The Curious Expedition

Curious Expedition.png

The Curious Expedition
PC
Developed by Maschinen-Mensch
Released in 2016

The world would be so much more interesting if it were randomly generated. Sure, you’d have to plot a new route to work every other day and you’ll never know if your medicine will still do the same tomorrow, but at least every day would be unique and the world would never get boring. The Curious Expedition sort of rolls on this idea, as you are tasked with exploring distant lands that are randomly generated. Continents never look the same twice, you always have unique encounters, and the game even has lizardmen in it!

Grab your boat, we are going on adventure!

In this game you get to pick from a roster of historical characters, ranging from Johan Huizinga and Nikola Tesla to H.P. Lovecraft and Marie Curie. The goal of the game is to go on a variety of expeditions to randomly generated lands, where you must race against AI opponents in search of a Golden Pyramid hidden somewhere within the level. You, of course, have no map to start out with, the overworld view is largely covered in fog of war until you start moving around and discover the lay of the land. As you do so and discover various locations the compass in the corner of the screen that points towards the general location of the pyramid will become more and more accurate.

Village

The game requires you to perform six expeditions and your performance in these earns you fame, which can also be garnered by completing quests offered to you at the start of an expedition or donating loot you find to the museum (as opposed to selling them off for funds). Each of the available characters will have a starting party of companions and an arsenal of items, but as you explore each land you’ll find villages to trade (or rob), shrines and catacombs to plunder at great risk, caves to explore, and many other types of locations. There are a lot of different events to run into whilst exploring and though some of them are predictable after a while (a shrine you rob will always cause some kind of environmental hazard, for example), it never felt like my travels were becoming samey, even after repeat playthroughs.

Variety is kept high thanks to the wide diversity in party members you can acquire. Each one has a different role, like the translators which improve your standing with villages you run into, merchants that allow you to cheap out while trading, scouts that improve sight range, and various warriors to help fend off wildlife. All of them can be leveled up to improve their loyalty, health, and effectiveness at their specific role, but the adventure itself can also benefit or scar them. Characters may become alcoholic if you feed them too much liquor to keep spirits high, they may become paranoid or fearful, even violent. At the same time you can find rare events that give them positive improvements or have shamans cleanse their sinful behavior.

Map.jpg

Important to note is that exploration is not a infinite resource. You have a sanity meter that starts at 100 and each step you take has a certain sanity cost, depending on whether you are travelling through plains, deserts, forests, or even across entire mountains, and whether you brought equipment like machetes and climbing gear to help cross these spaces. Sanity can be restored by resting at villages (which reduces their friendliness towards you), camps, or in Christian missions (requiring a trade), winning in combat, and eating or drinking from your finite pool of food. Food, of course, costs money, which could also be spent on weapons, ammunition, or important gear, on top of it also taking up space in your inventory that may shrink if you lose party members or pack animals. When sanity is low you can still move around, but at a great deal more risk. Your party members may lash out, you lose equipment, things just go terrible, but when the pyramid is in sight, you may want to save that chocolate bar and take a risk on it.

The sanity system really does encourage you to find your own way to play. Do you avoid combat to reduce the risk of being wounded or do you actively leap in there to get useful items and bonus sanity? Do you spend days resting to restore sanity or use your funds for food instead? Take a long detour around a few mountains or blow them to smithereens with expensive dynamite? The game presents you with literal choices from time to time, yet at the same time the very essence of its gameplay is a constant flow of intriguing choices you are asked to make, with clear and understandable consequences following soon after.

Dinosaur thing

After each cleared expedition you then get to see how you performed compared to the AI explorers and either sell off your ill-gotten loot for money to reinvest or donate to the museum for even more fame. You also get to pick from a handful of different perks like permanently improving sight range or your ability to move through thick jungles. I had a really fun time with the gameplay of The Curious Expedition and one thing it does really well is enticing you to come back. Even when things turn sour and half your party dies, you can still kind of make it through. When an unfortunate sequence of events leaves my trek severely crippled, it doesn’t feel like the game asks me to go on a useless death march until I die and can restart, there are still avenues for recovery or even victory. As such, when I did actually die it never felt unfair or left me grumpy, I always felt like jumping right back in to try out different explorers and tactics.

Gameplay score: 10/10

Pixel cartography

Like so many other indie games we have reviewed here this month, The Curious Expedition features a nicely detailed pixelart art-style. In terms of art it somewhat reminds of The Last Door when it comes to the way characters look, though obviously it features more lively and bright environments compared to the Lovecraftian puzzle game. When you see entire villages, jungles, and temples drawn in this style, it’s hard not to appreciate what a tremendous amount of effort was put into them, even if the designs are recycled all the time. Animals look great too, with beasts like hyenas, elephants, and more fantastical monsters looking great moments before they attempt to gore you.

Nice Boat

That is all when the game zooms in for special events and combat however. During travel you are gazing at the map screen, which is definitely more zoomed out, but is no more difficult to appreciate. It looks fine and has a lot of variation to it, you can clearly see there is an intelligent and well-designed algorithm in place that creates these wonderful places.

Presentation score: 9/10

Exploring the extras

The game has a few characters available at the start, but the others you’ll have to unlock by performing a variety of different actions during the expeditions. All of these characters have different starting equipment, party members, and special traits that make them ideal for certain styles of play, and the criteria for unlocking them already encourages players to experiment. The game also offers three different difficulty modes, though it should be said that even the easiest one will have you dying a few times before you beat the game for the first time.

Extras score: 8.5/10

Verdict

The Curious Expedition offers a type of gameplay you don’t find anywhere else. While many games offer exploration in some form or another, this game refines it so much that a whole game can stand on exploration alone. With a beautiful art-style, a nice main theme, and plenty of unlockable characters, this is one indie game I don’t see myself uninstalling for a looooooooooong time.

92/100

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