Dice Rolls, Cannibalism And Death – Tharsis Review (PC)
Turn based crisis management laced with ruthless mechanics, this is Tharsis. Leading a small team on a mission to Mars has its hazards. Maintaining the ships upkeep, ensuring team members are fit and fed. It sounds easy enough, but it’s far from it.
The first 90 seconds of the game places players in a weakened position. With the ship’s pantry floating off into space, along with two team members, things go from bad to worse. It sets the tone for the rest of the experience perfectly.
Tharsis makes the player’s goal clear from the start. Survive ten weeks and reach Mars. There’s no hidden meaning, just get to Mars. Completing the mission becomes an affair of crisis management and blind luck. Calculating risk, keeping a keen eye on various stats and numbers. It’s brutal.
Each mission boils down to addressing each event in their respective turn. Parts of the ship will become damaged. Fixing these areas is paramount to success. Once each team member has rolled, any unfixed parts will damage the ship. When the ship takes a certain amount of damage (normally four), it’s game over.
Variables dominate the flow of the game. The governing force of Tharis isn’t skill or strategy, it’s luck. Dice rolls determine the success of each turn, as well death. Damaged areas can display three differing effects based on dice rolls. Examples include voiding rolls, placing rolls in stasis and causing injury to team members. Those great rolls of two 6s carries the chance of killing someone.
It’s not all doom and gloom however. Each team member has a skill, aiding the mission in various ways. Adding hit points to the ship, extra re-rolls and health increases form the most useful of abilities. To use each respective skill, players must roll the required number of 5. Much like skills, each ship module also carries perks which are unlocked in the same manner as skills.
Dice rolls can additionally be used on research tokens. This option opens up numerous trump cards for the player to use. Each one requires a dice roll of a certain number before they can be used. It’s a key resource that can drag a turn from the jaws of defeat, helping the player scrape by.
Further dramas come in the form of managing stress and food levels. Each time a team member rolls, they lose a dice. Stress affects the effectiveness of a team member, higher the stress increases chances of failure. Dice can be added by a team member consuming food. It’s a limited resource that can either make or break a play session. Cannibalism is an option, but vastly increases stress…as well as resulting in deaths of team members.
All of the variables and mechanics at play create an unforgiven experience. Failure happens often. Team members will die, ships will explode and the game will start over again. This could be a case of trial and error, learning from failure, but most it is bad luck.
Tharsis does have a degree of skill involved. Managing which ship part to fix first, with the most relevant team member, is a key factor. Ensuring rolls and resources aren’t wasted can prolong survival. The problem is dice rolls are still the be all and end all. Success is often out of the hands of the player, resulting in frustrating deaths and failures.
Perhaps its biggest selling point, the difficulty curve is immense. Internally debating over the fairness of Tharsis quickly emerges. It’s hard not to suggest the game is unfair after the tenth failed run in a row. Dice rolls carry so much weight to the point where hope replaces strategy. The sheer amount of variables, mixed the random dice rolls, makes Tharsis feel like a constant struggle.
Even with all the charm and enthusiasms Tharsis possess, the random nature is just too much to take. Taking inspiration from boardgames is fair enough, but adding multiple elements on top of it creates room for chaos. Credit is due for decent presentation and tutorials. The neat interface allows for players to easily see the important facts and stats. It’s just a shame the main thing players will see is the game over screen.
Tharsis has its moments. Scraping passed events by the skin of your teeth is hugely satisfying. Having your heart broken by a bad roll produces frustrated giggles. Unfortunately, these feelings quickly fade as the player drowns in a sea of failure. There’s fun to be had, but it’s sandwiched between plenty of frustration.