I’m one of those people who actually appreciate the mixture of board games and video games in the purest sense of the word. I used to love to play Yahtzee and Monopoly on PC by myself. So I was really excited when I heard about Tharsis by Choice Provisions. This is without a doubt one of the most board game video games I’ve played this decade. It’s the convenience and beauty of an indie video game coupled with the stress, anger, and dice rolling of all those games you played with your family as a kid and still hate them for. While this is by no means a perfect game, it’s a good first try on what could possibly be a strong line of indie games by this particular developer and possibly copy cats.
I was very impressed by many of the visuals used in Tharsis. While the graphic style is not consistent throughout the game, there are some really strong images that definitely stuck with me. The opening image, for example, is a beautifully done 2D rending of Mars that almost comes out of the screen. And it just sits there for an extended period of time. It’s totally uncomfortable and made me start to think my PS4 was freezing up, but ultimately it was for effect. Right away this game tries to make you feel lonely, scared, and unsure of what to do and it does an excellent job. I was reminded of my experience playing Alien: Isolation during moments like that opening.
The gameplay looks totally different from the cutscenes. The in-game graphics are good, but not amazing. Very modest 3D models of a space ship made up of eight modules floating in a sea of stars. The people in the game look kind of odd. Like they’re made of wax or something. And though they all have different races and can be male or female, they all kind of look exactly the same. The modules of the ship are simple on the outside but on the inside each one has its own setting based on what part of the ship it is. These backgrounds are small, but they look very good. Layered on top of all this are lots of notes, HUD objects, and rolling dice because this is in many ways a board game. These elements actually don’t clash too much with the settings. In fact the dice, once you go cannibal, actually add to the visuals in a very uncomfortable, but extremely well done way. The tons of text everywhere is a little distracting, but it is absolutely necessary and I was thankful for it. Imagine Dungeons & Dragons the real table game done digitally as a good comparison.
The cutscenes are done in a graphic novel style. They have a very dark feel to them and it works very well. But the transition between them and the normal gameplay after every turn can be a bit jarring. Ultimately the cutscenes did impress me a lot more than the in-game visuals overall, but I don’t feel like the game would have worked properly if it had all been done in that style. Overall I was not unhappy with the graphics.
The gameplay in Tharsis on a mechanical and high concept level is almost perfect, but the way it was ultimately done is not where it should have been. It’s not even that it’s not good. It’s just that it doesn’t respect the player’s time and effort enough. This is a turn based strategy game with dice. You are given four party members each with different skills and stats with the ultimate goal of surviving until you reach Mars. In the normal mode this means surviving for 10 or 11 turns. I’m not exactly sure because I never made it past five turns even after about three straight hours of continuous replays. Party members are all members of a spaceship crew that has just suffered a cataclysmic accident. The ship has just been hit by a meteoroid causing the loss of two crew members and the food pantry stores. Your goal is to survive the rest of the journey to Mars by any means necessary. You have to keep at least one crew member alive to the end of the trip and you can’t let the ship get destroyed. Crew members have multiple stats. Life, stress level, and food all play a part here. The ship also has a health stat. If at any time your ship is destroyed or all your crew members die then you lose. Sounds simple enough, but no it isn’t.
At the beginning of each turn, new problems occur on the ship that must be dealt with. These can occur in any of the modules and have different negative effects. These can include damage to the ship, damage to the crew’s health, and a bunch of other status effects which will hurt you if left unchecked for too long. One of my major problems with the game was that some of the effects weren’t clear and then randomly I would lose a game without knowing exactly why. In the normal mode, at least three different problems/events can occur at the beginning of each turn. You use the crew to move about the ship fixing problems as they occur, but every move you make has repercussions and even if you do make the right decisions you’re still at the mercy of the dice. You use dice rolls to fix these problems by feeding them into the total number the event has until it reaches 0. The dice act as food for the crew members and each turn every crew member loses a die. This means that you have one less die to fix your problems every turn the game progresses. There are a number of ways to get food back, but all of them have consequences of some sort. You can also use dice to accomplish other things such as activate character bonuses and special assist items. As the game progresses you will get low on food and then end up having to go cannibal which will give you more dice but they will now be covered in blood which is both awesome and uncomfortable at the same time.
The gameplay is sound, fun, and pretty addicting at face value, but there are a ton of logistical problems with the way things progress that eventually make you put the game down before you ever make it to Mars. Firstly, the game is way too hard. By that I mean the number of events dealt to you at too high a frequency is atrocious. You go in expecting one event a turn with occasionally two just to keep you on your toes. This is not the case at all. The game never deals you less than two but often you get three problems in one turn while you most likely still have issues to fix from the turn before. There are no free turns where nothing bad occurs. And as you get farther into the game and presumably have lost at least one more crew member, the numbers needed to clear those new events just get higher and higher. There is no space for a breath. Even in the worst of sci-fi movies there’s always a quiet moment between problems to make you think you might actually make it to the end. Tharsis has none of that. It’s just wave after wave of chaos and pain. And even if you do somehow manage to get to a point where you are prepared for the worst you ultimately get screwed by status ailments in the events.
Each event has at least one of three status ailments that are applied to dice whenever a specific number is rolled. These can be stasis, which means you can’t re-roll that particular dice. Injury, which means the party member currently rolling takes damage to their HP. And void means you just lose a die without even being able to play it. At least with stasis and injury you can still use the die. To top it off these ailments can be compounded and always affect a minimum of at least two numbers, but sets of three can and do occur. That means that even if you have a character that has full HP, max dice, and no problems they can still die in one roll if you came up with all injury numbers without being able to contribute any progress. And yes it does happen quite a lot. One of the biggest problems with this system is that the bad numbers are at random and can be any of the six on a die. So for example, you can get an event that has 32 points needed to complete it and send in a guy with five dice (max amount of food) and 5/6 HP. Now even if you rolled all sixes you’re not going to finish the event without using another character or a special event because you’ll come up two points short. But let’s just say that six is an injury or void number. All those sixes will either injure you to death in one roll without even being able to apply the 30 points to the event or they will all just disappear into the void with much the same outcome. You’ll have lost the usefulness of a crew member and have made no progress towards finishing that event which chances are will destroy the ship at the end of the turn. There are assists which cancel out ailment rolls but they only apply to one die instead of the whole roll and they are few and far between.
Event damage is applied at the end of every turn and every turn more events are added. So it’s quite a problem when you make no progress to an event while wasting a crew member’s turn or possibly losing a crew member who was at full health altogether. A turn ends when all living crew members have rolled. But at the end of the turn the game could just end because you got screwed by ailment rolls. Coupled with that is the fact that ailments apply to re-rolls as well. This means you could injure a crew member multiple times on multiple rolls of the same turn. And re-rolls are way too common. You re-roll to get better numbers but so many times did I roll exactly the same thing I was re-rolling to avoid. It’s because of these problems that I was unable to complete a single game and ultimately gave up. I actually really enjoyed the basic concept and wanted to keep playing, but after getting nowhere fast I finally just gave up. Choice Provisions made a great general concept but they went too far on the annoying hard side when they really should have gone for a more modest approach. One thing I really didn’t like was the fact that all games are essentially the same. You are told the voyage started with six crew members but games always start with two having just died. Why is that? Why not have made the game where I can start from the beginning of the voyage and get to play with the entire crew and then sometimes play in such a way where two of them don’t automatically just die to start things off? And there are also side projects. These are the most annoying thing ever. At the beginning of every turn you are essentially told to decide between two bad decisions that will almost always end with terrible repercussions. I wish none of the above was an option at least some of the time because they’re always presented as being a way to improve the situation. Some of them will even kill crew members. I also didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t reverse choices. Because of the control scheme sometimes you accidentally place a die somewhere it shouldn’t have gone. I wouldn’t have taken issue with that if there was an undo button. And I’m not talking like multiple turns in the future I’d like to go back and do something differently. I’m talking I literally just accidentally placed something in the wrong slot and would like to undo that move. But in this game all sales are final.
The big problem with the gameplay is that there is no guaranteed victory. Like most games are made so that if you play a certain way and make all the right moves from the beginning, there is always a way to win however unlikely it is. Tharsis lacks that. You could play it a thousand times and make the best possible moves and still there is no guarantee that you will win any of those 1000 rounds because you have no control over dice rolls and ailments. And note that I’m not saying that the game is impossible. Plenty of people online have beaten it. What I’m saying is that it’s almost entirely up to chance and will take you several hours before that ever comes close to happening.
The sound in Tharsis is well done, but not well-managed. The effects are good. Death, explosions, pain, discomfort, and so on all sound just fine. You have the option to manually mix the music and effects separately while also setting the master volume. The music sounds great. It’s a small variety of different genres of tracks that travel from low and somber to upbeat and stressful. The problem is that the music isn’t continuous or in any way consistent throughout the game. Sometimes you’re playing in dead silence other than the effects and other times the music is going but I have no idea when and why it starts and stops. I really liked the music and wish it would have been playing continuously the entire time I was playing. The cutscenes are narrated, which was nice. I also like the fact that the voice changes based on who is currently still alive and in charge of your crew. The sound is great overall, but I have to dock points because of how lacking it is in the overall experience.
The plot writing is actually really good for a board game, but because of the way it’s presented and how it directly connects to the gameplay, it gets really repetitive and annoying really quickly. This is the story of a small crew of astronauts making their way to Mars to answer a distress signal sent out from an unknown origin. Not surprisingly, things go wrong but you are too far out to turn around so you have to try to survive long enough to make it to Mars hoping you will somehow be able to get back to Earth in the future if you do make it to whatever is waiting for you. A little more of the story is revealed in a cutscene after every turn. The problem is that you only get as much of the story as you can make it to and sense you will almost always die at around the same point every time, for many hours you will continue to see the same three or four cutscenes but never actually find out what ultimately happens. I still don’t actually know what was waiting for the crew on Mars. The tutorial writing is ok, but a little on the light side. There are definitely a few holes in the gameplay I would have liked explained in one of the various resources available in-game. Like what exactly is the negative status effect of the events that don’t outright say ship damage, dice, or health reduction? Writing is ok, but not presented in a way that makes you want to keep playing after the 50th time.
Tharsis is built on the idea of replays. You are essentially trying your luck each time. Every game is the same, yet every single one is slightly different. You will get better and you do slowly get farther, but there are still no guarantees that you will ever beat the game. To soften this blow the game has 10 trophies, one of which is beat the game. There are also four unlockable crew members with different unlock goals. They take so long to earn though that I gave up before getting even the “easiest” one. I don’t actually know how these bonus characters affect the gameplay. I believe they just take the place of one of your four current crew members, but I would actually hope that they are present in addition to the four original. That would help this game out so much except for of course the food problem. You can definitely get a lot of hours out of this game if you don’t mind doing the same thing over and over again to no avail. But I still would say that $15 is too much for this particular title. Maybe a better version with cleaned up mechanics and fairer progression, but not this particular version. Each individual game lasts maybe 15 minutes and is scored but those scores aren’t saved if you don’t make it to the end so even as you improve you’re not getting any sort of reward for it.
Ultimately I’m gonna say Tharsis is a soft pass. It’s good at face value but has a lot of design issues that can and should really be patched. For £12.99 I say no way, but for £5 I’d probably say give it a whirl. It’s definitely a fun experience for the first hour, but eventually it devolves into an ever sinking pit of despair.
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