The Curious Expedition: A curiously overlooked indie gem

I first picked up The Curious Expedition in a Steam sale. I was immediately grabbed by the retro pixel graphics and intrigued by the concept of leading 19th century exploration expeditions. Within an hour of gameplay I was hooked. The turn based gameplay combined with the hex tile map makes it feel like a familiar board game while the roguelike elements kept me coming back for more. The only thing curious about this game is how it’s remained under the radar for so long.

Like with many games, TCE starts with picking your character. A myriad of famous explorers and pioneers from different fields throughout history are available to represent the player, with more unlocked after achieving certain feats. Every explorer is best suited to a certain style of gameplay, encouraging players to try out different approaches with every new expedition. The player competes against four AI controlled adventurers and ultimately wins the game by scoring the highest. Points are accrued across a series of six expeditions by completing mini-quests, donating found ancient artifacts, and beating the other explorers to a mysteriously located golden pyramid.

The character select screen. Wonder who some modern explorers would be… Bill Gates? Malala Yousafzai?

The objective of each expedition is to find the golden pyramid on the map while keeping your party sane (literally). Sanity is represented by a meter at the top of the screen and is primarily spent by moving throughout the world. Different areas costs more sanity depending on how difficult it is to navigate – this can be offset by buying specialized tools designed for each terrain. When sanity gets too low, the party can face everything from dropping supplies, dissension in the ranks, to cannibalism. Sanity can be recovered by resting at certain waypoints, eating food, or drinking alcohol (just like real life!). Besides searching for the golden pyramid and managing sanity, your party can face a slew of different obstacles such as animal attacks, mummies coming to life, and angry local natives. There are plenty of fun supernatural occurrences and random events that will keep you on your toes.

The sanity meter. Might be time to bust out some self-care techniques.

The Good

As long as a game has solid, balanced mechanics you don’t need uncanny valley realism to make a great game. TCE has beautifully rendered scenes reminiscent of your favorite 64 bit retro game. The limitations of pixel art (square grid, often a smaller color palette) can be hard to work with. I really appreciate the time and energy TCE artists spent crafting the look of the game.

 Stunning.

Perhaps hardest to put into words without writing a novel on it is just how beautifully balanced TCE is. The player must consider how every action affects not only their current expedition but their standing against other the other explorers… all while maintaining sanity and threats against their party. Every decision made has a consequence, every reward has a risk. Do you have enough sanity to mitigate the effects of stealing artifacts from an ancient temple? Do you rest to regain composure or press your luck trying to reach the golden pyramid first? Do you donate your artifacts to gain fame or sell them to have a comfier start to your next expedition? Every action feels incredibly nuanced. The play between the immediate game (merely surviving and making it to end of the expedition) and end game (your overall score) is incredibly engaging.

The Bad

The six expeditions can feel a little long, especially if a run of bad luck (or poor planning) leaves you starting each one more and more ill-prepared. One bad expedition can easily snowball and result in desperate sprints to the golden pyramid with little hope of completing all six expeditions, let alone winning. Some may enjoy the thrill of trying to survive and pulling off risky maneuvers while others will just rage quit restart once things get too bleak.

Even if you’ve “done everything right” the most strategic player can have their game thrown by an unlucky encounter. There is a lot that can go wrong and not a whole lot that can go right. Oftentimes the game can feel more like managing reactions to bad events (cannibalism, desertion, internal sabotage, paranoia) with very little happening in terms of fortuitous events. TCE has improved a lot since early versions which could feel like a brutal slog from one terrible encounter to the next. Now with more events that can turn the tide in favor of the player, the game feels a little less ruthless. The fact still remains, this is not an easy game. Some players will be put off by the unforgiving nature of the game, however those that enjoy punishing gameplay will have a good time.

Anyone who’s worked on a group project can relate.

Improvements & Additions

I originally wanted to suggest multiplayer as an improvement, as TCE feels MADE for multiplayer. I honestly would not be surprised if the devs set out with multiplayer in mind but lacked the infrastructure to implement it. So I was not at all surprised to read that they released a multiplayer version called Curious Expedition RIVALS and best of all it’s free to play.

TCE feels very complete. The balance between sanity management and amassing fame and wealth is so well done I find it hard to suggest anything that wouldn’t change the game fundamentally. That in mind, I think it would be cool to see a sea-faring component added… Exploring oceans instead of land. I envision this as a different mode of playing, instead of playing within the current game. Friendly islands could serve as places to regain sanity or trade. Sea monsters could attack the ship (sharks, sirens, giant squids, the kraken). There could be merpeople both savage and friendly, and how about an atlantis trading post or miniquest? Shipwrecks or pirates (that must first be defeated) could provide opportunity to plunder resources. Now that TCE seems to be wrapping up its development, this could be its first DLC.

TL;DR

The Curious Expedition is a challenging, turn based strategy game. Peppered with occult references and dark humor this game might best be described as “delightfully frustrating.”

If you enjoy…

Dark Souls, The Binding of Isaac, H. P. Lovecraft, The Oregon Trail, The Darkest Dungeon

…try The Curious Expedition.

Steam PageMaschinen Mensch

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