It can be easy to fall into a certain rhythm with modern RPGs, especially after series such as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy more or less codified a sort of ‘blueprint’ that players come to expect. However, RPGs in general vastly predate this blueprint, having received their start in a more social setting via tabletop games. Here, greater emphasis was placed on imagination and a more abstract ruleset, allowing for a more undefined and open-ended experience. Curious Expedition – a new roguelike available on the Switch eShop – falls in with this more classic style, opting to grant players a relatively freeform adventure on each run. Though its archaic trappings will no doubt prove to limit this one to a very specific crowd of fans, Curious Expedition nonetheless provides a challenging and enjoyable experience that’s certainly worth consideration.
The premise of Curious Expedition centres around you taking control of one of about two dozen explorers in the 19th century and your goal is to achieve as much fame and fortune as possible across six expeditions to various savage and unexplored places in the world. Due to the randomized nature of things, character development and even a traditional narrative are virtually nonexistent, although this doesn’t necessarily mean that storytelling is weak. Rather, the narrative strength lies in how the continuous stream of emergent events supply all sorts of hilarious and unexpected twists that keep each run interesting.
For example, one run allowed us to recruit none other than Jim Sterling himself into our party, and he proved to be a valued asset in fighting a mummy, two rabid gorillas, and a native that he’d angered when his uncontrollable kleptomania led to him looting the man’s house. Jim met his unfortunate end at a mission of all places, where the presiding monk had a habit of turning into a werewolf during certain phases of the moon. It’s the ridiculous and unpredictable nature of Curious Expedition that gives it such an alluring edge, keeping you hooked into playing through more runs just out of sheer (ahem) curiosity about what might happen next time.
A typical expedition sees you picking a location from the world map and embarking on a trip there to find a golden pyramid that can then allow you to return home. The goal, however, is not to find the pyramid as quickly as possible, but to pick up as much valuable treasure as possible along the way, which can then either be sold or donated upon your return for fortune or fame, respectively. Your ship arrives on the shore of a massive, mostly obscured hexagonal map, and it’s only by navigating your party across the land that new regions are slowly revealed to you. Every so often, you’ll come across a question mark on your map which signifies a location you can interact with, and these can range from villages where you can trade with natives and rest to ancient shrines where you can risk taking items in exchange for possibly triggering a horrible curse.
Successfully completing certain locations on the map can grant you points which can then be invested into any characters on your team, bolstering things like their hit points, dice count, and the kind of passive abilities available to them. Nobody ever can be buffed to the point of feeling overpowered, but any small improvements nonetheless have a substantial effect on your odds of overcoming challenges. Mitigating controllable risk is one thing, but Curious Expedition loves to throw random, unforeseen events your way that can instantly change the tempo of your adventure, such as sudden enemy attacks.
Combat is handled via a turn-based setup that’s all based around dice rolls. Each member of your team is represented via a die, and these can have various offensive or defensive capabilities. You get three dice rolls per turn, and the outcome of each roll can then be selected and combined together for various combo attacks. For example, you can stick together two attack dice for a powerful strike, or you can use one defensive and one attack die to execute a ‘riposte’ attack that both damages the enemy and gives your team a defence buff. The key thing here is that your options each turn are at the complete mercy of chance. Sometimes you’ll want to use a specific attack to off an enemy, but the die you need to do it will never land. Sometimes dice will ‘roll’ off the board and thus contribute nothing to that roll. This level of RNG makes each turn and each battle a thrilling experience, as the risks are ridiculously high considering what you could possibly stand to lose.
Indeed, if there were one word to described Curious Expedition’s gameplay it would be risky. Every single thing you can possibly do in Curious Expedition comes with some consequence attached, making it an experience fraught with anxiety and tension. For example, the basic act of simply moving costs your team a little bit of sanity with each step, and possibly other resources, like water if they happen to be in an arid climate. Lose your sanity, and the possibility of your team turning on each other or suffering some horrible accident goes up dramatically. Or, in another example, you may find yourself at the mouth of a cave, but have no torches because you sold off your supply at the last village in exchange for water. You can choose to go deeper into the cave and risk an injury to one of your party members or you can pass on it, missing out on the potential supplies and treasures contained within.
We rather appreciated this focus on no-nonsense decision making, as literally a single mistake can end a thirty-minute run just like that. It forces you to be cautious with each step you take, playing out all the potential consequences that could result from a single decision, and this more deliberate style of play is rare in roguelites these days. In the best-case scenario, you’ll barely scrape by and all but crawl to that pyramid at the end, but the sense of accomplishment when you do succeed is thus intensely rewarding. Clearing a run of Curious Expedition is no small feat, and you can’t help but keep going back for more to see how you can do better as you deepen your understanding of the mechanics.
Those of you looking for replayability will be thrilled to learn that there are dozens of in-game achievements to grab for hitting various milestones, and some of these can even lead to you unlocking new explorers to start the next run with. However, these new explorers are the only thing Curious Expedition has resembling general progression; nothing else carries over between runs or makes your latter runs any easier. This proves to be a bit of a double-edged sword; on one hand, it guarantees that the difficulty curve remains consistent, but on the other hand, it also leads to a growing sense of repetition. When things don’t change notably between runs, you inevitably begin to see more and more recurring examples of events and conflicts, making Curious Expedition a game that doesn’t have nearly as long of a tail as we’d like.
Presentation is another area of disappointment, as it only satisfies, rather than impressing. Seeing as your whole experience is ultimately the ebb and flow of bouncing between the map and static screens, one would hope that the visuals would be a little more interesting than they actually are. None of it looks bad – there’s a suitable amount of detail and colour used in most screens – but the general lack of animations makes Curious Expedition feel far less interactive. Combine this with the rather forgettable visuals, and Curious Expedition doesn’t leave much of an impression with its presentation.
There are very few games like Curious Expedition available on the eShop at the time of writing, and that unique identity is something not to be dismissed out of hand. The hexagon map design, punishing difficulty, and focus on emergent events help Curious Expedition build its case, but the simplistic visuals and lack of overarching progression do hinder its appeal. If you’re pining for a more punishing and simpler RPG experience that calls back to the days of tabletop gaming, Curious Expedition is quite literally made for you. If that’s not your cup of tea, then we’d encourage you to more closely examine whether this is something you really feel like dropping the cash on. Curious Expedition is a rewarding and enjoyable roguelite, but it‘s far from a necessary buy.