It feels like during the early PC/Amiga days there were plenty of games about arriving in a new and unusual place, exploring it, and managing your camp. For a long while that genre was lost, with only occasional jokes about dying of dysentery in the Oregon Trail to mark it’s existence. With the indie revival of the last decade there’s definitely been a resurgence in interest in this kind of procedural strategy-heavy game, and The Curious Expedition is one of the most interesting we’ve seen so far.
In a strictly single-player affair, you choose an explorer (from a cast of famous faces including Darwin and Marie Curie) with their own unique perk, and then you choose to go off and explore a location. At it’s heart, this is exploration for exploration’s sake, although you do often get offered extra missions like finding a deserter or delivering a missionary to a village. You pack your bags (buying things like dynamite, whisky and marbles) then you set off.
Every game is essentially the same in terms of set-up. You’re on a hex grid and spawn in the middle of nowhere. Around you there might be jungles (hard to cut through), mountains (impassable without dynamite), hills (hard to climb but giving you a good view) and interesting features noted by question marks. They might be villages, old camps, caves, shrines, or even the golden pyramid which is your goal in each stage. You click on a hex to move and can set up a route, and you will see how much sanity it will cost you. You see sanity is the main resource in the Curious Expedition. Money is useful, but you’re always going to end up running out of sanity eventually. Every movement costs some, and fights or making bad decisions might cost more. Walking through fires or being chased by villagers or animals is devastating, and the only ways to get some back is to rest somewhere safe or use some of your resources, like whisky or chocolate, to make your group feel better.
On your trip to find the golden pyramid (which lets you leave) you are trying to do things like capture butterflies, paint locals, collect artifacts, or simply learn more. Obviously some of these things, like stealing artifacts from temples, comes with a cost. Villagers will grow wary of you or even violent, sometimes even more radical things happen like causing devastating climate change or starting a flood or fire. Rather than being a game about finding the best strategy, this is a game about decisions, and being the kind of explorer you want.
You might start with high principles, never stealing and never angering the locals, trying to be morally righteous in your peaceful exploration. But then what if you’re running desperately low on funds to the point where you know you can’t afford another expedition, and there’s a gold statue right there next to the golden pyramid. Stealing it couldn’t hurt. Could it? Or if your team has been savaged by a tiger and you need more people to carry things back, but the only option is a nearby slaver’s camp. Is it ok to bring slaves back?
Every expedition turns into its own story and we haven’t had many dull ones in all our time with the game. From finding ourselves lost in prehistoric lands to causing a flood that destroyed an entirely peaceful region, it’s always exciting, which is saying something for a turn-based pixel-art game. The graphics are more than functional, they’re reminiscent of the exciting worlds of Monkey Island and the early settlers game, dripping in charm and information at the same time.
At the moment The Curious Expedition is available on Early Access and we’d say there’s already plenty enough game to warrant the £10.99 asking price. If you’re fond of strategy and happy to face the possibility of permadeath when your expedition is picked apart by bears, starvation and forest fires, we say get it.