You Have Died from Hyena Attack
Indie games have developed a reputation of buzzwords and mechanics that can easily spin a player’s interest. When I say The Curious Expedition is a roguelike indie game completely removed from the team’s AAA roots featuring pixel graphics and light RPG mechanics, you’ll have learned nothing about the game. To put it into perspective, The Curious Expedition is a plethora of things, but for the most part, I’d call it a blown-up Oregon Trail. I accept that comparisons are a lazy way to talk about a game, but The Curious Expedition was in truth nothing like I expected, and I find myself completely hooked on it after a few tries.
In the game, players act as an 18th century explorer based on historical figures like Marie Curie, Charles Darwin, and even H.P. Lovecraft, all questing to loot locations and gain fame traveling uncharted territories. You get extra fame for how fast you complete the quests, completing requests from people back home, and taking as much treasure as possible, but that will piss off many of the locals. After six expeditions, your fame is totaled and the whole world can see which figure is the greatest explorer.
My relationship to The Curious Expedition was off to a rough start. The tutorial is something to be desired. The game is quite simple, but disguises itself otherwise. The tutorial starts with a character stranded in the middle of the terrain, looking to reconnect with their ship. The first thing you learn to do is manage your sanity, which drains based on the difficulty of your movement. Considering the whole game is about survival, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around around the purpose of sanity within the game. It works fine, even great once the game clicks, but it takes a bit to understand how this comes into play. The most helpful part of the tutorial was the combat. Each character in your party gives you some dice to roll, and certain combinations give you various attacks, defenses, and heals. A few examples of the villages you encounter occur, too, but it’s hard to grasp what they’re like in-game. At this point, I’d advise players to jump into the game. It’s useful information, but I learned a lot more about how the game works by playing it.
At first, I died a lot. I didn’t know how to get villagers to trust me, I ran out of sanity almost immediately, and I was asked to kill and eat my dog to get my group to survive. This was starting to feel more like the AAA game some of the team is known for. Despite my frustration, I soldiered on. I was determined to get a feel for the game, and I’m thankful I persisted. Once I hit my first golden pyramid and ended a quest, I finally understood how to play The Curious Expedition.
Everything had context, and the decisions started to make sense to me. I knew what sort of items to pack, I knew when it was okay to steal everything and piss off the locals, and I knew how to find the pyramids and complete quests. The game flipped from being too difficult to becoming breezy. The risks became worth it, and there were new discoveries as long as I was willing to take them. Tough decisions in gaming isn’t new, but within the game, they’re lighter than they seem. All-of-a-sudden I was willing to steal all the treasure. Sure, last time I did that it caused mountains to form in the ground or a huge chasm to pop up, but at least I’d get more fame at the end of my quest.
The game will give you a sense of comfort it’s capable of spinning in a matter of seconds. I had completed four out of six of my quests, took a treasure from a shrine, and my whole party got Indiana Jonesed into a chasm. It was annoying, sure, but the game rounds are so quick that death never killed my motivation. You can play a whole expedition in a matter of ten to fifteen minutes. It’s interesting because I’m not much of a patient gamer and death is a great way to make me want to stop. I jumped right back into the boat and played another round.
Like most roguelike games, there are upgrades to be had after each success and each map is randomly generated. The game is nice enough to tell you what kind of terrain to expect and that helps you pick out the tools you’ll need to help you through such as machetes, water, shovels, and climbing gear. You can traverse the maps without the proper gear, but it will cost more sanity and time to get from point A to point B. More than just currency, your gear can also buy you easier options in tough situations. Maybe you’ll need to climb into the shrine. You could try to climb it with no gear and roll the die, or you can use one of your resources and eliminate the risk.
Everything in the game acts as a resource and eventually starts to feel expendable. Is it worth killing your animal to save your other party members? Should you scold one of your team members or the other for fighting? Is it worth leaving your Scottish hunter in the village so they can stay with the local village boy they’ve fallen in love with? Lots of different little choices affect the outcome of your trip, and it’s funny to see how it all falls into place. In other review I’ve talked about how hard it is for me to make the “bad” choices in a game like this, but something about having the full scope of your decisions softened the choices and made the game easier to play.
It’s really hard to describe entirely how The Curious Expedition feels, but it’s an addictive game. The choices may not feel as meaningful after a few rounds, and my first games weren’t intuitive, but once that switch was flipped I’m having a blast. I still haven’t survived a full six expeditions, but I still feel like it’s possible to win. I’ve played every game on the middle difficulty, and it’s one of the most perfect balances of simplicity and challenge I’ve come across in years. The dice system is a great way to emulate RPG combat without reducing it to menu choices. I felt like I had control over my character and the risk involved was more apparent than a random number generator behind-the-scenes.
When it all comes down to it, I’m not sure what I love about The Curious Expedition, but I can’t stop playing it. The mechanics work together really well, and the character selection is amazing. Every game I’ve discovered a new way to succeed and fail, and all of them were fun. There’s enough of a balance of reality and fantasy that the game never breaks its own boundaries and pulls you out of it. Because of the speed of the game, I can see myself sinking piles of accidental hours into The Curious Expedition, and I’m excited to see where it takes me.
Final Verdict: 4/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Maschinen-Mensch ; Developer: Maschinen-Mensch ; Players: 1 ; Released: September 2, 2016 ; MSRP: $14.99
Full disclosure: This review is based on review copy given to Hey Poor Player by the publisher.