“Tharsis is a thrillingly addictive strategy game.”
Travelling on a mission to Mars, your ship and its crew have come up against a dangerous meteor shower. With damage being caused to the ship’s critical systems, your key focus suddenly shifts from reaching the red planet to simply surviving the journey. You have ten weeks until you reach your destination, but the hazard shows no sign of ceasing its onslaught during that time. Stress levels are rising, the food is running out, and the ship is in a bad way. Can you utilise the skills of your four remaining crew members and the literal luck of the dice to see your mission through?
Choice Provisions’ Tharsis is a strategy game, but also a game of chance. It is similar in its mechanics to role-playing dice games such as Dungeons and Dragons, designed around the basic premises that each member of your crew has unique skills, but their ability to use those skills is dependent upon a dice roll. Combining tactics and luck in a dangerously addictive fusion, Tharsis will keep you playing for hours just to make it through what sounds like a simple ten-turn campaign. Repetitive this may be, however boring is certainly is not. You may find your stress levels rising alongside the crews, but the drive just to finish the mission is unreal.
What makes the gameplay to addictive and at times frustrating is that the situations which hit your ship are dynamic; changing each time you start a new game. The further through the mission you get, the more difficult they become too, and sometimes you will have to decide what damage you can afford to allow rather than attempting to fix it all. This is not a game that you can make a clean run through, and sacrifices will inevitably have to be made. You may need to resort to cannibalism when the food runs out so that you have enough dice rolls to attempt to fix the medical bay, or perhaps sacrifice a life or two in order to maintain the ship. The game is riddled with tough and sometimes seemingly impossible decisions, making it one of the most gritty strategy games on the market.
The gameplay experience of Tharsis is very basic, using a point and click model with occasional dragging. It is the logic of play that really makes the game. Each module of the ship and each member of the crew have specific skills. The doctor for example can heal themselves with a roll of five or above, or the mechanic can do the same but for the ship. Roll three of the same dice, and you may be able to replenish your food stocks in the greenhouse module and earn more dice rolls for the next turn. You can also save one of each dice in order to carry out research for bonuses that can help each element of play as well. Of course, using your dice in any of these ways means that you have fewer rolls to attempt to make your repairs. This is where the truly difficult decisions of the game come into play.
As if these decisions weren’t enough to worry about on their own, rolling the wrong dice at the wrong time can have fatal effects. In a specific module, rolling a certain number may trigger a stasis, injury or void effect. Stasis freezes that die, meaning it cannot be re-rolled this turn. Injury takes one health from the active crew member, even if they only have one left. Void removes the die from play altogether, significantly reducing your options that turn. These effects are at the core of the luck factor of the game. Not only do you have to try and roll the right numbers for the right tasks, but the need to avoid certain others makes the game wildly intense at every click.
Each time you manage to complete a trauma-ridden turn, a segment of storyline is revealed about your mission. This begins with general statements about the current wellbeing (or rather the opposite) of the crew, but as you progress you begin to receive unusual transmissions from Mars. These quickly move from unusual to confusing and further still to impossible. Despite the story taking a back seat in the game as a whole, it certainly adds to the frustration of losing when there is this extra incentive to advance towards the ending. The story gives the mission greater purpose, and in doing so maintains that feeling of a need to play the game again and again to complete it.
If you are a graphics enthusiast, Tharsis may be a game that you want to look away from. In comparison to other recent space-based games its visuals are lacking, and in the grand scheme of how far we have come in recent times they are certainly a few years behind. They are not however critical to the nature of the game, and the greater focus on how you play is a clear one on the part of the developers. On the flipside to this note, the artwork that appears in the story sections of the game is very well drawn and interesting to look out, drawing you into the scenario at hand. The sounds of the game have a pretty retro feel to them, sounding as though they would be quite at home in an arcade machine. This works in an unusual way for the game however, despite it not having an arcade style, and the rhythm of the backing music certainly adds to the overall tension.
The one big criticism that can be made of Tharsis is that the game appears unfinished. Aside from the graphics which are lesser than one might expect, there are parts of the game which are locked or “coming soon”, which make it feel as though it should perhaps be in Early Access rather than fully released. The game has plenty of replayability in its current form as I have already mentioned, but that does not make its apparent incompletion unavoidable or excusable. It might have been more sensible for the developers to hide the “coming soon” sections of the game for the time being, or perhaps they felt it necessary to show that there was more on the way to justify the attached price tag. In any case, the game shouldn’t be sold as a package if half of the package is missing, especially in the competitive indie arena.
Ignoring the yet-to-be-seen content and focussing on the experience which is present right now, Tharsis is a thrillingly addictive strategy game. The element of chance makes the game incredibly challenging and enticingly frustrating in the most unusual of ways. Plenty of thought has gone into a relatively simple gameplay experience, and the attached story is enough to help drive your desire to persist at trying to beat it. Visually, there is room for improvement should the developers desire to do so, however their focus is more likely on finishing the package which they are currently selling quite cunningly as being complete.
- The challenging fusion of managing strategy with luck creates hours of replayability.
- A great emulation of role-playing-style dice games into the PC strategy game genre.
- Dynamic situations make the gameplay experience different every time.
- Your decisions are central to making or breaking the mission at every turn.
- Options such as cannibalism make this one of the grittier strategies on the market.
- A backseat storyline still manages to drive your desire to complete the mission.
- The artwork which appears throughout the story is well drawn and interesting.
- The backing track to the game is strangely retro but works well in creating tension.
- Graphically the game feels a few years behind some of its competitors, and is certainly not as visually enticing as other space-based games on the market.
- Parts of the game are locked and “coming soon”, making it appear unfinished and better suited perhaps to early access rather than claiming to be fully fledged release.
- Some may find the style of the game frustrating in its repetitiveness.