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Never mind the poet’s rant, September is the cruelest month. Early September, in particular, with its vacant chaise lounges, the lifeless promenades, and the slowly emptying resorts already evincing the preparatory stages of their upcoming hibernation. Holiday season is over and—as long as there’s a classroom or an office chair waiting back home—so are the chances for wild adventures in exotic locations. But worry not, video games are here to help you cope with those autumnal blues by simulating the perfect vacation adventure.
The Big Blue found its gaming counterpart in the vibrant depths of Abzû’s post-apocalyptic ocean, but there’s another approach to reclaiming the summer, one that’s closer to the perilous inland treks in the exotic locations of The Beach than Luc Besson’s diving melodrama. Peculiarly enough, this second approach is embodied by two games that, while thematically identical and both indebted to the deep-space roguelike FTL for the way they handle exploration, have developed independently: The Curious Expedition and Renowned Explorers: International Society.
Like FTL, the main screen of The Curious Expedition puts you at the starting point of a mostly shrouded overhead map that provides a vague idea of your final destination but little information on the possible encounters you’ll find along the way. Here, mining colonies are replaced with tribal villages, alien pirates with feral tigers, and spaceship wrecks with ancient shrines. Most events are resolved through multiple choice dialogues, and, if worse comes to worst, a combat system that involves rolling some nifty-looking dice. Taking a page from The Call Of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, a quantifiable sanity statistic functions like your 19th-century hiker’s equivalent of fuel, restricting the amount of locations you can visit before exiting, even as the game tempts you for one more side trek to acquire the extra artifact that would raise your overall score above your fellow explorers.
Both games are structured as competitions and allow a certain number of expeditions before comparing your score to those of several AI-controlled rivals enacting their own adventures, unseen, in different corners of the globe. In Renowned Explorers, food, rather than sanity, substitutes for fuel, and combat is resolved in turn-based fashion via an intriguing rock-paper-scissors-style system where attacks, depending on character class and level, are divided into three “attitude” categories: friendly, devious, and aggressive. In addition to its local effects, each attack influences the overall mood of the battlefield, providing special bonuses and penalties, such as boosting the dodging capabilities of a devious party against aggressive opponents. It is a carefully designed system that provides a level of tactical depth that’s lacking from The Curious Expedition while sacrificing some of the latter’s briskness.
Nevertheless, in both games, the main appeal lies not in combat but exploration, both of the branching paths whose intricately constructed whims may take a single situation into wildly varying outcomes, and of a setting that’s more immediately familiar to and evocative of this fading summer than the cold vastness of space.
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