When I first heard about The Curious Expedition, it scared me. The first thing that scared me about it was the title. Something in its verbose vagueness reminded me of Sir, You Are Being Hunted which, while a decent enough game, really needs to throw its cumbersome title out of a high window into a pile of something moist and unhygienic. The second thing that scared me was the ‘roam from encounter to encounter’ format which has become almost synonymous with FTL – at least amongst a certain adulation-hungry section of the indie community. Luckily my fear was foolishly misplaced on both counts.
Maybe this is a reflection of my recent interests but in some ways The Curious Expedition has more in common with board games than with FTL. No, no, wait! Sit down. It’s ok. Board games are cool now. Just ask Wil Wheaton (when is Wesley ever wrong?). Curious (as I’ll henceforth abbreviate it in the name of sparing my beleaguered fingertips) isn’t reminiscent of board games in the way you might be thinking. It’s not jungle-themed Monopoly or some sort of horribly literal Hungry Hungry Hippos. No, Curious reminds me more of something like Robinson Crusoe or Wilderness – its series of procedurally generated expeditions can be imagined as individual games in a campaign, with failure of not only this one brief effort but the entire saga resting on how prepared you are for the roll of the dice.
The essence of the gameplay is to go out on an expedition in a roughly Victorian imperial fashion, roaming the uncharted (except by the people who live there) wilderness in search of sacred relics to disrespectfully pilfer, and local villagers to accidentally get killed when you make them climb a stone tower without a rope. As an Englishman, the historical aspects of this make me justly uncomfortable. Victorian England was a dick.
The eventual aim is to be the most famous explorer by successfully completing expeditions, and there are lots of ways to boost your fame in addition to just not dying. Finding the golden pyramid which is present in every region of the world is one way, but those things can sometimes be tricky to locate. En route to the pyramid you’ll probably find various shrines which you can plunder for their ceremonial masks and ancient texts (while no doubt commenting on how quaint they are and how lovely they’ll look sitting on twee doilies in the drawing room). If the locals find out you’re doing any of this they’ll rapidly shift from welcoming to wary, and then to actively resentful. Substitute ‘ancient treasures’ for ‘booze’ and this could be anywhere in Britain. (Maybe that’s what Victorian explorers are really trying to achieve. You do meet missionaries in Curious and they never explicitly deny peddling sambuca to the locals.)
Worse yet, the instant you half-inch relics from a shrine, very bad things happen. Things which mainly involve the ground exploding in one way or another. More than once I’ve let myself become over-covetous and been forced to pay the ultimate price as the very earth itself acted like I’d spilled its pint.
The biggest obstacle, though, is dwindling sanity. You spend sanity like fuel to traverse the landscape it’s a very limited resource. Tough terrain makes you crazy much faster than a leisurely stroll, while sleeping and eating replenish you for a while. If you don’t come suitably equipped with rope, machetes and other gear to help out with the tough stuff, you’ll find your sanity evaporating at a distressing rate, and your party will end up spending most of their time barging into villages in a panic and demanding the use of their hammocks.
There are other ways to top up your sanity, but it’s hard to imagine a 21st century government promoting them. The 19th century was a different world, and no self-respecting explorer would shy away from treating mental health issues with gallons of whisky and bricks of chocolate. (Having said that, “booze is good for you and walking makes you insane” might be an election winner.)
Once your expedition is done, whether you successfully find the pyramid or have to bail early in your pocket hot air balloon, your success will be judged by how much fame you gained. You can donate retrieved artefacts to a museum to give yourself a boost in renown, but sometimes it makes more sense to sell them like the shallow corporate shill you are so that you can actually outfit your team for the next trip. Like all the most tense games, you need to do both things, but can never quite stretch your resources that far.
Curious is a pretty tough game to overcome and it doesn’t pull any punches. Not only will you never have quite enough treasure to gain as much fame and as much money as you’d like, it’s also surprisingly easy to get killed in the field. If you enter an animal’s roaming range, you’ll often find it comes over to have a sniff and a gnaw on your whimpering face. Even in the very first (and thus easiest) expedition, animals can really mess you up. The exact content of each expedition is procedurally generated for replayability, so you never know exactly what you’ll run into, and it’s entirely possible to get through an expedition without spotting a single beast – but if you do have to fight one, it will tear you apart.
As with a real expedition, the key is to be as prepared as possible. Buy decoys to avoid fights, buy bullets to give you extra attacks, buy better weapons – but all of this costs money or other items in trade. Along with buying ropes and machetes and the like for overcoming environmental hazards, tooling up for combat means trading trinkets in for cash instead of fame. The better prepared you are, the less likely you’ll be to die, but the further away from your fame goal you’ll get.
The process of combat itself is a literal dice roll. You get dice for all your party members, and for any weapons you’re carrying (plus extras if you spend ammunition), and you try to make combos from whatever results you roll. Enemies will do the same and, believe me, even the lowliest beasts have far better dice than your party of explorers. I imagine that swatting a fly in the world of Curious would see it drill through your hand.
Fortunately the challenge is all in the gameplay and not in the interface. The whole thing is controlled with smooth and easy mouse use. It’s also in a constant state of being refined and improved thanks to its Early Access status. A couple of months ago the combat system was a little obfuscated and difficult to follow, but now it’s populated with handy tooltips which even a delirious Victorian explorer can understand. Developer Maschinen-Mensch is doing good work on not only providing plenty of content but also making the whole playing experience as smooth as possible – an admirable goal (and frustrating rarity) in Early Access.
Curious also excels itself in presentation. The music is generally good and reflects a certain whimsical mood of adventure (though one or two pieces can grate after a while) and the visuals have a faintly Secret of Monkey Island-ish pixel art style, though modernised and displayed in lavish colour. The tiled area map around which you navigate is pleasant enough (though wisely emphasises clarity over flashy presentation) but the zoomed-in scenes which accompany each encounter are well drawn and charming.
In fact, ‘charming’ is probably the best word I could use to describe The Curious Expedition. That’s not to say it’s flawless – the difficulty of an expedition can vary quite widely depending on luck with the ‘random number generator’ and combat is perhaps a little too brutally punishing. I also can’t help feeling a little uneasy about the setting. It’s a lighthearted faux-Victorian romp and not committing any crimes, but as a descendent of the pillaging British empire which this game affectionately parodies, I can’t help feeling a niggling disquiet that when this stuff really happened it was nowhere near this cute or amusing. I kind of feel like I should be scowling with ancestral shame, not frolicking in the digital jungles. That’s not a flaw with the game, just be aware that those of a culturally sensitive disposition might occasionally squirm at the real history there.
In any case, the niggles I do have about the game are minor and don’t do much to impede my enjoyment. It’s also worth a quick reminder at this point that it’s still a work in progress. The Curious Expedition would be easy to recommend if it was a full, final release; the fact that it’s still technically a unfinished but feels basically complete boggles my mind. Between the slick presentation, the tough yet rewarding gameplay, and the replayability afforded by its procedurally generated content, The Curious Expedition has a lot to offer.
Again, ‘charm’ is a key word here. The game has a tone and a feel all of its own, and you can’t help becoming drawn into the adventures of your intrepid party of explorers, wincing when someone dies or wearily rolling your eyes at the way one particular NPC is always the one who falls and breaks a limb (seriously, there usually seems to be one member of your party who just can’t do anything right. We need a new hiring policy). That charm is present throughout, and it elevates a game which would already have been competent and enjoyable to new tier of quality.
I can’t promise that The Curious Expedition will suit everyone, but I have a lot of fun with it and I have better taste than other people, so you should probably go and have a look.
The Curious Expedition is available on Steam Early Access here for £10.99 (UK), $14.99 (US), or your regional equivalent.