You can’t win at another man’s game, but you can try.
I had no idea what I was getting myself into when My Editor-in-Chief asked me to review Tharsis. I didn’t look at a single screenshot or any videos, I just downloaded it and started it up. What resulted is an experience that had some really interesting mechanics and thoughts, but was bogged down with a brutal difficulty that was too unforgiving, while the entire game relied on chance far too many times.
Tharsis has players controlling a group of astronauts on a mission to Mars. 10 weeks before making it there, their ship is hit by micrometeoroids and two crew members are killed. That leaves just four members to maintain the ship, gather resources, and make it to Mars. The next 10 weeks are going to be hell in space.
Platforms: PS4, PC
Price I’d pay: $10
The game plays out much like a board game, to the point that each character actually uses dice to roll for different things. Each turn (one week in the game) events will pop up, and the player must deploy the crew to different parts of the ship to fix the issues that crop up. These issues have a number associated with them. Let’s say a fire has broken out in the medical bay. It requires 22 points to fix. If I don’t fix the issue on that turn, the ship will receive two damage and I only have three points of health left. So repairing this is a must. I then must use my crew members to roll dice in the medical bay to repair it. I then begin rolling six sided die to reduce the number for repairs. Depending on the character, they may start off with only two dice or even four dice, so it may require more than one character to finish off the repairs.
Hungry? Grab a friend.
Dice are represented by how well fed the crew member is. Giving food to a character will give them three dice (up to five) that they can roll on the next turn. If I don’t have any food, well, my crew won’t be very effective for the next turn. There’s another option when it comes to food, one that may break the crew as they skid off into insanity – cannibalism. That’s right, there’s still the body of one of their dead crew members on board. If players are running low on natural food, they can gnaw on one of their buddies for a meal. This then results in the crew’s stress meter going up, and that is never good.
Well, how do I get natural food if I don’t want to turn my crew into flesh eating madmen? Well, I can harvest food from the greenhouse. Doing that requires rolls. You know, those valuable rolls that I use to repair the ship when events pop up. Each area of the ship has a purpose, whether it is adding health to the crew or the ship, reducing stress, gathering food, and other things.
The hard questions.
In between the turns, players are also tasked with choices they have to make, each with bonuses and drawbacks. Do I want to reduce the stress of my crew by 20% but take one damage to my ship? Or do I want to add one food to our resources but every crew member loses one health? It’s like many Telltale games – the choices are both bad.
On top of all this, many events will have issues that can affect rolls. Injury, Stasis, Void can really ruin a crew member’s week when rolling. Each character is allowed one re-roll as well. Say that 22 repair points in the medical bay is still needed and there’s three conditions affecting the area. If I roll a two, the die goes into Stasis and can’t be rerolled. If I roll three, that crew member takes an injury from their already low hit points, if I roll a five, void takes the die and it is lost completely making it a lost roll. How am I supposed to succeed on that? Well, that’s the ultimate question I have been asking myself ever since I fully understood how the game was played.
The house usually always wins.
I can’t help but feel that 80% of the time, the deck is stacked against me. I get a challenge, but relying on a video game to roll well for me is not very comforting. I had many games end in week two just because the starting events were too high to repair. Even utilizing my crew members’ powers and the area’s abilities was merely putting a band-aid on the ultimate situation. Yeah, I can see how the game actually wants players to feel that. Feel like their flying by the seat of their pants. I get it, but in reality, that makes for a rather annoying game experience. There’s difficult but fair, and then there’s I might as well quit because I’m completely screwed. At the same time, I had some games where everything went well. I made it deep into the game and came out almost a winner. At least, in this I wasn’t beaten down within five minutes of starting a new game, but like I said, I had those kinds of games maybe two times out of ten.
Meeting certain requirements unlocks new crew members to play as in the game. Each has their own unique abilities that can be utilized while playing. Experimenting with other characters adds a bit more to the game play.
I did like the look of the game. It’s simple, but with some rather decent looking animations for the crew members who usually have a grim look on their face given the situation. The music is also another good aspect of the game – using synth sounds and some upbeat electronic music to give off a space adventure as well as a frantic feel.
Tharsis is a game of management, analysis, and some dumb luck. There were times I found it highly enjoyable, but there were more times I found it frustratingly unfair. If the game relies on chance this much, it should ease the game in rather than starting almost immediately with issues that could kill the entire crew in two turns. For the board game people, they will find this to be more up their alley. People looking for a more action type experience will have to look elsewhere. If you do decide to pick it up, just keep in mind, it is brutal, unforgiving, and takes a lot of patience to get into. When you do, you may very well find some enjoyment out of it maybe two times out of ten.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.