Curious Expedition 2 review: perhaps it’s time we stopped celebrating the Victorians

When we started A Most Agreeable Pastime back in 2011, we thought it would be fun to adopt a Victorian style for the website. Marrying video games with Victorian trappings felt delightfully anachronistic, and we had a silly old time pretending to be Victorian gentlemen in a crumbly old manor. There was even a choose your own adventure game that took readers through the passageways of the mansion.

But over the years, I’ve gradually scaled back the Victoriana side of the site. Mostly, that’s because I’ve become increasingly uncomfortable with celebrating the Victorian era. Let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Victorian style, because frankly, they had brilliant style, with all those polished brass machines, stovepipe hats and magnificent buildings. If you’ve ever wandered around any UK town, you’ve probably admired a neat row of stunning stone townhouses from the early nineteenth century and thought: “Why can’t we make beautiful houses like this any more?” And if you’ve followed up that thought, the short answer to the question is that those beautiful houses were built on the back of massive exploitation that would utterly unconscionable in the twenty-first century.

Because, really, the Victorians were massive gits. The Industrial Revolution may have set in motion modern society as we know it, but it was founded on an enormous wealth gap between rich and poor, not to mention dirty money from practices like slavery and child labour. London may have got some stunning buildings as a result, but the majority of the city’s population was living in slum conditions and being paid an absolute pittance to build them.

Then there’s the whole Empire thing. European nations raced to colonise Africa throughout the nineteenth century, bloodily suppressing its people while funnelling Africa’s wealth back home. The effects of that bloody period are still being felt across the continent today, and Britain’s exploitation of Africa was mired in hideous notions of white supremacy. So it’s a weird thing to make a video game about.

I first saw a trailer for Curious Expedition 2 last year, and I was really drawn to its distinct and colourful graphical style. I’ve never played the first Curious Expedition, and apparently the art style is quite different for this sequel – this has apparently upset some fans, but I reckon it looks great. The cartoony look really pops with its vibrant colours, and the quirky graphics are what piqued my interest in the game in the first place. But now I’ve actually played the game, I’m shocked at what lurks beneath the surface.

Curious Expedition 2 isn’t specifically about the colonisation of Africa, but it employs many of the tropes associated with that shameful period in history. The game begins with a band of explorers discovering a mysterious island, in the centre of which stands a possibly alien structure. The adventurers then trigger some mechanism which causes the island to be flooded with a deadly purple fog, prompting them to flee back to their boats, and back to Europe. Then the rest of the game sees you heading expeditions to other mysterious islands, with the idea of finding out the secret behind these ancient structures.

As a concept, this seems innocuous enough. But in the execution it all gets a bit uncomfortable. In exploring the islands, you come across ‘natives’ who may help or hinder you, but otherwise are mostly a backdrop to your plundering. The game’s use of the term ‘natives’ in itself is a bit of a red flag, harking back to Imperialist attitudes (most style guides these days outlaw the term, preferring the use of Indigenous peoples). Astonishingly, one of the expedition leaders is a ‘Big Game Hunter’, and early on you can attack and kill an elephant, harvesting its ivory. My partner, who was watching me play this game, summed up my feelings in one sentence: “This is wrong.”

Because without doubt, you are playing the bad guys in Curious Expedition 2. Almost every level sees you invading some island and nicking stuff from the people who live there, carting the loot back to your paymasters in Europe. Games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted at least make an effort to justify the plunder of ancient shrines, often with an overarching story that makes clear who the bad guys really are – and for the most part in those games, the folks who built the shrines are long gone. But here you’re simply looting from Indigenous people, often triggering some deadly purple fog in the process to really screw them over once you’ve legged it.

And not only did I find the whole scenario intensely uncomfortable, it also just feels like an absolute chore to play. As you trek into the interior of each island, a ‘sanity meter’ ticks down, which you can top up again by doing things like eating chocolate or drinking whisky. But the constant draining of sanity really discourages you from properly exploring the island – the emphasis is instead on getting to your destination as efficiently as possible. You might end up recruiting a few people to your party on the way, and some might leave you if they get too discouraged, but it’s difficult to become attached to them at all, since there is barely any dialogue among you. It all just feels a little one-dimensional and, well, wrong.

The combat system is probably the main highlight – the turn-based battles are based on rolling dice, and there’s a good bit of strategy to be had in working out which dice to use and in which combination. But when you’re mostly slaughtering native wildlife like hyenas, the fun is somewhat sucked out of it all. After just a few hours, I found Curious Expedition 2 so unpleasant that I just didn’t want to play it any more.

There are other games that do the whole ‘survival-focused expedition’ thing much better, like As Far As The Eye or Inkle’s Pendragon, which also adds some excellent character development along the way. And there are plenty of games that use Victorian imagery without falling into the trap of glorifying Victorian ideals of Empire and colonisation – Sunless Skies is a great example of a game with Victorian visuals that painstakingly points out the cruelty and exploitation at the heart of nineteenth-century ‘progress’. Curious Expedition 2 happily riffs on Victorian style, but also ends up embracing the rotten values at the core of that very society.

Curious Expedition 2 was developed by Maschinen-Mensch, and it’s available on PC, with Switch, Xbox and PlayStation versions to follow later in 2021.

Disclosure statement: review code for Curious Expedition 2 was provided by Plan of Attack. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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