Tharsis Review03 Jul 2019 2
Released 27 Jun 2019
When the crew of Apollo 13 informed Houston that they had a problem it required considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure to get them home safely. When the crew of the Iktomi are hit by disaster, the situation that they find themselves in is substantially worse. They are still ten weeks away from their destination, and not only has their ship been seriously damaged but their pantry has been completely destroyed. The crew not only face the prospect of no biscuits with their cuppa but the even grimmer possibility of having to chow down on their dearly departed comrades. Cannibalism ftw?
Tharsis is a disaster management game that immediately brings to mind classic roguelike, FTL. The big difference here is that the action takes a more leisurely turn-based approach rather than demanding real-time decision-making. Tharsis also has a narrower range of less demanding crisis points, which makes for a much more approachable game but still a very tough one.
Each turn represents a week aboard the failing Iktomi, in which the crew have to repair various system failures or suffer the consequences. These consequences include a faulty life support system damaging the crews’ health or a severe fire destroying the ship’s hull and bringing an abrupt end to your mission. Tharsis begins with two of the six crewmembers taking you through a brief tutorial, before disaster strikes and they meet an untimely demise. Look on the bright side; they can always be stored away in the fridge for later, yum.
The remaining four astronauts must use their action dice, alongside their unique skills to traverse the ship, moving from module to module. First, select an astronaut and then use the side on view of the ship to deploy them to a module, be careful though because passing through damaged areas will reduce your astronaut’s health. On reaching a location, the crewmember will first need to roll their action dice. Much like Yahtzee, you can set aside favourable rolls and then re-roll the rest. However, each crisis will have additional hazards that are triggered by particular rolls. These extra problems include preventing re-rolls, causing injury, or sending dice into the void. This results in many a tense situation. For example, when you send a guy with low health into a module where an unlucky roll causes injury, they may well end up being added to the evening’s menu.
Each crisis will have a damage rating, which is lowered by allocating dice. Reduce the damage to zero and disaster is averted – for a time, at least. What elevates Tharsis from being just a Yahtzee clone is that much like Castles of Burgundy your dice are not limited to a single use. Throwing low numbers, although not much use for repairing damage, can still be put to good use. Research allows you to build up a sequence of dice that can be spent on a one-off bonus. Dice with a value of five or six can be used to trigger a character’s unique ability, this means that the Doctor can, for instance, restore one health point to everyone that is in the same module. Once a module is fully repaired you will be able to make use of its special ability. The greenhouse is a very useful module since it allows a pair of matching dice to be converted into food.
When all of your characters have taken a turn and used their dice then the negative effects of any remaining disasters are resolved. Between turns, characters must forfeit action dice, but if you have any spare food then a quick meal will restore an additional three dice, up to a maximum of five. If you have no food available then the non-vegans in your crew can indulge in a bit of cannibalism. Eating a dead crewmember restores two dice, but, understandably, isn’t that great for the character’s mental health. Also, between turns, you will be able to choose one of the side projects that your crew have been working on. These have both a positive and negative effect and the less stressed the crewmembers are then the more useful their project will be. An insane character will go off on their own and work on their own project, which will invariably have selfish bonuses and detrimental effects for the rest of the crew.
Presentation is excellent, with moody sound and a graphical style that pays tribute to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s 1970’s sci-fi shows UFO and Space: 1999. After each day there is an atmospheric cut scene that recounts a neat time-looping storyline. Adding to the budget sci-fi feel is the fun technobabble - no one wants a leak in their Photovoltaic Thermal Control System. The animated crew close-ups are also nicely done; as their stress levels escalate, they become increasing twitchy and agitated. The interface is smooth and responsive, with all relevant information just a single tap away, although once a dice has been allocated you cannot switch its position, which feels a little harsh.
There are a couple of other features that can aid your mission. Assist points can be acquired and used to negate hazards, whilst dice can be put into a holding area rather than being allocated immediately. You also have a forecast of the disasters that will assail you one week ahead, although you will probably be way too busy handling the current situation to pay too much attention. The main storyline can be tackled on three different skill levels, but even the easy level can be brutal at times. There are an additional ten extra missions that can help if you are struggling, as they reveal some vital strategic advice. The final challenge is to unlock new crewmembers by reaching various targets, like eating a set number of human-based meals.
The main criticism levelled at Tharsis is that the dice rolling makes it appear very random and just too frustrating to formulate an effective strategy. However, I found that the game allowed just enough choice so that although at times it can be exasperating it still manages to remain entertaining. The key is to prioritise the disasters and have a backup plan so that your dice can be put to good use even when the rolls are not what you want to see. It is brutal; any disasters that you do not deal with are carried over making things even more hectic and desperate, and, yes, one bad roll can ruin your entire game. However, at the same time, if you are cagey enough you shouldn’t often find yourself in a position whereby you are relying on a single roll to save your skin.
Accusations of an excessive reliance on luck could be partly down to the fact that whilst many games hide their luck factor away under the bonnet Tharis delights in rubbing your nose in it. There is a real sense of theatre as the dice teeter and totter across the screen, promising a certain six only to topple over at the very last second. It’s a cliché but Tharsis is a real Marmite game, you either roll with the blows or say blow to the rolls and play something else instead. I found that even when I turned off the game in frustration the addictive gameplay and dark undertones soon had me eager to try again.