October 9, 2016

Tharsis

Tags: A Gamedev Plays

This post is from the now defunct website “A GameDev Plays…”, copied here for posterity

I like this game, but it is hard to recommend. Tharsis is an ambitious attempt to create a certain feeling and stay loyal to its theme. It succeeds, but as a result the game is super-difficult and super-dark.

In Tharsis the player controls the crew of the eponymously named ship on its way to Mars. Midway disaster strikes - some of the crew is killed and the ship is damaged. The objective is to survive the 10 turns required to reach the final destination. Every turn some of the ship’s modules develop problems and these need to be fixed or they will cause continuing damage effects (reducing hull, injuring crew, etc). The player assigns crew members to fix problems by rolling and applying dice with a value greater than the difficulty number associated with it. The key word here is “dice”. There are little computer simulated dice rolling round the screen - apparently with physics modelling. It is intentionally quite reminiscent of board games and I think it works well. Using dice provides less mathematical players with an immediately intuitive probability system - a benefit in a otherwise complex game.

Roll those dice

Once the dice are rolled, many options exist for using them: reducing any problems in that module; activating character special abilities; activating module special abilities; or, putting it towards research. Furthermore, when rolling dice in a module with a problem there are penalties for rolling certain numbers. For instance, rolling a 4 may result in an injury to the character, or each 2 appearing may cause those dice to be voided and unusable. However, these negative effects can be avoided with the use of assists - gained through character or module special abilities. There are lots of rules to juggle, with many choices and possibilities at each step. It can certainly feel overwhelming at the beginning. It took me a couple of hours (equating to several games) before I felt comfortable playing and able to plan strategy effectively.

How many beginners players will endure long enough to reach the point of understanding? The game’s learning hurdle is amplified by its difficulty. This game is hard. Even easy mode will result in failure in a good proportion of games. I’ve never reached Mars in normal mode after many attempts, and I daren’t even try hard mode. Often defeat is just a case of bad luck. There appears to be a large amount of randomness in this game - be sure to have your prayers to the RNG gods ready before starting! The problems that occur; the rolls you make, it all seem to be random. However, problems tend to cascade, so a bit of bad luck is usually magnified throughout the system. One set of bad rolls and it can seem that all is lost.

So many problems

Many games are RNG heavy, but this is often ameliorated by the game length. Either they are long enough that the randomness averages out, or short enough that it doesn’t feel as if the player’s time was wasted. Unfortunately, Tharsis sits between these two solutions. Games last 30-60 minutes with about 20-40 rolls of the dice(tending towards the low end as events conspire against the player). Considering the difficulty, this is not long enough for the luck to average out. Nor is it an insignificant period of time. Getting 30 minutes into a game and then realising death is inevitable is not fun when it feels like the result was dominated by randomness.

The theme of the game does not help provide good feelings. This is a dark game. Tharsis may use bright colours and kid-friendly dice mechanics, but it is dark and depressing when you think about what is supposedly occurring. The characters are trapped on a fragile and broken spaceship with little help available, hurtling towards their near inevitable doom. No wonder they are depicted with expressions of despair and horror. It only gets worse as one way to improve the player’s chances is to cannibalise the dead characters - a well worn trope in survival games. However, Tharsis goes even further, allowing the player to kill characters in order to harvest their meat! It doesn’t even seem worth it when reaching Mars. I have succeeded in reaching the end a few times (once with all characters alive) and seen two of the possible endings - neither was particularly upbeat. I applaud the developers’ dedication to their theme, but the sense of overwhelming dread does not help enjoyment of the game.

Dinner time

Despite the above issues, once the basics have been mastered the game becomes exacting, but not impossible. Sometimes characters will survive long enough to reach Mars. It is possible to prepare in advance for small amounts of bad luck. The numerous options provide many interesting choices. There is great replayability, both in the core story scenario, but also in unlocking extra characters or a myriad of various special missions. This game is worth playing to see how well it is put together. However, a couple of original choices (unrelentingly dark and RNG dominated) make it difficult to consider it a great game. I enjoy the challenge of playing Tharsis, although it is rarely a happy experience.

Tharsis is on the Steam store at US$14.99 (or local equivalent) for PC/Mac. It has been bundled.

The most common ending


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