Review: Tharsis (Sony Playstation 4)

Tharsis
Genre: Board Game/Survival Horror
Developer: Choice Provisions
Publisher: Choice Provisions
Release Date: 01/12/16

When you first start looking into Tharsis, there’s a lot there that can immediately catch your eye no matter what sort of gamer you think you are. The concept, of people attempting to survive in space during a mission gone wrong, has overtones of Apollo 13 (stated as an intentional effort by the developer) and, more recently, The Martian, which makes it instantly appealing to anyone who loves those works. The game is also based around a trip toward Mars to investigate something strange, which again has overtones of The Martian, as well as Prometheus and even DOOM to a point. The actual gameplay is based around tabletop outer space survival horror concepts, which can potentially be immediately interesting to fans of something like Space Hulk and FTL, or even Darkest Dungeon, Kingdom Death or Dead Space for those who like some of the core concepts and would be encouraged by the others. In other words, there’s the core of an amazing idea here, one that could (with the right attention) become something really and truly special with the right degree of development, and I was all too eager to jump into it and try my hand at the game to see how that core developed. What I’ve found, after an extensive amount of playtime, is an experience that’s really going to be appealing to a specific group of players, and is going to be much harder to recommend to anyone not within that particular group.

We can’t turn back, but how can we go on?

The basic plotline is as such: the spaceship Iktomi is on the first ever mission to Mars when an impact to the ship destroys the food supply and kills two of the crew members, leaving the remaining four on a damaged ship with limited food and limited chances of survival. Well, name your spaceship after a trickster spirit, don’t be surprised if things start blowing up, right? The objective here is simple: use your crew and all available resources to keep as many of the crew alive as possible for ten turns, at which point you’ll hopefully be able to land safely on Mars; it’s not the best option, but it’s the only viable one, as returning home is no longer an option. What’s interesting about the plot of Tharsis is that it’s not just about surviving the trip to Mars alive and intact, though; while the first few weeks of play surround the simple act of surviving the damage to the ship and crew, later on it becomes apparent something far more involved is going on. Your ship begins receiving strange messages from the Tharsis region of Mars, a volcanic plateau which should (by all indications) be barren and dead, and as tension mounts, more and more questions about what, exactly, is going on drive the plot as much as the need to survive the ongoing events. The plot is also interesting because, frankly, it’s only a small part of the experience; you’ll only see about one or two minutes of plot exposition per week, while most of your play time will be spent actually working on keeping the ship and crew alive, which works really well for the experience. There’s just enough plot with just enough detail to be creepy and engaging, but not so much that it burdens the game, and it almost has a sort of Lovecraftian “fill in the details yourself” mentality to it that works in context; it’s not amazing on its own, but in the game itself, it does a lot to drive the experience onward.

Tharsis has an interesting visual presentation that’s technically sound and artistically interesting, and while it’s not a powerhouse, it does a lot with what it has to really make the experience sing. The Iktomi and its crew have a very retro-futuristic appearance to them; director Mike Roush explains that he took inspiration from 70’s sci-fi for the design of the ship, and it shows in the bright colors used in the ship aesthetics and room interiors combined with the modernized appearance of the ship and facilities themselves. This also extends to the cast, as their spacesuit design follows the same aesthetic, but allows for a visible view of their faces so you can see their tension as it plays across their face to monitor just how stressed out they really are at a glance. There are also little touches, like how dice will turn bloody after a character has engaged in cannibalism, or how rooms will sometimes directly change appearance based on the damage sustained, that really make the visual presentation sing. The game is also an artistic showcase aurally, thanks in large part to an amazing soundtrack. Several of the tracks used in the game are heavily evocative of the tension of the experience, and a few are honestly just well composed enough that they stand alone as great pieces of work out of context. The voice work used during cutscenes is also top notch, and will swap between characters depending on who’s in your crew at any given time, which is also pretty interesting. Outside of the plot, there are only a few bits of voice work in the game, mostly used when characters are in pain or die, and they’re effective as well… if for different reasons.

I think we actually might have a chance.

The core gameplay mechanics of Tharsis are incredibly easy to explain, and more or less boil down as such: each turn you’re given a team of people on the spaceship and a variable amount of disasters that can potentially destroy the ship or harm the crew, and it’s up to you to assign your team to the disasters, contain them, and then rotate to the next week to do it all over again. How this all works, however, is where the game gets interesting, largely because a lot of it boils down to a combination of proper decisions, proper assignments and a whole lot of luck. At the beginning of each week, some amount of new disasters will befall the ship; in the beginning it will generally be two, but later weeks can increase this value over time. Each disaster has a value associated with it that has to be repaired before the disaster will really go away, as well as an effect associated with it that can damage the characters, damage the ship, damage food supplies, or break systems within the ship, depending on the location of the damage. To repair a problem area, you have to send one of the crew to the location, which will kick them into attempting to resolve the issue, which is where a lot of the game’s luck comes in. When a character enters a location, they’re given a few options, but the most common option you’ll be going for is to roll dice. This rolls an amount of dice equivalent to the character’s dice value (located under their picture), which then show up on-screen with their results. Each room you can potentially repair has a set repair value associated to it, which you can reduce by selecting dice from what you’ve rolled, and once the repair value for the room is paid off, the room is repaired. Any rooms repaired during a week are cleared, but any rooms left not paid off at that time inflict their effect, and either you fail at that moment, or you move onto the next week. It’s theoretically simple, but there are a lot of systems that add to the complexity from here, so it’s not just about moving and rolling dice.

First, let’s talk about what you can do with your dice once they’ve been rolled. Generally, you’d think you’d want to use them to repair a room on the ship, but that’s not always the best or most useful option, depending on the room effect and what you can potentially do otherwise. For one thing, each room has a specific action it can perform with dice assigned to it; for example, the Greenhouse can produce food, Life Support can directly add dice to a character’s pool, and the Medical Bay can replenish health for the user of the device. For another, most characters also have an effect they can use with a die assigned to it, so your Doctor can heal one point of health to everyone in the room, your Mechanic can repair the ship by one point, your Commander can repair four damage to a room, and so on. Finally, you’re also granted Research options to use; by assigning dice to the research pool at the bottom of the screen (which can take up to six dice, from 1-6), you can use the pool to potentially use one of three Research Projects, which are randomly selected at the start. You can also burn a point to shuffle the projects out for brand new ones if you don’t like the selection on offer. Alternately, if you don’t like some or all of the dice you rolled, every character has the option to reroll their dice one time (except the Specialist, who has two rerolls) to try and get a better result. You have a lot of options available to you per turn, in essence, and making the best use of your assets is key to survival.

Another big key to surviving is managing the events going on throughout the ship against the constant changes in your crew. First off, the events themselves are a big deal, and as they can often damage your crew or the ship, strip dice from the characters or damage facilities you might want to use, you’ll need to prioritize what gets repaired when. However, there’s also the matter of Hazards to consider. Essentially, each room with an Event inside has one to three Hazards, which are dice rolls that can potentially cause a negative effect to go off when the value is rolled. Hazards come in three flavors: Stasis (a blue die) which sticks the roll at its current value and allows no re-roll, Injury (an orange die) which causes one point of damage every time its value is rolled, and Void (a purple die) which eats the die that rolled it entirely. You can potentially nullify Hazards with Assists, of which you get one per week by default and can get more in different ways, but otherwise these Hazards can potentially be a disastrous turn of events, costing you actions or even crew members. Also, you’ll also want to consider who can safely repair a room to begin with, as passing through a room that has an event going on will incur one damage to any crew doing so, meaning a high dice player might not survive moving to a high repair room, though even if they do the Hazards may prove too much for them if they take damage along the way. It also bears noting that each character has a Stress meter, located to the left of their portrait, that indicates how fit they are mentally, which will rise as damage and destruction mount, and can be lowered from room effects or other means. Finally, keep in mind that an ignored Event doesn’t go away, so you’ll have to consider it the following week in addition to any new Events that spawn that week, so leaving an event in place should always come down to what you can survive over all else.

The last notable element of play to discuss is the downtime between play weeks, where several events can potentially dictate the course of play for the next week. The obvious elements, such as the negative effects associated with rooms left unrepaired, will be tallied before this happens, of course, but in addition to this, each character will lose one die at the end of their turn (unless you used some effect to add dice to their pool) to simulate hunger as the week ends. Once the downtime begins, the game will present you with your crew members, who will be divided into groups of up to three, each of which will present a potential action to undertake during the downtime. This choice can potentially have positive and negative ramifications, but will also be influenced by the Stress of the crew; higher Stress levels give way to more risky and insane suggestions, and a character who is totally Stressed can’t pair up with anyone to plan, and will often suggest horribly negative ideas, while low Stress characters will offer minimal or no-risk plans. Once one is chosen, you’ll then be able to supply food to characters to replace dice lost, if you have any; you get some free early on, but other allotments must be made in the Greenhouse. Alternately, around the third week you’ll discover you can potentially resort to cannibalism, which also replaces dice, but hurts maximum hit points, and turns dice bloody red (complete with blood splashes when rolled), to indicate that this character is tainted by the act. Once you’ve allotted food as desired, the next week starts and new events kick in, and this cycle continues until you win… or, well, die.

What have we gotten ourselves into?

You can complete a single session with Tharsis in around a half an hour to two hours; each play turn takes around five to ten minutes, depending on how much plotting you do as you play, and it’s a fairly easy game to pick up and play a round of, especially since it allows for mid-game saving as needed. It’s by no means an easy game, however, and you’ll find that many, many of your missions result in death as you learn the mechanics and what tools to make use of at what point for the best possible effect. That said, the game isn’t static by any means, as continuous play can unlock up to five additional crew members to sub in and out as you wish to build the ideal team for your play style, as each has their own unique benefits that can make for a much different experience when trying to keep things together. Additionally, the game also offers an upgraded difficulty, Hard, that increases the challenge of surviving quite a bit, and by all indications there will be a patch implemented that allows for online leaderboards so you can compare survival times and scores against friends and such to see how well your parties hold up.

So, with all of the positive commentary I’ve lavished on the game, there’s one simple problem that can potentially undo all of the positive elements the game has to offer, and it is that the game, for all its positives, is extremely RNG heavy, to the point where your own decisions account for maybe 25% of the possibilities of success, if that. Randomization in games isn’t a bad thing, but you can’t really compare this game to something like Space Hulk or XCOM because strategy is far less helpful in this game than in those games. Here, it’s entirely possible to make a roll only to see your entire dice pool get swallowed up by Void or your character die instantly from Injury, and you can only have three Assists in stock, so a character with five dice could burn those in a single roll if you’re unlucky. The problem here is, with four characters potentially rolling twice per character, you will be unlucky a lot in the early going, and even with expert planning it’s very frustrating at times when the game simply deals you a bad hand that brings your plans down around you, which happens frequently. RNG dependence in games is a fine enough mechanic, but in Tharsis it frequently feels like the RNG is the only thing that matters, and while players who love that feeling of oppression will adore this, it’s honestly not for everyone.

That’s the most unfortunate thing about Tharsis; for as well as the product is put together conceptually and structurally, the mechanics of play are so devoted to random chance that it’s a game that best appeals to the min/max niche over any form of broad play, which limits its appeal a lot. That’s unfortunate because outside of that, Tharsis is an awesome experience, between the outstanding visual and aural presentation, the minimalist-yet-striking narrative setup and the easily understood play mechanics. There’s a lot to love in the game, thanks to its pick-up-and-play structure and its atmospheric presentation, and there’s also a lot of content to unlock to keep you coming back for quite a while as well. The RNG heavy play style, however, often leaves the game feeling less like a randomized strategy game and more like a random experience altogether, as a single bad roll can ruin an entire strategy outright, and with so much of the game based on randomization it’s challenging to affect any kind of consistent strategy long-term. If you can appreciate games where luck is as important as (or more important than) skill, Tharsis will be something you’ll want to acquire the day it releases; for everyone else, it might be worth looking into, but unless you’re okay with heavy losses coming down to a single roll of the dice, you might want to think on it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Tharsis is a game that’s amazing in style, structure and presentation, but limited in its appeal a bit by its gameplay that heavily favors randomization over skill, and ends up limiting itself a bit as a result. The game is otherwise a joy to experience, and it wears its influences on its sleeve through its minimalist and creepy plot and its retrofuturistic visuals, alongside its outstanding soundtrack and solid voicework. Mechanically, the game is simple to play and works as a bite-sized experience due to its board-game structure, allowing for quick sessions that make it easy to jump into whenever you have a free moment. There’s also a good amount of challenge and content to keep you coming back, from multiple difficulties to unlockable characters to a leaderboard to compare performances against others, so the game has plenty of long-term value on top of everything else. However, its design favors randomization over skill, and even the best strategies can be horribly undone by one bad roll, making it hard to appreciate for the player who favors skill or simply wants to feel like their actions matter more than the RNG. In the end, Tharsis is an interesting experience, and one that’s worth looking into for the min/max friendly fan or players who enjoy challenge and punishment outside their control, but those who find games that favor chance over skill by a wide margin problematic will want to think twice before investing in it.

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