by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
An Age of Discovery
I’m not sure who said it, but there’s an oft-quoted saying that goes “We are the middle children of history. Born too late to explore Earth, born too early to explore space.” I don’t know if I really buy into the sentiment as a whole, but there’s no doubt that there’s a special, romanticized charm that surrounds the closing of the 17th century. While, of course, not particularly accurate, pop-history has turned the era into a period of raw, unadulterated invention and discovery not seen since. The industrial revolution had brought with it dreams of untethered progress and the dawn of a new age. Curious Expedition 2 plays to that nostalgic sense of adventure and possibility well, though actual happy endings are quite hard to come by.
Despite its relatively simple UI and unassuming, cartoony look, there’s actually a fair amount of depth to be found while exploring the unknown. You’ll start with one character and a small crew tasked with exploring unknown lands for knowledge, wealth, and fame. Of course, exploring the unknown means navigating danger both physically and mentally. The game is anchored on sanity points, a gauge more functionally like “stamina” than anything else, depleted by movement and other actions that limits the amount that can be done before things quickly turn for the worse. Planning your crew's movements becomes an issue of economy, constantly forcing you to debate whether, say, checking out a mysterious point of interest is worth possibly running out of water later. While I found the system to be a bit too harshly balanced at first, I eventually got better at navigating, planning my long-movements more confidently and getting better at using villages and oases as travel-hubs.
Movement and exploration are made more complex by your party members, all of which have their own character traits and fears. Some will be afraid of heights, for example, a fact which I inconveniently forgot until I awoke one morning to one of my longest-standing crew members furious about our mountain travel and threatening to leave (unless I gave him a healthy helping of loot). Besides determining travel, it’s in the acquiring, managing, and development of your crew that the game presents the most opportunity for strategy. You’ll need to know which characters offer bonuses and how to take advantage of them, consider opinion traits while making decisions, and make choices about when it’s time to cut someone loose. Understanding crew composition takes time, and it’s fun to puzzle-piece strengths and weaknesses together to build a crew ready for the various challenges that await. My first mission had almost no combat, which caused me to go all-in on crew members that have survival bonuses. Poetically, the next mission was filled with wild animals, and I was killed in my very first combat on the island. Eventually, I settled on a more balanced crew, including a big-game hunter for combat, a chef for healing sanity points, and a local shaman that gave bonuses when I ate local fauna.
While exploring, both combat and skill checks are determined by a color-based dice system. Different crew members bring different dice to the table, each side of which has a different action and color. In combat, different roles mean different attacks, and choosing which dice to use and which to “burn” as a boost for a different action keeps things more interesting than they’d otherwise be. In other situations, dice rolls requiring certain colors may stand in for persuasive speaking, nimble movement, or intimidation. While I generally like the system, it also wasn’t fun when things went poorly by no fault of my own. It’s not that the dice or the skill check requirements seem unbalanced, it’s just the way that any odds-based game systems work. Elements of the
Procedural, but Structured
Curious Expedition 2 is unique in that it’s both a rogue-like and a structured campaign. There’s a definitive progression of story missions that are connected by smaller missions that can be chosen between. While I enjoyed there being a bit more structure than some similar games that throw the player to the wind once the game’s started, I will say that the game would have benefitted from a sandbox mode. I enjoyed progressing through the campaign and dealing with the changes and challenges of my group from mission to mission, but there were also times when I just wanted to try out different characters or experiment without worrying about tanking a whole campaign. The obvious solution is to change failure penalties (depending on your choice of setting, failure can mean simply re-doing the mission, redoing an entire “year,” or having to restart the entire game), and, while this is a fine compromise, it doesn’t quite scratch the same itch.
At this point, I kind of have to address the elephant in the room that is the way less developed cultures and how to interact with them is handled. In following the game, I’ve seen it come up quite a bit among fans and journalists. Throughout the game, each explorable area has fictional indigenous populations that are pretty stereotypical in how they’re represented. There are also plenty of temples and other holy sites that can be plundered for items and fame. On one hand, I get the frustration some people are going to have with this; explorers historically treated native populations and their cultural locations/items in abhorrent ways, and, in-game, there’s benefit from partaking in these same actions. On the other hand, I don’t think that this power imbalance is ever glorified or played for laughs. Can you “take advantage” and loot a shrine? Sure, but you don’t have to. You have the option to, and, if you choose to do it, that’s on you. Furthermore, the playable characters represent a wide range of demographics (including locals you’ll come across), doing, in my mind, a satisfactory amount to show the best of intentions. If we can have games about, say, world wars or violent, civilian-murdering, gangs, I’m not quite sure why colonialism- especially in fictionalized settings- is much different.
Curious Expedition 2 suffers from some of the same frustrations that plague all games with any level of procedural generation, but, overall, it’s a fun romp filled with adventure and mystery. The structured story missions that frame the side quests provide a much-welcomed story to the game, and the myriad of characters, items, and gameplay options kept each mission fresh. Much like the mysterious islands you’ll explore and conquer, Curious Expedition 2 is worth checking out.
Charming atmosphere, engaging map-traversal, fun character development and crew choice.
Randomness can be frustrating, no sandbox mode.