Curious Expedition 2 is a roguelike. Ok, now that I scared all the roguelike haters away from this article, let’s dive more into what this game is. If I had to describe it quickly, I would call it a 19th century colonial looting simulator where you go to a mysterious island, loot some stuff, maybe map the place out, and leave with a little more glory to your name and cash in your pocket. It looks alright, plays fine enough, and leaves a very bitter taste in your mouth given how it frames its world.
That troublesome world
The first thing I am diving into is that worldbuilding. Because holy moly, does it not sit right with me. The story plays out that you are an “intrepid adventurer” in 1880’s Paris looking to find many beautiful and exotic treasures in time for the Exposition Universelle. To do this, you go to unseen islands and pillage many indigenous peoples of their goods, desecrate their shrines, and use them as resources to better your adventure on the island. Oh, you also leave them to die as a mysterious fog consumes their home. Essentially you are a colonist. You utilize people framed as lesser as a resource, steal their shit, and if you don’t get along with them for whatever reason, you fight and kill them. All the human inhabited islands are people of colour who wield what one could call “primitive technology”, and worship Gods that are seen as strange to the team you lead.
Oh, also there are non-human inhabitants on some islands. Just in case you wanted to see some of these people as literally not human. One of the non-human races I encountered, made of salamander people, use ze/hir pronouns. I think the developers were trying to appear inclusive with putting those pronouns in, but giving neopronouns to an inhuman race kinda sends the message that only animals use them, which is, well, a statement. There’s also a race of underground mole people, who are noted for “impressively” having heavy industry and weapons. Again, maybe framing literal mole people as “more technologically advanced” compared to the humans who are clear stand-ins for actual indigenous peoples is a tad insensitive when you think about it for a minute.
But at least your team is diverse! Your group of pillaging monsters can comprise of East Indian cartographers, Roma traders, British soldiers, and many other people from backgrounds that feels different from each other. And there is seemingly equal gender parity, so yay? They clearly attempted to make your team feel like something that wasn’t just a bunch of stuffy old white dudes, but it leaves the colonialist and fantasy themes of the game feel like they were not thought through as much as they should have been. If these kinds of things bother you, I highly recommend not going anywhere near this game.
Gameplay and Appearance
So, besides the stuff that is pretty offensive to my palette, how does the game play? Curious Expedition 2 plays fine enough. The islands randomly generate and the difficulty is high, especially on the story maps. It definitely is a roguelike game. You march through the island discovering random locations and slowly drain your sanity bar as you make moves through the wilderness. Sanity will be your biggest hurdle, as running out of it must be avoided by eating chocolate, drinking liquor, and spending some days in either a native village or beautiful locales the game allows you to stop in. If you run out of sanity though, the game will either be nice and land you somewhere you can rest up and regain it, or send you on a miserable ride of events until you die and the game ends.
Events are some of Curious Expedition 2’s strongest points. You have events for characters getting sick, a team member being angry with you as they lose loyalty, running into abandoned scouting camps, or meeting natives outside their village. These, along with combat which I will get to in a moment, are results of these events are determined by dice rolls. Roll well, and you continue the event with positive outcomes. Fail, and it can result in someone getting hurt, or the indigenous peoples hating you for the rest of the game. The dice rolls feel fair enough most of the time, but also can leave you in a pickle should you get unlucky which add to the difficulty of the game.
Now how does Curious Expedition 2’s combat work? Simple enough, it’s a turn based system where you roll dice to find out what is available to you. You attack, heal, maybe stack attacks, and then your enemies attack you once you’re done. It can make for some decent combat planning in the more difficult sections of the game. It functions enough to make it engaging, but there’s nothing truly unique to this if you have ever played a tabletop game with this type of combat.
The game’s aesthetic is not bad, but it leaves me feeling like I am playing a 2000’s educational game at my elementary school. The characters all look unique, they hold the weapons you give them, and the backgrounds are especially crisp looking. I still can’t shake the fact that I feel like the game is going to teach me how to do division or how to type given its looks. The music is also more than serviceable, but also supports my theory that if you enter a special code, the game enters an educational phase.
Alright, so recommendations. Where does that leave us? If the first half of this review makes you feel possibly uncomfortable with the world Curious Expedition 2 has built, then stay away from it. Personally, no amount of good gameplay and story telling can redeem this game from what it has built for its world. In an era where many colonial nations are reckoning with their horrendous pasts, this strange glorification of the peak of European imperialism feels like it is lacking the self-awareness to get away with it.
If you can tolerate that issue though, then there isn’t much else that I can see driving people too up the wall, with the exception of the difficulty. The combat is solid, the events are varied enough to make an interesting tale with your merry crew of looters, and the gameplay loop can be genuinely engaging. In classic roguelike fashion, the island and story you tell is unpredictable, so prepare for everything, hope for an easy journey, and don’t anger the mole people, because they will ruin your day.
Disclosure: I was gifted my copy of Curious Expedition 2 by Maschinen-Mensch