Curiouser and Curiouser: ‘The Curious Expedition’ Preview

DISCLAIMER: A Steam key for this game was provided by the developers.

The Curious Expedition is a hex-based roguelike by way of Oregon Trail, and it’s some of the most fun I’ve had this year.

I’ve blunted my last machete in the middle of the jungle. I’m at least several days from my goal, if the maddening wave of my compass is any indication. My party — a quiet native shaman, a grizzled yet loyal Scottish soldier, a donkey named Mr. Voss, and a stolen dog — have reached the limits of their sanity. Our bags are empty of food, but contain some cursed verses written in a fallen tongue, and the mummified remains of someone who clearly attempted to read them before us.

This is The Curious Expedition, an indie title currently wandering the depths of Steam’s bloated Early Access program. Unlike the vast majority of titles available in that form, this is already as feature complete as most independent games at release. It’s a compelling hybrid of planning and tactical execution, dice-based combat, and eerie story vignettes.

Everything is presented by pixel art that manages to make the most of its retro styling, instead of using it as a cheap crutch to save on art assets. Giving pixel art a distinct identity is a unique challenge, and most games banking on the aesthetic do so to cover for a lack of strong design sense. The Curious Expedition bucks this trend, oozing personality from every accursed orifice.

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After picking from several historic personalities — among them Charles Darwin and H.P. Lovecraft — you will compete with rival characters to locate a series of hidden temples around the world. Your party is chosen for you in the beginning, but there are others to recruit, rescue, or even buy from a slaver if you so choose.

Every movement through the untamed wilderness of each map takes a toll on your sanity, as the oppressive occult atmosphere slowly drains away the will of your comrades. You’ll have to shore up their confidence with booze or food, or maybe a nip or two from a coca leaf. Treasures obtained might be gifted to a museum to increase your renown, or sold to fund the next leg of your expedition. It’s a careful balancing act, and every transaction feels desperately meaningful.

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Each excursion is a short, quick individual playthrough that distills the drama into its most essential flavors. Whether you’re trying to help a missionary get to his chosen village or debating whether to eat some very suspicious meat offered you by the locals, there is a constant stream of interesting choices to be made.

Right now, variety can seem a bit thin. It’s a very small concern when compared to the elegance of the game’s framework, and content is being added on a regular basis. Still, I’d gladly have purchased the game in its current form, had I not received a key from developers Maschinen-Mensch. It’s an easy recommendation, especially considering the lackluster competition in the Early Access market. You can pick it up right now in the Steam store.

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I wanted to bring a charming journalist by the name of Tim Timster with me on my latest trek. His faithful mutt Luis would be an asset, and Mr. Timster would provide a substantial bonus to my fame by documenting our journey. Unfortunately, my party could not supply the additional explorers. I was forced to choose whom to leave behind. Reluctantly, I decided that Tim Timster would have to stay behind after all, perhaps to interview the haggard survivors upon their return.

…But I kept his dog. I felt a twinge of guilt on day 9 in that jungle when we ate him.

Follow Nate Church @Get2Church on Twitter for the latest news in gaming and technology, and snarky opinions on both.


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