Wot I Think: The Curious Expedition

The Curious Expedition [official site] is a turn-based game of exploration and exploitation in which you control one of several historical characters, wandering the world in search of fame and fortune. After a long trek through the wildlands of Early Access, it has emerged as a complete game today. But does it belong in a museum or should it have been left to rot in the ground? Here’s wot I think.

A hundred days into what was to be our last journey together, everything went horribly wrong. We’d lost companions before – to fever, to hunger, to aggressive wildlife – but this was different. Seizing some sacred treasure from a shrine we unleashed what can best be described as The End Times. We’d triggered localised unpleasantries before, including firestorms, floods and the replacement of entire vibrant ecoystems with life-sapping desert, but never anything like this. It was a void, consuming the world itself and leaving nothing in its wake.

We hopped into our hot air balloon, headed back to London and didn’t mention the incident to anyone at the explorer’s club. Let us pray that the awful nothingness that spilled out of that shrine is not growing still and that it will never reach these shores.

The Curious Expedition is a game about trekking across procedurally generated maps, searching for treasure and leaving a trail of destruction wherever you go. Sure, it’s possible to tread softly and treat those you meet with respect, but the game really shines when you’re skipping from one catastrophe to the next with a mule-load of treasure in tow.

I love it. If you remember Strange Adventures in Infinite Space fondly, it scratches a similar urge. It’s a coffeebreak game, and I mean that as a very strong compliment. You can play through an expedition in a few minutes, though you could also spend much longer agonising over decisions and trying to make the best of every bad situation. With its emergent narratives and threats, it has something in common with Spelunky and the old Escape From Atlantis boardgame as well as some recent roguelites. I’m not going to tell you about everything that there is to find because expeditions are all about discovery after all, so keep that in mind as you read. There is more to the game than jungles and shrines.

A full playthrough comprises six expeditions, usually increasing in difficulty from one to the next though you do have a choice of locations (randomly selected) and can attempt to stick to better-trodden paths. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you uncover the map by exploring. Time waits for you as you plan your next move, and you can always see exactly how much Sanity a particular journey will cost.

Sanity is your main resource, which is a little odd, almost seeming like a leftover touch of thematic flavour from a time when the game focused more on the horror of the unknown. There are still dark corners of the Earth (and possibly beyond) to risk your life and emotional wellbeing in, but The Curious Expedition is more King Solomon’s Mines than Mountains of Madness. At least for the most part. Lovecraft is a featured character after all.

Let’s get back to resource management and movement though. Sanity is the only resource you’ll need to keep an eye on, though the amount that is spent for each terrain tile is dependent to an extent on the equipment that you have. Machetes allow you to cut through thick jungle, decreasing travel time and therefore decreasing sanity expenditure. Use of items in that fashion is automatic and that’s typical of the excellent interface – this is a game that allows you to focus on doing interesting things rather than forcing you to figure out how those things are done.

And so you wander, fairly directionless at first, perhaps sticking to easy terrain, or maybe trying to reach the question marks that appear on the fringes of the areas you’re covering. These could be anything from abandoned camps to native villages, all of which lead to short text-based encounters. Villages are among the most interesting places because the reception your party meets depends on their reputation in the area, which can rise or fall depending on your actions across the entire map. Plunder shrines and other sacred places, and you might find yourself in hot water.

If your reputation really hits the rocks, bands of warriors will travel across the map trying to hunt you down. There are also animals in most regions and the way these encounters work is clever. Every group of creatures or people has a red radius, within which there’s a percentage chance that they’ll become aggressive and attack you. If that happens, they attack first in dice-base combat (weapons and characters have their own set of dice and you’re trying to make combinations to defend and attack – it’s simple but effective). While in that radius you can strike first though, giving up the chance to pass by without confrontation, and putting in the first blow instead.

As you explore, the compass at the top-left of the screen zeroes in on the location of the Golden Pyramid, which is the end-goal in each location. Find that and you can scarper home with all of your treasures in tow. Fail to find it before sanity and restoratives runs thin and you can escape by balloon, but you’ll have to leave most of your treasure behind. And that’s important because expeditions are competitions.

While you’ll never encounter them out in the field, there are computer-controlled adventurers seeking treasure of their own. Essentially, they’re scores to compete against, their total fame ranked against yours at the close of each expedition. There’s a neat choice whereby the pelts and treasures you bring home can be traded for either cash or fame when you return to London. Should you rush ahead on the fame leaderboard by donating an idol to the museum, or would it be more sensible to flog the blasted thing so that you can buy guns and whiskey for the next trip?

Risk and reward. That’s the heart of so many games and it’s front and centre in The Curious Expedition, and nowhere is it more obvious than in those shrines. The ones I mentioned at the beginning of this review, that can lead to a yawning void swallowing the world. They’re the most dramatic way in which the emergent qualities of the environment are exposed, with fires that spread based on terrain type, floods that create inland lakes or connect back to the sea, and a few other tricks and traps besides.

Many of those things can happen independent of shrines, particularly if you have a pyromaniac in your crew. I haven’t even gone into the character traits of your companions yet. They can get a taste for drink, become superstitious or claustrophobic, and have actual useful skills. Some of these are handier than others and the levelling system is somewhat undercooked – particularly when it comes to actual cooks – but I did get attached to a few of my followers, and felt particularly bad when they took their own lives or ended up cannibalised.

This is a fantastic game for generating anecdotes, as I found when I first played it way back when, but it’s also an enjoyable challenge. I already want expansions because discovering something new on an expedition is exciting and that doesn’t happen enough after a few playthroughs (on the subject of possible expansions, I’m glad that there are already fantastical elements in play because it makes anything seem possible).

Thankfully, I find the core loop attractive enough that I’m not playing just for the novelty of new encounters. The dynamic changes to terrain are impressive and highlight how exquisitely detailed the world is, and even when I reach the sixth expedition and end up cursing the impossible list of tasks I need to complete in order to unlock the pyramid, I find it hard not to start all over again as soon as I’m done.

The Curious Expedition is out now for Windows, Mac and Linux.

From this site

19 Comments

  1. ButteringSundays says:

    This is clearly a very different game to Renowned Explorers, but at the same time it seems to have a lot in common.

    Could anyone that’s played both talk a bit about how they differ, where their strengths lie etc? I can’t resist craving a comparison.

    I only picked up Renowned Explorers recently, but am having a fantastic time with it – a really brilliant game. This also looks like something I’d enjoy!

    • Asokn says:

      I’ve played much more of Renowned Explorers than Curious Expedition but I’ve found the latter much more reptitious. In RE you do play the same levels in most runs but there are loads of branching paths through each but in CE my experience has been to follow the compass to the temple and end the expedition, I’ve not had many interesting stories emerge.

  2. TheDandyGiraffe says:

    I’ve been playing Curious Expedition on a regular basis since the first Early Access version and I’ve only completed one full playthrough of Renowned Explorers; so although I’ve technically played them both (and I’ve enjoyed Renowned Explorers quite a lot), I’m probably a little biased.

    Anyway, first of all, Curious Expedition seems harder and less forgiving – it somehow manages to resemble a turn-based RPG and an arcade game at the same time. It’s clearly supposed to give you a hard time for the first 10 times or so, you’re supposed to progress a little further every time you play, etc. In Renowned Explorers, the learning curve seems much less steep. Thematically speaking, Curious Expedition is significantly darker (although still not very dark).

    In Curious Expedition you spend much less time managing your resources – one thing I didn’t like about Renowned Explorers was the micronamaging of various resources in between the missions (giving lectures, hiring staff, etc.). Also, the combat is much simpler. It’s not exactly simplified, just more streamlined; it’s basically a minigame, but one where a lot depends on the choices you make during the “proper” part of the expedition.

    On the other hand, I think there are more hidden options in Curious Expedition – there’s quite a few new gameplay elements you can still discover even after 2 or 3 playthroughs (so here I disagree with Adam).

    Oh, and one thing worth adding – those two games have a completely different approach to the idea of a non-violent run. In Renowned Explorers, you basically have a set of “diplomatic” options during the combat sequence; in Curious Expedition it is genuinely possible (although quite hard) to get through the game without initiating combat. And it doesn’t feel like you’re missing out either – the game gives you enough interesting stealth-like options so you don’t feel like you’re just playing a “lite” version of the game proper.

    Right, sorry for such a long post, I just thing that Curious Expedition is one of the best indie things on Steam right now – and if you like the Verne-Lovecraft combination, you are really in for a treat.

    • TheDandyGiraffe says:

      Sorry, this was supposed to be a reply to ButteringSundays – I must have clicked the wrong button or something.

      • slerbal says:

        Thank you for that. That was a really useful post – I’m someone else who just picked up Renowned Explorers and am also very curious about The Curious Expedition. Sounds like ultimately I’d like to have both. Now if only I could peel myself away from RimWorld… :)

    • ButteringSundays says:

      No apology required – exactly what I was after, thanks! Added to the wish list and I look forward to giving it a go! I do think I enjoy the (optionally) forgiving nature of RE, but in the roguelike world that’s very much down to taste! Importantly it sounds like they provide very different experiences so it’s never going to be an either/or situation.

  3. GunnerMcCaffrey says:

    I’m… curious… Is the italicized intro after the break a bit of flavour text from the game, or something you wrote, Adam?

    • Stugle says:

      It would be nice if Adam… expeditiously… answered your question.

      • shde2e says:

        I would say that that question is worth exploring. It seems like a little jewel of literature, from someone who love crafting such stories. If the whole game is made by such renowned developers, then this game is surely idol-isable.

        Although perhaps we should not dig too deep and greedily, and let the sleeping authors lie entombed in their studio’s.

  4. Yukiomo says:

    Does the game try to engage with the colonialism/orientalism themes implicit in its topic at all? (I do not think it should be forced to do so by any means, but it would be interesting if it did.)

    Is there any continuity of the tribes you encounter between expeditions?

    • batraz says:

      I’m pretty sure it says colonialism and orientalism are bad. Interesting, uh ?

      • GeoX says:

        Does it? I haven’t played much yet, but it seems to me it doesn’t really engage with these concepts at all. The only time they come into play is when you’re looting native artifacts; doing this makes things harder on you, but it rewards you if you’re able to survive. I don’t think there’s any ultimate prize for cultural sensitivity. Not that I don’t enjoy the game, in that H Rider Haggard way, but it’s undeniably Problematic in some ways.

        • klops says:

          That’s how I also saw it when playing the beta (?) during free weekend(s?). I don’t see why it would’ve changed.

          Yukiomo’s original question was also about continuity between tribes. You travel around the world so there is no continuity with a tribe from, let’s say Africa and South America, if I understood your meaning.

        • Joshua Northey says:

          You are right that it does not engage with those concepts a ton, but why would it. That would be badly out of theme as those concepts were not around at the time. Similarly why would it reward you for cultural sensitivity? I mean it some sense it does in that having good relations with the natives can be quite helpful at times, but why specific separate rewards?

          What is next war games where you are rewarded for non-violent demonstrations that lead the extermination of your side?

          Treating things as they are/were is only problematic if you are really small minded.

          It does not appear to take a particularly insensitive attitude towards the material.

    • TheDandyGiraffe says:

      It does and it doesn’t. I mean, if you’re looking for a specific message or an explicit commentary/caveat of any sort, you won’t find it. And it’s not like the game will give you negative perks for behaving like an imperialist asshole. But Curious Expedition is pretty clever in giving you some subtle ethical feedback – so if you engage in various kind of abusive/colonial/imperialist behaviour (stealing things, disrespecting sacred places, hunting animals, blowing up the mountains etc.) you will get a pretty clear message that you’re no longer welcome there. The most obvious and common consequence of such actions is that at some point the local tribes start being really aggressive towards you – not aggressive as in “we won’t trade with you”, but properly will-chase-you-and-hunt-you-down aggressive. Adding to the fact that they usually behave quite friendly at the beginning of every expedition (and you often have to rely on the shelter and trade opportunities they provide), it actually sends quite a powerful message through the gameplay mechanics alone.

      So, if you’re looking for a deep or explicit social commentary, nope, it’s not there. And the whole game builds on an ethically ambiguous fascination with the “brave” explorers from the West, charting “wild” lands, collecting treasures and generally behaving like assholes blinded by the prospect of fame and profit. But as long as you don’t expect your game to explicitly condemn you when you behave “badly”, then this kind of a gameplay-mediated feedback is still there.

      • Joshua Northey says:

        TO be fair a lot of the lands really were very wild compared to Europe. There is this desire to revise everything that often bleeds into the absurd.

        I was recently listening to this Mayan researcher ramble on about how “you shouldn’t think just because the Europeans had guns, and long distance navigation and large ships, and the wheel, et cetera that they had more advanced technology than the Mayans. This leads to some odd looks and raised eyebrows, to which his response was: “thinking like that will lead you down to the traditional narratives and modes of thinking about cultural hegemony and Social Darwinism that are obvious wrong.”

        A: Rewriting the facts because they are conflicting with our ethical beliefs is never right.

        B: Why on earth would you think an acknowledgment of differentiating levels of cultural advancement surely necessitates a late 19th century view of cultural hegemony/imperialism.

        For ethically sophisticated people it should easily be possible to hold both the belief that the Europeans were much more advanced than the Mayans, and that that doesn’t mean it was ethically right to subjugate them.

        There are whole separate arguments about consequentialism and self determination vs benign paternalism you could have, but that is neither here nor there.

        No one is bending over backwards to pretend Sumer or Ancient Egypt had technology as good as Europe in the 1400s (despite those being analogous civilizations to the Maya). This is due to their not being this political baggage about past misdeeds. But you really don’t want to let that baggage start to impact you evaluation and understanding of the actual facts of the historical record, which is clearly happening in some sectors of academia and is frankly quite disturbing.

  5. Raoul Duke says:

    Does this by any chance support controllers?

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      It doesn’t say anything about it on the Steam page, so I guess it does not :(

    • Joshua Northey says:

      It easily could, there is almost nothing as fars as controls other than the mouse.