the morale of your party, are less about material outcomes than what they say about your style of leadership. My character tends to be ruthless and secretive, but if I lean too hard on ambushes and treachery, the bluff, courageous members of my party will become restive while the merciless killers are pleased.
So far, the most conflict-driving issue within my party is slavery. Thralls are a part of the economy in Viking and the game even tells you, straight up, that you probably can't get all your village upgrades without using them to speed up construction. The traditionalist members of my party are cool with the whole practice. But the game is also filled with thralls fleeing their forced serfdom making clear that whatever hand-waving comments you might want to make about the place, time, and culture… there are flesh-and-blood people who would—having considered the matter—rather not be forced labor and are willing to risk their lives to escape it.
What I do like is that Expeditions: Viking does seem to let me be a different sort of Viking. While some members of my party hate the fact that I am always freeing thralls and often slaughtering their captors, a few of them love the decision and support it. I don't have to rampage around the North Sea burning monasteries, but can instead turn my clan into (well-armed) traders and farmers. Maybe, with time, I won't even have to get my hands dirty with so much slaughter. Maybe the time really has come for a sensitive thegn with the gift of gab.