Come! I’ll show you the world! Travel, change, excitement!
The year is 1886, and The World’s Fair hosted in Paris is slated to begin in three years time. To prepare, you need some cool things to show off to the other participating nations, and since they’re bored of seeing your stuff, it’s time to plunder riches from native cultures in mysterious lands far, far away. This is actually great timing, because you’ve just found this strange island that comes and goes in a blanket of mystical purple fog. Stranger still, when one disappears, another appears in its stead. Surely treasures abound can be found there! And so, you hire an entire expedition and have them set sail to journey forth across the seemingly connected magical islands, uncovering the mysteries of the people who live on these lands and taking their sacred relics from right under their noses. Huzzah!
Thus begins the premise of Curious Expedition 2, the exploration-based rogue-like sequel to Curious Expedition. Developed by Maschinen-Mensch and published by Thunderful Publishing, Curious Expedition 2 is leaving Early Access on January 28, 2021 after spending only six months in a playable, purchasable beta state on Steam. With procedurally generated worlds featuring a wide variety of flora and fauna, friend and foe, Curious Expedition 2 beckons to players ready to explore the heretofore uncharted. Will you heed the call of adventure?
Those who have played the first installment of the franchise will immediately notice the cosmetic changes in Curious Expedition 2 — namely that the art style went from pixel art to hand drawn illustrations. Although I’m a massive fan of the former, I find the latter to be an intuitive choice considering the setting. The older comic book style is even evocative of The Adventures of Tin Tin in its use of color and vibrant background illustrations, the mood absolutely set for this colonial period of exploration and plundering. That’s not the only thing that has changed from the original; a more streamlined storyline campaign means less freedom on where to go next, putting emphasis on the “like” in rogue-like. Having only played Curious Expedition 2, I can’t weigh in one way or another on this design choice, but quickly skimming the Steam reviews indicates this to be worth mentioning for some fans of the first one.
Curious Expedition 2 is a lively mix of varying types of gameplay. While exploring the islands, players will utilize a top-down map covered in fog that quickly becomes charted as the rag-tag group of explorers runs around the island. Each category of explorers will have different personal reasons for visiting, like getting to know about the natives or hunting game, but the overarching goal remains: land, find a treasure worth showing off, then return from whence you came. Joining you are any number of intrepid explorers, including humans from all over the globe, random animal friends like dogs, donkeys, and turtles, and even natives from the mysterious islands that you can recruit along the way. The map itself is hex-based, and moving to each hex drains the entourage of their sanity; keep your sanity up by eating chocolate, drinking booze, and resting when possible, lest you go insane and bad things happen.
Of course, there are people living in these lands, and you’re bound to run into their villages, temples, or other mysterious signs of life. This is where the narrative side of Curious Expedition 2 takes over, with simple yet interesting storybeats setting the stage and several actions to choose from appearing underneath. Another mechanic soon pops up — the dice-based check system greatly pared down from its tabletop RPG counterparts, where instead of rolling a number higher than deemed necessary, players must roll enough red, blue, or green dice depending on the situation. Passing the checks can lead to untold fortunes; failing, on the other hand, can be brutal — even fatal.
It’s this dice-based mechanic that carries over to combat as well, where your procedurally generated gung-ho gang must fend off wild creatures, guardian beasts, and 19th century French novelist Jules Verne. By rolling dice and hoping they land on strong attacks and helpful healing spells, the group should be able to fend off all manner of enemies with some careful strategizing and a whole lot of luck. My advice? It pays to invest in good equipment, as heavy hitters with powerful weapons can literally mean the difference between life and death.
While I tremendously enjoyed the randomness that ensues in Curious Expedition 2 when it comes to things like party members and the narrative, I found my motivation to explore each new horizon dwindling when I discovered how limited the rewards are for completing each island. Your sponsor — one of three clubs/guilds from China, England, or the US — gives you a small amount of money to purchase supplies upon landing and takes everything away from you if you make it back home. This makes it not only really hard to earn enough to gain new weapons and armor but also feels pretty deflating when you return to see every last item taken away, from the treasures painfully plundered to the random tools you never got a chance to use but would definitely come in handy on the next run. Paired with the inconsistent difficulty curves experienced throughout the islands, I never really felt like I was mastering the gameplay. I get it’s a rogue-like, but I wanted to feel rewarded for surviving the brutal ordeal, and instead I felt punished watching all my items disappear.
Despite my issues with Curious Expedition 2, I admit it’s a rogue-like unlike others I’ve played recently. I enjoyed that it felt more like a tabletop RPG than a rogue-like in many cases, and the emergent gameplay that comes with procedural generation is entertaining when it’s done well, as it is here. But even on the easiest difficulty, Curious Expedition 2 is a punishing experience that I cannot recommend for players new to — or burned out by — the genre, as the expedition can go from The Great Outdoors to Murphy’s Law in no time. With that being said, I still really loved it for its chaotic random aspects, as I did not expect to get my ass handed to me by 19th century French novelist Jules Verne; I guess that’s what you get for bringing a donkey to a human fight.
Curious Expedition 2 isn’t for those looking to relax at the end of a long day, rather for those looking for an 1800s adventure crazier than their wildest dreams. It’s a punishing experience in the vein of what it must have actually been like back in the day (sans the glowing purple fog and disappearing islands and all that), and one that will absolutely exhaust players as they lose track of time exploring the chain of procedurally generated islands. If you’re very fond of rogue-likes and want to try a unique spin on the genre, Curious Expedition 2 is very likely your cup of Earl Grey; anyone else may want to watch a let’s play or two before spending your hard-plundered riches here.
Final Verdict: 3.5/5
Available on: PC (reviewed); Publisher: Thunderful Publishing; Developer: Maschinen-Mensch; Players: 1; Released: January 28, 2021; MSRP: $19.99
Editor’s note: This review is based on a copy of Curious Expedition 2 provided by the publisher.