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Hands On: The Curious Expedition

Darwin's Monsters

The Curious Expedition is a breezy, bright and endearing game about small groups of explorers who head into the unknown to seek golden pyramids and other wonders, natural and man-made. There have been comparisons to FTL, which are understandable but not entirely appropriate. While many of the same elements are included - a journey, a 'crew', permadeath, limited resources, randomisation, emergent narrative from minimalist components - but the machine for which those elements are fuel is quite different. Happily, one area in which a direct comparison can be made is quality.

I've been playing the alpha and having a splendid time.

The donkey is my last friend. The donkey is my last meal.

His name is Mr Blake.

In its alpha state, it's perhaps too early to claim that Curious Expedition is destined to enter the procedural pantheon, but it's heading in the right direction, which is more than can be said for many of my doomed explorers. Before digging in, it's also worth noting here that if the newly-available alpha were released as a complete game, it'd be a bloody good one.

This isn't a case of showing the skeleton before the flesh and organs have been added - Curious Expedition has plenty of content and is already hugely replayable. From start to finish, a string of expeditions might not last more than an hour, but I'm rarely able to peel myself away when I fail. I start again. As much as any other game this year, this alternately delightful and daunting strategic game of choice and consequence has kept me at the computer long after a day's work is done.

The best way to explain is to tell a story, but I'll explain the basics first.

Each expedition takes place on a randomised map, containing several regions that are made up of jungles, mountains, drylands, grasslands, lakes, rivers, swamps and other bits and pieces. Your task is to find the Golden Pyramid, hidden somewhere out in the undiscovered territory. To do this, you'll need to explore so that your compass can point you in the right direction.

When an expedition begins, you'll know the location of a single native village and the area immediately around your party. The needle of your compass is swinging wildly, indicating that you have no idea which way to go if you're ever to find the pyramid. As you travel into the fog of war mystery, the world reveals itself. There might be an impassable mountain range or a thick jungle that blocks line of sight. There might be an enormous lake, barring passage, or an apparently forgotten temple.

Every new tile that you uncover adds to you knowledge of the region and the more you learn, the more accurate your compass becomes. Eventually, it will point directly toward the pyramid but until then, you'll be covering as much ground as possible, systematically reducing possibilities. It's a bit like Minesweeper, if Minesweeper were full of moments that make you go 'cor' and 'cripes' instead of tiny flags with numbers on them.

The whole time you're searching for the pyramid, y'see, you have to keep your party healthy and sane. Travelling saps sanity and while various items restore it, you have limited carrying capacity and you'll need some of the space for the tools of your trade. Dynamite to clear a path through mountains, for example, or flares to light up distant areas, either uncoverinh some great mystery or cutting down on needless trekking.

Rather than throwing a heap of stats at you, Curious Expedition contents itself with two. The aforementioned sanity, which drip drip drips away, and a measure of your 'Standing' with the locals. Villages are the main point of contact and resting at one for the night gives sanity a big boost, but it also reduces your reputation. You're like the couchsurfing stoner friend who stops by for a drink and stays for an entire weekend. Except you're also trying to pilfer everything precious in the area and rummage through all of the holy places. They shouldn't even give you the time of day.

But they do, for a while. Having certain companions increases goodwill. Allies come in various flavours - there are Scottish soldiers who regain more sanity than anyone else from a drab of whiskey - but they all bring a benefit to the party. The leader of the group is a historical figure, with loads to unlock as you complete various achievements. I began with Charlie Darwin and have since had great success with Harriet Tubman.

My bleakest tale, and the one which I shall now relate, began when Richard Francis Burton walked into a bar with a Scot and a priest, and after a few pints of grog the three of them decided to seek their fortune in a cruel jungle.

Their first adventure ended in a grand victory and they gained enough experience to level up Mr Blake, their dutiful donkey. The experience points could have been spent increasing the skills of the human party members but inventory space is limited and Mr Blake was a valuable member of the team.

I'd chosen random items for my first expedition but on subsequent trips, you can spend the fame you've gained as a form of currency, purchasing goods and equipment, and recuiting new buddies to replace the ones that fell into a tiger's gob. The current build allows one character to undertake five increasingly difficult expeditions and it was on the third that everything went a bit wrong. Characters and their levels are persistent across those five expeditions, as are inventory items and Fame. One of the features to be added is a more thorough 'campaign' mode.

Back to the story. We were primed for great success, heading into a mountainous region and suitably loaded down with dynamite to blow our way through any ostructions. We'd brought trinkets for trade, whiskey to stave off fear and despair, and a few first aid kits in case of animal attacks. We'd also recruited a second donkey at a native village - he was called Mr Oliver and while we tried to make him feel welcome, he had nothing on Mr Blake.

In the picture below, you can see some tigers. Animals have a range, marked by the red border, within which they are hostile. And then they chase you around the map. The point is, whenever you're within their kill range, there's a percentage chance of attack every day. With no weapons, I chose to avoid the tigers, which sent my party the long way round to our (possible) destination.

We spent weeks being pursued by the beasts, cowering in thick jungle, hoping to find a Mission or village somewhere in what seemed like an everlasting ocean of green.

The mood had been fraught for a few days when I woke one morning to find my Scottish chum chewing on a human legbone. The priest was nowhere to be seen. Noticing the 'cannibalism' icon that had appeared next to the 'alcoholic' icon, I nodded politely at the soldier and pretended not to notice the rosary beads in the middle of the fried breakfast he offered.

"Full English?" He asked, as the odour of charred clergy filled my nostrils.

Four days later, he gave up the ghost. In my expert medical opinion, he'd died of being a maniac.

I stumbled through the jungle, with Mr Blake and Mr Oliver traipsing behind. One night, delirious and starving, I woke with my arm around Mr Blake's sturdy neck. Mr Oliver looked on jealously.
"You're my only friend, Mr Blake. Mr Oliver has developed a taste for human flesh, I can sense it. Oh!"

The next night, I ate Mr Oliver. Mr Blake smiled. Through a mouthful of hairy meat, I explained myself in no uncertain terms. "He was a rotter, Mr Blake. You know he was just waiting for a chance to strike me down. I heard him sharpening knives in the night. I heard him plotting my destruction. I hope you haven't been involved in his conspiracies?"

Mr Blake's smile fell.

We found a temple the next day and even though half of our belongings had been left to rot in the heat alongside the skeletal remnants of Mr Oliver, I took the Moonstone I found within. Maybe it would bring us luck?

It was hard not to laugh when Mr Blake stood at the top of the temple steps and did a little jig.

"Ha ha. Come down, you silly gent. There might be a curse on us now."

He twitched his ears and a tear slid down his cheek. One of his ribs had broken through the loose skin hanging from his left flank. All of my teeth had fallen out, but I'd made a necklace of them and considered trading it for fruit in the next village we found.

When the moon was full in the sky that night, I made short work of Mr Blake.

That journey did not end well but Curious Expedition is, on the whole, a whimsical game. Dreadful things happen but they are presented in a jovial fashion, on the whole. And success is always sweet.

I'm excited to see how a lifetime of expeditions will eventually be presented but, for now, I'm convinced there are still plenty of mysteries left to find. I've only seen one dinosaur, after all.

Curious Expedition is available now, in alpha form.

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The Curious Expedition

PS4, Xbox One, PC, Nintendo Switch

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About the Author

Adam Smith

Former Deputy Editor

Adam wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun between 2011-2018, rising through the ranks to become its Deputy Editor. He now works at Larian Studios on Baldur's Gate 3.