REVIEW | Curious Expedition

“A challenging and absorbing Roguelike strategy game built more for advanced players than the casual crowd.”

Have you ever wanted to live out your childhood fantasies of being an explorer? Now that most of the Earth has been discovered and mapped out there remains little to be discovered. Were you able to travel back to the 19th century however you would find a wealth of corners yet to be chopped up, mixed together and placed on a map.

‘Curious Expedition’ by the wonderfully-named Maschinen-Mensch sets out to embody the spirit of adventure and let you play out these geographical excursions from the safety of your living room. You choose from one of six famous explorers (there are twenty in total, the remainder unlocked after reaching certain goals within the game) and set out to venture forth into the unknown with helpers and a finite amount of equipment.

With three difficult settings available, you need to run through five standard expeditions before you are able to take the last, most difficult one in the mysterious prehistoric land. You are put in a race against four other people also seeking fortune and glory which are controlled by the computer. Laying out the world on a map, for each journey you can pick from two or three different locations ranging from dry areas, jungles, deserts and arctic landscapes. Your hero or heroine will already have some people and/or animals at their disposal and along the way you can recruit natives from local villages you discover as well as people offering their expertise the more success you have under your belt. There is a set amount of space for provisions and equipment, and each person has their own strengths and weaknesses. It is up to you to decide who is best suited to assist you in the environment. As well as this you have to ensure you have the right tools for the job. Most of this is just common sense, for example, when tackling the desert, you take extra water, when heading for the jungle you stock up on machetes to help cut through the vines and trees blocking your way etc.

As your ship sets sail and arrives at the shore (the voyage is helpfully left to your imagination albeit with some choice or funny comments from your adventurer) you embark out into the unknown. The main goal is to locate the golden pyramid in the region using your not-so-very-accurate compass in the top left-hand corner of the screen. It offers a rough idea of which direction to go and you must navigate as best you can. Each new land is procedurally generated so there is no memorising the maps for your own benefit; this being a Roguelike you have to buy the ticket and take the ride. The landscape is set out in a hexadecimal grid. Each time you move it takes a set number of days so the longer you walk the more days expire. Across the top of your screen is a sanity meter; due to the psychological pressure of the job you can only last so long before things take a turn for the worst. Each time you move your sanity goes down. This can be topped up again by finding a village or a safe spot to rest or using food, snacks or alcohol on the move when it’s running low. You also have to keep an eye on your ‘standing’ which is portrayed with a tiny face next to the sanity meter. As you wander the world you have to ensure your reputation is good, positive, pristine or the next best thing. If you spend too much time looting and causing chaos your notoriety will spread and the local people will not want to trade with you or let you stay in their care; it’s all one huge balancing act.

“If you spend too much time looting and causing chaos your notoriety will spread and the local people will not want to trade with you or let you stay in their care; it’s all one huge balancing act.”

The land unveils in front of you as you move, everywhere covered with a thick fog, the kind of which you would have previously encountered in most strategy games. On your travels you will find certain places of interest and if you find all of them in a specific region you are awarded points which can be used to promote your party members. By doing so you make that person more effective and this increases their loyalty to you. When you reach these interesting spots you are presented with a body of text explaining where you are and what options are available to you. Enemies remain hidden from view although their designated spaces on the grid have a red outline so you can make out where they are as you explore and, where necessary, avoid them. You have to find a happy medium between searching out places of interest, some of which may hold treasures which you can sell for extra cash or donate for more ‘fame’ (more on that later), and leaving enough time to find the pyramid before you and your group crack. Once this is done you are given a score as to how famous you are and ranked alongside the other adventurers who are also competing against you. Then it’s on to your next quest and next golden pyramid. More fame means you are higher in the chart. You don’t want Charley Chuck Darwin to win, do you?

Between each expedition you return to port to stock up on supplies. People will approach you with an additional task to carry out whilst you are searching for the pyramid. This can range from finding a lost spouse, digging up treasure or bringing back specific items. If you succeed you will be blessed with more funds to put towards tools and gear. If you fail, however, this eats into your fame and you lose your footing a bit.

Let’s get to the main problem first; the difficulty. This game is either too hard or too easy. I started playing on normal to begin with and couldn’t get past the third expedition. I know the game portrays the life of a person several hundreds of years ago, who didn’t have a thermal vest and a GPS, but this game throws everything at you as soon as you step off your ship. You lose your sanity quickly exploring the environments. When that runs out your crew members either lose faith in you, start dropping off due to infections or disappear completely. The most hilarious outcome was, low on food and provisions, I was treated to a small text box where it declared that my journalist had eaten my native guide! Just like that. I had to laugh as it was completely unexpected but I suppose, given the choice between dying of hunger in the middle of nowhere and snacking on our friend, he had no choice but to butcher the guy (?) Who knows. Absolutely nothing in this game goes to plan. As well as this, the fighting system is, to be blunt, awful. It resembles a board game, albeit with a RPG style energy bar for each character and enemy, where you roll the dice to decide what happens. Depending on what equipment and what kind of people are in your company will determine how many dice you have and, ultimately, how many rolls or turns before your opponents have a go. When I was playing I was coming out with a few defensive manoeuvres and some attacks. The enemies, usually the local wildlife, unless you happen to unearth some particularly angry mummies, gleefully smacked my guys into oblivion with each turn. They were much more powerful (it didn’t matter which difficulty it was on) and we crumbled to dust. It felt as though the odds were always stacked in favour of your adversaries. Sometimes they claw or bite you so hard you die after two or three goes. Game over; back to the start. It was then that I decided to avoid fighting at all costs. Sometimes you have no choice but to engage in battle, at which point you can use the ‘flee’ button, lose some sanity and run away like the cowards you are. It is the safest and quickest way of reaching your goals, believe me.

I then decided to try the easy option as per the game’s recommendation for people who like the story and narrative. Traversing the world was a lot better. The first couple of expeditions it feels as though you turn a corner and find the pyramid. It’s over within a few goes. You can still carry on exploring as there is no precedent that you have to leave as soon as that golden structure is in sight. The additional points on the map have to be considered carefully; there is no blindly thrashing your way through this game. You have to really read the text of where you have wound up. If there are animal tracks nearby you must decide whether to search for items or run away before they turn up. If the shine you have come across has evil seeping through the cracks in the walls you must choose either to risk looking for treasure or leave it alone. The game is clever in that even though these are very simple choices the consequences can have dire effects on the rest of your play-through. I once disregarded the warnings and started looting from a shrine only to have the ground turn red and be hunted by giant insects, desperate to cut me up and use my body as a pin cushion.

This is the kind of simulation that you can lose yourself in. I found that I had a much better time with shorter goes of about an hour or so rather than plugging away repeatedly. A run through from start to finish doesn’t take too long on easy anyway. It is about racking up a big score, getting to the end, trying to win the contest at stake and then trying again.

The performance was mostly fine and only when a lot was happening on screen, usually when a large chunk of the map was unravelled at the same time, did the game stutter. Both handheld and docked there were no major problems.

The characters available are also excellent. They are hand-picked from a forgotten era of heroes with notable historical figures such as Ada Lovelace, Nikola Tesla, Amelia Earhart and everyone’s favourite psychopath, Rasputin. Some lean much more in the direction of casual players and you can definitely pick out the ones assigned for the hard-core brethren. Personally I also feel that Tesla’s picture does look more like Groucho Marx.

I do think that the difficulty is a bit of a stumbling block. I wanted to explore more and found that the restrictions put in place prevented me from doing so. Yes, I am that type of player who will painstakingly root through everything to look for secrets. This is not one of those games though. I understand that the limits are there to provide a more realistic experience. You can’t spend six months wandering around in the unknown, hunted by tigers, with no food, endlessly walking and expect to come out the same person without a scratch on you. I do wish that the developers had included a slightly more amenable sanity meter for the easy option though which allowed you to search more. There were probably so many delights hidden under the fog that I and many others may never experience because they will always be out of reach which is a shame.

The music is marvellous. There were little to no sound effects so it was a huge boon that each of the tunes, from the opening credits to the in-game music, fit the game so well. I found myself dwelling and humming the limited yet catchy beats before and after. All credit to Alexander Batsch, the composer, for crafting a wonderful soundtrack for even the most desperate of times (I’ve never run away from so many gorillas). There is also a decidedly wicked sense of humour sewn throughout the whole ordeal. The developers clearly knew their stuff and should be commended for their witty wordplay and attention to detail.

Even with my criticisms, I did enjoy ‘Curious Expedition’. It does beat you into next week and leave you locked out in the rain however I still kept coming back for more. I wanted to try and beat my high score. I wanted to progress further into the game, unlock more achievements, unlock more explorers. Though its misgivings were obvious it did not spoil the game as a whole. If you want to live out life as a budding armchair Allan Quatermain then this is the one for you. Those looking for a more casual experience may want to look elsewhere.