Just as I'm about to nod off, a heated argument erupts around the campfire. Not to worry, I think, as I ignore them and close my eyes. Should have worried. The next morning I awake to find one of the arguers rocking back and forth in a stupor, having just cannibalised the other. Okay. Let's, um, march on, shall we? A few days later, an ally morphs into a flesh-eating ghoul. Another slips on a rock and cracks their head, losing the knowledge of vital skills. One fella just leaves. All this, just to acquire an orchid.
The Curious Expedition 2 is, at its heart, a machine for making rip-roaring adventure stories about heroic exploration and/or colonial plundering, depending on how generous you want to be to developers Maschinen-Mensch. It creates some fun narratives, like the one above. But it’s also a roguelike, and it really makes you bleed for them. If I’m honest, I wish it was a little more forgiving.
It's 1889 (in the game), and the Paris World's Fair is about to begin. All the explorers’ societies are clamouring to exhibit the shiniest, rarest treasures, and they’re funding folks like you to head to distant islands and acquire them.
Yes, for a start, there's potentially a lot in that premise yikes-wise. To be totally frank, before I get into how it plays, all the plundering involved left me feeling quite uncomfortable. There’s no way round the fact that CE2 is reductionist in the way it presents indigenous cultures: tribes are lumped into tropey categories with predictable behaviours and little nuance. You use them as a tool, and their home as a resource, with which to pursue your goal. That goal being, more often than not, to pilfer what's rightfully theirs. The tribes depicted in the game aren’t real-world ones, but still. Honestly, it may be worth steering clear of this one, if that general territory doesn't sit right with you.
But with that underlined, here is the game. Your curious expedition begins as soon as you've picked an explorer. I opted for an anthropologist, as I preferred the idea of worming my way through situations with the gift of the gab. Then it's off to the bar, not only to sink a pint, but to recruit another ally. The Roma Trader caught my eye as a companion, because I figured her trade experience would complement my smooth-talking anthropologist’s hunger for non-violent solutions.
With your ragtag crew in tow, the next step is to pick a sponsor to fund your trip: Lux Labs, Taishi Academy, or Royal Avalon Society (Robots, Airbenders, and Tea drinkers). Okay, sure, they'll strip you of everything you've earned after a successful trip. But they've got a solid reward scheme to make up for it. Discover ancient ruins, learn more about local tribes, or return with a honking big treasure, and you'll be compensated with perks that persist between runs.
Then it's time to expedite, curiously.
As soon as you drop anchor, the perspective switches to a top-down affair. The aim of the game here is simple - find the treasure. Each map is split into tiles, and at first, they’re all shrouded in shadow. Point and click on them however, and you'll gradually explore your way through the lot. And once you’ve tracked down Mezzleguffin's Eyeball? Great. Back to Paris to hoover up your rewards, before you set sail once again.
At least, this is the best possible scenario. Often, you'll just die a lot.
The trouble is, each tile travelled through reduces your ‘Sanity’, and if this hits zero, hoo boy. It's a clever application of a well-worn concept, forcing you to plan ahead and avoid any unnecessary backtracking. Kind of like a real expedition, I suppose. But then, there’s a brutal amount of chance misfortune thrown in on top.
Some decisions come back to haunt you. Remember the character I picked at the start? He really was fantastic when having a natter; he wasn’t so good when being attacked by a large wolf. Should have gone with the soldier, I suppose?.
Oh, and that Roma Trader? Yeah, she wasn't getting along too well with another one of my party members, so I ended up dismissing her, in case disaster was brewing. Later down the line, I found her tied to a post in a village, and, erm, pretended not to notice her. Again, wrong choice: as I wandered off, a notification popped up: she'd broken free and was now seeking revenge. She got revenge. Ah.
And while all this random misfortune is happening, remember, Sanity is diminishing. If it evaporates altogether, you'll encounter an "Insanity Event". Or rather, "an endless barrage of suffering that there's basically no coming back from". Unless you get super lucky and find somewhere to rest up and recover, these insanity events are run-enders.
Yes, all of this hammers home the point that these journeys are meant to be difficult, that the odds are stacked against you the moment you drop anchor. And indeed, this elevates the good to the triumphant, giving you a genuine rush of exuberance when things go well. But, conversely, it applies a lot of stress to minor blips, when you know how frequently they can spiral into total, frustrating disaster.
Again, I stress: I get that this is a roguelike. It's meant to be hard, and partly dependent on chance. And yes, sometimes, the difficulty is part of the thrill. Case in point: for the real butt-clencher decisions, you roll dice. The jubilation of striking lucky on a roll is unparalleled here, as it can save your expedition from the brink of collapse. Combat, too, is tied to dice rolls, giving it the same thrill, even though it's pretty standard turn-based stuff.
The thing is, for all the adrenaline involved in playing the odds, I found the low-risk, low-reward stuff in the game to be far more engaging. For me, the really memorable adventures were the ones involving campfire chats, hefty bribes, and carefully navigated conversations with lizard people which allowed me to recruit a giant turtle to my party.
These bits reminded me of those in-between stages in Hades or Slay The Spire, which don't necessarily involve combat, but have you meet a shady new character instead, and make decisions that ripple through the rest of your run.
And these excellent moments would be equally fun, I’d argue, without quite so much punishment. Indeed, perhaps more fun, as the punishment drastically slows down the process of getting to them.
And as I've previously mentioned, it's difficult to just overlook CE2's portrayal of human cultures less technologically advanced than our own. No matter how you play, you’re finding ways to exploit them to get what you want and take it home.
When it’s doing what it does best, The Curious Expedition 2 really shines. If I could strip at least some of the roguelike out of it, along with some of the enthusiastic colonialism, I’d be enchanted. But I can’t. Instead, I’ll say there’s a fun game here, if you're prepared to knuckle down and learn from past mistakes. And, I suppose, if you pretend that all the treasure you plunder gets flown back off-camera, after each successful run.