An examination of the good (and bad) of its expedition system
Curse of the dead gods (from now on referred to as COTDG) is a rogue-lite game developed by Passtech Games and published by Focus Home Interactive, which came out of early access on 23rd of February 2021. I’ve spent 21 hours with the game and I really liked it; it has a great art style that works extremely well when it comes to supporting the gameplay and mechanics, it has satisfying combat, and very interesting systems and ideas on how to create a risk/reward system vital to rogue-like/lite games that are appealing to long-time fans of the genre and accessible for newcomers. Chief among those ideas is the expedition system, which is COTDG’s way of structuring the content in an accessible way that encourages and rewards players of all skill levels with the end goal of everyone experiencing most of what the game has to offer.
In COTDG, players must traverse 3 different temples filled with eldritch and Lovecraftian abominations in order to get to the final challenge – which is to traverse all 3 temples at once and fight the dead gods – in order to acquire “untold riches, eternal life, divine powers…” as stated in the game’s Steam page. Before I get into the expedition system, I want to give a brief overview of the game’s other major features; as with any good rogue-lite, the basis for the success of the game is a satisfying combat system. COTDG has many weapon classes, categorized in 3 groups – main hand, off hand, and two hand weapons. All these weapons – whether it be spears, bows, swords, maces, just to name a few – all have their own unique style to master and usability; some, like two handed swords, are slow but pack a hefty punch, while others like throwing weapons are fast and used from a distance, but are less powerful. Moreover, the game utilizes a stamina system to create tactical considerations for the player; two-hand weapons are often better in almost everything, but each use a stamina blip (out of 5) just to attack, while main-hand weapons only use stamina for finishers of combos (either the 3rd or 4th attack). Stamina is used for other vital actions like dodging, so that is a constant thought in the player’s mind, and the systems work in tangent beautifully; the player constantly has to weight the need to take out particular enemies that pose an aggressive threat, dodging incoming attacks, avoiding traps, and manipulating the light, which is probably what most players will notice once they boot up the game. When the players are in the light, they can see traps and (usually) deal more damage and take less, however in order to do that, they need to find light sources and light them; those can be enemies set on fire with your torch, or fire pits found in the levels. While all that is going on, the player needs to clear out levels and move on with each passing stage, a corruption level rises and once it reaches its threshold a curse is bestowed upon the player, which typically adds a negative and positive effect; an example is a curse that adds a gold penalty on the end of each level that if the player can pay heals them, but if not hurts them. Like all other ideas in COTDG, this is a great balance between risk/reward that immediately appeals and makes sense. For example, once you defeat the first boss of a run you get to choose a curse to remove and if you only have one curse that is automatically removed, which prompted me many times to specifically allow myself to get hurt from attacks that add to corruption and get a second curse so I can keep a curse (like the gold example from before) I already had and wanted to keep. There’s also a great mix of actual rogue systems – like the fact that none of the upgrades statistically impact your power and weapons unlocked have a chance of showing up as a part of a randomly selected loadout – and permanent upgrades – like the ingenious use of the charm system that can add attribute points or gold from the start, and make risky behavior associated with a playstyle more rewarding, like perfect parrying recovering all the stamina blips.
All these ideas are great and (at least to me and my skill level) are perfectly balanced to create a deep, yet accessible rogue-like with various points of skill-based checks of wits, mastering of controls and gameplay, and tactical thinking, but the game also goes one step further and structures itself around the expedition system. This isn’t a new idea (most notably for me, it is a nearly identical system to Neon Abyss), but expeditions is a system that is meant to allow players to get overpowered without burning through the content, and easing players in to the finer details of the risk/reward systems in the game without overwhelming them. Expeditions are categorized in 3 groups: short, medium, and long. All force you to decide which notes on a map to explore next (some provide gold, others the ability to get new weapons or upgrades using gold or corruption, etc.), but short expeditions end on the first boss, medium end on the second boss, and long are the whole temple. Each time you complete an expedition, you get a badge that will allow you to move on to the next tier of expeditions once you meet a threshold.
With the systems explained, what good comes out of the expedition system as it is in COTDG currently? Comparing it to Slaying the Spire (whose map screen is nearly identical to COTDG), the first difference I can see is a psychological one; in the Spire, defeating the first boss is not an achievement, it’s a skill check and the only reward is the incoming map screen. In COTDG, I felt more confident in tackling the game and its difficulty curve, simply because I spent time getting to grips with the systems in one map that ended in a boss fight that I won from the first try; it’s the game giving me a bicycle with the helping wheels on and congratulating me for riding a bike – it’s a false challenge, but the reward I felt and the confidence it gave me were real. Furthermore, like Neon Abyss, COTDG allows the player to become OP, but unlike Neon Abyss they also find a way to create more interesting challenges as you progress in expeditions. As an example, my favorite weapon for the first two tiers of expeditions was a main-hand sword that did not consume stamina for its finishers; this allowed me to be more aggressive and make more errors with my timing and decisions without getting immediately punished. However, that sword becomes woefully underpowered in the last map and requires a lot of resources to get it where it needs to be, so this creates an interesting decision: If I find this sword, I have to weight the benefits of breezing through most of the large expedition and storing a lot of resources, with the negatives of that sword’s damage output and how a lot of the later challenges test your timing and mastery more rigorously, which makes the sword less useful. Lastly, the game’s variety of weapons and enemies is nothing short of impressive and allowing the content to be distributed with this structure gives those designs some much needed breathing space. Weapons, in particular, have benefited heavily from this approach, as weapons have one stable trait (like poison attacks or finishers always being a critical hit) and can have up to 3 random traits that vary in stats (like 20% chance to inflict lighting damage), which always makes the weapons interesting, but the symmetry some combinations have can only be found by giving the player a clean slate 9 times; for example, I love the combination of really close combat weapons like claws, alongside pistols that allow for range, but require the player to remain still and execute perfect timing on shots to get the most out of them. That is something that I stumbled upon myself in one of the early expeditions, because I knew that even if the combination didn’t work out, the cost of failure would have been a dozen minutes of my time. Essentially, it removes that “this is the run” feeling for 2/3 of the game and adds it back in for the long expeditions, but now the player has a fundamentally strong understanding of the mechanics, the systems, and already has a few synergies and strategies in mind.
Unfortunately, not everything is positive regarding the expeditions system. Firstly, having the short and medium expeditions be necessary to complete to reach the long expeditions is understandable (as I’ve explained above), but it also creates a huge spike in difficulty, that caught me off guard. Even in medium expeditions, you can still just force your way through mistakes and bad decisions, because they aren’t that long, but long expeditions (especially the 3rd map) ramp up the necessity for tacticity and being pro-active in a way that the player hasn’t experienced yet. So, while learning to deal with this new aspect of the game, the player’s progression also slows down as unlocking requirements sky rocket in resource demanded, and the pace of unlocking and new parts slows to a crawl. I went from completing all 6 small and medium expeditions in 3 deaths and roughly 6 hours, to spending the same time dying over and over again (5 deaths in total) without unlocking anything worthwhile to beat 1 of the remaining 3 long expeditions. Another aspect that becomes apparent because of this is that the cost of failure in long expeditions isn’t that different compared to other rogue-likes, but it feels much more punishing when you go from completing a medium run in 20 minutes, to loosing on the final boss 5 times each time loosing 40+ minutes of progress. Because of that, the impressive variety in enemies and boss designs become an annoyance later on; having spend 6 hours exclusively fighting the enemies of one temple so I can finish that expedition, meant I remembered nothing about the patterns of the other enemies and then after some 5 hours spent in the second temple, had no visual recollection of the enemies in the 3rd temple!
Overall, I really like COTDG and I have enjoyed similar structures increasingly more in recent years, and COTDG’s take on it is one of the better ones; it allows the game to breath, it creates a psychologically rewarding opening that encourages the player to experiment and imbues them with confidence. There are some unavoidable flaws and some people will simply dislike the structure and will want to get to the last temple (which is all 3 temples run back to back leading to a final boss), but I’ve enjoyed this structure a lot and hope to see equally different and interesting takes in the future. For now, Curse of the dead Gods is an excellent rogue-like that I can’t wait to put even more hours into.