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Platform(s): Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Choice Provisions
Release Date: Jan. 12, 2016

About Brian Dumlao

After spending several years doing QA for games, I took the next logical step: critiquing them. Even though the Xbox One is my preferred weapon of choice, I'll play and review just about any game from any genre on any system.


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PC Review - 'Tharsis'

by Brian Dumlao on Feb. 4, 2016 @ 2:40 a.m. PST

Tharsis is a turn-based space survival game where you are in control of humanity's first manned mission to Mars just as it's struck by a mighty meteor storm.

If you enjoy board games beyond the usual fare of Scrabble or Monopoly, then you may have run across a few that aren't standard fare. Games like Castle Panic, Flash Point, and Pandemic encourage players to team up to reach a goal against what could be impossible odds. The titles encourage some strategy but also rely on a roll of the dice. As fun as they are, some people may prefer to get the same experience in digital form so they don't have to consult a rulebook for questions about action validity. Tharsis is similar except that it's a video game that's not based on a board game.

Your crew of six astronauts is on a mission to become the first people to set foot on Mars. Things start off well enough, but disaster strikes in the form of a meteor shower. Your ship is heavily damaged, and two of your crew members are dead: one lying frozen aboard the ship and the other floating in the depths of space. With no way to turn back home and only 10 weeks until the ship reaches Mars, your goal is to survive.

At the beginning of every week, at least two parts of the ship succumb to some sort of calamity. The amount of damage sustained by each piece is represented by a number. You select a crew member to go to that spot and roll their cache of dice, putting the results of that roll into the repair section to drop the number down to zero. You can send as many crew members as you want to the same section, but their turns end once they have rolled all of their dice. Once all of the surviving members have performed their rolls, any remaining damaged sections have their effects counted against the player, whether it's in the form of weakened ship integrity or other things (like a radiation spread), and the game moves on to the next week, where the cycle begins again.

In truth, Tharsis is a little more complicated than that, as each room provides plenty of options to use your dice on. Depending on who you send, you can use your dice rolls to let you use that crew member's perk, such as adding more health to the ship. The rooms have other bonuses you can harvest if you roll the dice just right, such as benefits for the crew member in the room. You can also use the dice as investments in research projects that can reap more benefits, like having bonus dice or a reduction in necessary repair points. There are also dangers assigned to random dice rolls. Hitting an injury roll means you'll harm the crew member there, stasis rolls mean you're locking the die in place for that turn, and void rolls mean the die disappears from play.

In addition to taking care of the ship, you have to worry about your crew members since they're trying to keep the ship intact. Each member has three things to keep track of: health, stress, and the amount of dice they have in their possession. The time and injuries from room repair increase the stress meter, which usually results in bad things down the road.

Surviving the week doesn't mean that you get any form of respite, since it just means that more decisions need to be made. For starters, your remaining crew members put forth a risk/reward proposal they want to implement. You may be able to give every crew member an extra unit of health but at the expense of one less die. Depending on the stress levels of everyone involved, the proposals can be so outrageous that none of them are appealing, but one has to be chosen since you're forced to do something. Every week that passes also means that every crew member loses one die no matter what, though it can be replenished with food. However, your food supply is limited, and usually only one crew member gets a ration that results in an increase in dice. Considering how important the dice are, this is a very important decision since topping off one member's dice reserves can mean that another member is virtually useless because they only have one die to roll with.

Should you make it a few weeks, you are presented with the option of resorting to cannibalism of a dead crew member to prolong survival. The eating of human flesh carries with it the benefit of arming yourself with more dice, but it also comes with loads of consequences, such as increased stress levels and a reduction in health, so it's not an instant remedy. Cannibalism also affects the ending, though some may not see that as a negative thing since the game sports multiple endings.

With all of this working against you, you'll soon discover how important strategy is to the title. You'll still be at the mercy of the dice, but you'll learn which crew member and room combinations provide the most benefits. You'll also learn how to expertly manage each crisis, so you'll be able to minimize the damages even if you can't repair everything in one go, a common occurrence in every turn but the first. This means that you'll be making some gut-wrenching decisions, since it's almost impossible to keep everyone alive by the end of the journey. Sacrificing a crew member for the sake of more dice can be cruel, as is leaving the crew's sanity unchecked for the sake of better physical health or letting the thrusters go bad for an additional round in order to get more food. Then again, with the game constantly sending you into despair, you'll learn to embrace some morally questionable decisions for the sake of the goal.

At the same time, you'll feel like Tharsis is being unfair to you at the worst possible moments. The randomness of the dice is expected, but you can't help but feel that your worst rolls occur at the absolute wrong time. The same goes for the status roll, which is randomly generated per room per week. Often, you'll find that your benefit number is the same one that counts as either an injury or void roll, negating your chance for recovery. It doesn't help that you start each game with low dice numbers and low health or that your so-called assists aren't activated automatically but serve no benefit whatsoever. You'll find that your games can end quite early even after taking a few matches to learn the mechanics, and unless you've got loads of patience or are accustomed to this sort of thing, you'll get pretty deflated pretty quickly.

While you will lose far more often than you'll win, you can at least be comforted by the fact that the game features a few unlockables in the form of new crew members. With the exception of one member, who can only be unlocked by beating the game, the other people are unlocked by simply grinding away at tasks you'd normally be doing, like administering repairs to the ship or eating. The unlockable crew members have different abilities, so you have increased strategies based on your crew combination, and although you can still lose, you have a few more avenues to try and pull off a win.

At the very least, the games aren't very long. Even if you're the type who closely scrutinizes every roll of the dice and the associated decisions, turns go by very quickly. Victories for repairing shuttle pieces and making good rolls are short-lived, while bad situations don't linger for too long since it usually means a swifter death. In a way, this makes it a perfect game for quick sessions because you can complete a game in a half-hour.

Presentation isn't necessarily a huge part of a board game, but what you have here is quite good. The ship is rendered lovingly with loads of detail on the interiors and exterior and some good lighting effects to help set the mood. Little things, like the effects on the dice from things like stasis shock, are rather nice touches. The music is also done very well, as the soundtrack is quite haunting. The sad melody of defeat is punctuated well while victory sounds fleeting, almost like relief that the nightmare is over. The faces of the crew members look decent. They convey the looks of worry and increased stress very well, but they could stand to look less generic.

Tharsis isn't a game for everyone. Strategy may be an important factor in determining how long you'll survive, but luck plays a much bigger role in things toward the end. The game is punishingly difficult early on, but it throws you a bone every now and then with character unlocks that can make things feel different. With the likelihood of failing more often than winning due to streaks of near-impossible situations, some may be disenchanted from the get-go. For those who love to conquer big challenges, this digital board game can be very appealing.

Score: 7.0/10

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