The way I imagine pre-colonialist exploration is far from the alluring exotic adventure many fantasise about. Apart from the racist imperialist overtone, of course, I can only picture poisonous creatures lurking on the trees, from mosquitoes to snakes. I’ve always had the desire to discover some recondite locations, but dealing with scurvy and hunting my own food sounds like too much of a hassle to find it worth it. The Curious Expedition seizes all these concepts and pushes them to their limits, but always with a tongue-in-cheek attitude and an approach to native people somewhat reifying. This, however, is a tense but slow-paced resource-management roguelike that will provide you endless fun and an incredibly high difficulty level, as frustrating as it can get.
From among an array of prominent 18th and 19th century figures, including Charles Darwin, Marie Curie or Johan Huizinga, you have to choose your character, each one having especial starting traits and companions. The explorers club is launching an event where they will inaugurate a statue of its most important member, whose name has not been revealed yet. You have five expeditions to complete before then, and gain enough reputation to be awarded with such distinction, crowning yourself as London’s most renowned explorer.
Before you sail off to uncharted land, usually you receive offers from interested parties, such as delivering a letter or having a person join our crew. Every decision has a consequence in either your standing or your chances to survive the hostile terrain you’re about to embark to. For example, a diplomat may be useful to trade at much cheaper cost, or a translator may be useful to be able to rest in native villages. But since you can only have five people in your party, you will have to choose: would you rather have a soldier to defend you from tigers and giant birds, or a loyal cultist that will follow you to death, albeit weaker than the soldier? Of course, this is all dependent upon how the insanity and standing level are.
The insanity level is the most important one. It determines how far you can travel before the people in your party go cray-cray and run away, or drop your items, or just give up and decide to die. Some good ways to keep this up is by consuming mangoes, coca leaves, alcohol or simply resting in a village or a quiet area. The standing level, however, determines how liked you are by the native community. The more annoying you are, by killing local fauna, desecrating holy shrines or simply overstaying your welcome in the villages, the more hostile the locals will be. They will either attack you, or charge you more every time you trade. However, if you get the natives to like you enough, the rewards may be worth it.
The game is based around a very extensive resource-management system, where not only you need resources to survive in our expeditions, but also to give as a gift to the club and increase your reputation level above our other competitors’. In each expedition, you can loot caves, elephant graveyards or abandoned camps, and gather resources and artefacts. Resources are merely useful for each expedition: ropes, shovels, machetes or first-aid kits. However, artefacts have a much higher value, but are useless other than to be sold back in the metropolis. These artefacts, whether they’re ivory tusks or golden idols, can be given to the explorers club as a gift and increase your reputation, or be sold for pounds to buy more resources for the next expedition.
For each expedition, you are dropped into a top-down map, with hexagons as spatial units in a matrix. You consume sanity for every hexagon you go over, and depending on the type of terrain, it can be even more expensive. Obviously, traversing a jungle without a machete is much more demanding than just crossing some grassland. Thankfully, the game makes those calculations automatically if you want to. The goal is to visit every landmark that you can find in the map, gathering artefacts to exchange for reputation once you’re back in London, and finally reach the one golden pyramid in each level and head back home.
The more landmarks you visit, the more you’ll have to discern whether to dispense with a valuable painting in favour of some chocolate to keep your party members happy or not, as the number of items you can carry is quite limited. Decisions like these will be abundant if you reach the third, fourth or fifth expeditions, because this rogue-like is incredibly unforgiving and difficult. You rarely find yourself in a situation where you wish you hadn’t made a move you just took. However, it is quite usual to not know where to go next, as the maps sometimes get way too confusing. I expected every terrain to be equally difficult, but demanding of different resources and approaches, but deserts are clearly the most punishing one of all, as they drain your sanity as soon as you run out of water.
As much fun and tense this system can be, it does suffer from some balancing issues that make it feel a bit unfair. On the one hand, it does seem that every event is too punishing. There are no good events at all, and the only ‘rewards’ are quite difficult to achieve. On the other hand, the maps are randomly generated, so it’s no surprise to find that maps are much easier in some goes than in others. Fortunately, it does seem to get rid of FTL’s quests where you get resources or not based on luck rather than logic in its solution.
It is important to note that, much like in FTL, specialising is important. It is useful to select the perk you’re given at the end of each expedition, the character and party members according to one particular strategy to gather resources and artefacts. You may choose soldiers so you can easily take down and skin animals to then sell, or you may prefer having several diplomats to make bartering a piece of cake, and get loads of objects for free! As much as specialisation is important, being adaptive and resourceful is paramount, as you won’t always be able to flee from wild beasts or find a good trader. On top of that, the control of information and with it, the ability to discern what to do, is crucial. Much like I explained in my review of Invisible Inc., the knowledge of the map is key towards the administration of your resources as you move around it.
There is a battle system, which isn’t short of confusing at first glance, based around the combination of abilities, all of which you can use as long as you get them on the dice. This system is not particularly difficult to master, but some enemies are just too tough, so you’ll often find yourself dying in between a tiger’s fangs. However, The Curious Expedition is ultimately reduced to management of resources, to the point that the treatment of native communities, which is perhaps a sensitive issue in colonisation studies, is a bit objectified. There is a clear dichotomy between you and them, and sometimes they’d come to ask you questions about people origins or life style as you’d speak ex cathedra. Nevertheless, it is true that the game never aimed at narrative goals, rather than purely mechanical. Inspired in games like FTL, this game has the perfectly working and polyvalent resource-management system, which had me playing twice as much as FTL, even though it was probably more punitive and sometimes unfair.
The Curious Expedition (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is great, with minimal or no negatives.
Resource management made fun while intricate. It may look simple, but don't be fooled. Here's rogue-likes at its finest.