Review: Tharsis (PS4)

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Title: Tharsis
Format: PlayStation Network Download (1.13 GB)
Release Date: January 12, 2016
Publisher: Choice Provisions
Developer: Choice Provisions
Original MSRP: $14.99
ESRB Rating: M
Tharsis is also available on PC, Mac, and Linux.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Tharsis is a resource management, turn-based strategy game set in space where the odds are always stacked against you. A crew of four sets off on a mission to discover the origin of a mysterious signal coming from the Tharsis region of Mars. During the trip, the ship is damaged by a micrometeoroid storm and you have to survive the remaining ten weeks to reach Mars. Your only goal is to survive.

Gameplay:
Tharsis is a board game at heart. It started with the developers playing a physical prototype over and over again with dice and paper, really refining some of the core mechanics before they started coding.

The game starts off with a quick cutscene to give the player a narrative hook and then comes to a crashing halt with the tutorial. The ship appears on screen and then is immediately paused as a number of text bubbles pop up (see picture below). Then, after you read through all the text and try to process all the information, the game does this five more times.

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The tutorial would have been much better if it had been broken up into NASA training missions on Earth. That way the different mechanics and ideas could have been introduced slower and more clearly. This would have also allowed for more story, and backstory on each character.

Being more attached to the characters would have made some of the choices harder to make and brought more emotion into the game. When I started, I just wanted to make it to Mars. I did not care about who made it or if they had to eat their dead crew members to get there.

… food, abilities, or cannibalism …
The core mechanics of Tharsis are really well done. Each week, each member of your crew will be able to move to one of the ship’s modules and roll their dice. What you do with those dice and how you manage your resources is the heart of the game. You can use the dice to repair your ship or put them towards research.

Each module and team member also has a special ability if you roll certain numbers. However, the game is not as simple as rolling high numbers to repair your ship. Every damaged module also has hazards. If any of your dice match the blue dice, those dice will be stuck in stasis. You can still use them but you will not be able to re-roll them.

If you match the orange dice, your crew member will take damage. Finally, if you match the purple dice, your dice will be void and they will disappear. A module can have two stasis dice or one of each hazard. It varies from module to module and from week to week. To top it off, after each week, each crew member will lose one die. The only ways to gain more dice is to use food, abilities, or cannibalism.

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Without dice, you cannot repair your ship, so using food to replenish your dice becomes really important. However, most of the time you cannot do both. So do you repair all the modules, if you can even do that, or do you procure food? These are the type of choices you are constantly forced to make.

If everyone is low on health, you can use the medic’s special ability to give one hit point to everyone in the module. If most of your team is in the same module however, you have no one to repair the other modules.

… The higher their stress level, the higher the consequences …
After each crew member has taken their turn, the ship will take damage or lose critical systems if all the modules are not repaired. Now that you have survived a week you must choose between two side projects, neither of which is a good choice.

The picture below is from after the first week, so the consequences are not that bad. However, every time one of your crew members rolls a die that matches one of the hazards, their stress level increases. The higher their stress level, the higher the consequences. After the side project, you’ll get a quick cutscene and then it’s on to the next week.

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Even the order of which team member you use must be considered. If you use the medic first, she can only use her special ability on herself. If she is the third member in the module, then she and the first two members all get a life point.

Some of the abilities of the crew members are close to the abilities of the modules. The engineer can give one hit point to the ship, but one of the modules can also provide more hit points for the ship. If you send the engineer to a different module and another crew member into the module that can give life points to the ship, now you have two chances to increase the ship’s hit points.

… at some point the game does come down to luck …
When you fail to reach Mars… and you will fail over and over again… you start again ten weeks out. While having to start from the beginning can be frustrating, you are slowly working towards unlocking new characters. The problem is that they take way too long to unlock. I spent hours grinding just so I could unlock a few new crew members.

I played the game in ways that would never allow me to reach Mars but would allow me to limp along to week five or six just so I could do certain things over and over again working towards new members. I wonder how many people who play Tharsis will unlock even two of the five locked members. That is a shame too, because some of the locked crew members have great abilities. Having some of the new abilities gives you new tools and new ways to approach the game.

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Lastly, I wanted to mention again that this is a board game at heart. That means at some point the game does come down to luck. It’s hard and it makes no bones about that. Many of my failed attempts were because of poor resource management and failing to think ahead. However, sometimes it was just numerous bad dice rolls and there was nothing I could do about it.

Bloodborne is an incredibly hard game but you learn. You learn the game and its systems while your skills improve. When you defeat one of its bosses, it is because you have the knowledge and the skill.

… cutscenes have a nice art style …
You will learn a lot in Tharsis: what crew members work best with you, when to take certain chances and when to make sacrifices. In the end though, skill has nothing to do with your success or failure – you will need a little bit of luck. That is just part of what makes board games, board games.

Visuals:
There is not much to say about the visuals in Tharsis. The game’s few cutscenes have a nice art style, but otherwise there is not much going on graphically. The graphics, when zoomed in on a particular module of the ship, are basically the same no matter what the situation is.

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If you have two members in the same module it will show two tiny people working instead of one, but that is about it. Your crew members’ facial expressions will change and will react when they lose life points. Overall though, the visuals only serve as a backdrop to the board game that is Tharsis. The biggest change is the dice turning red and leaving puddles of blood if you decide to eat a dead crew member.

… it just falls a little short …
Audio:
There is no major music score. The background music is a steady electronic beat that reminds me of Mass Effect. There is no rise and fall, just a steady tempo and rhythm. In the heat of the moment, the music often faded into the background and I forgot it was there. The majority of audio is from the background noise, the rolling of dice, making repairs, and taking damage.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

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Conclusion:
Tharsis was designed first as a board game, and it shows. The core mechanics of rolling dice, resource management, and repairing your ship are all well done. The graphic and audio design simply serves as dressing for the core mechanics. The progression to unlock new crew members takes way too long.

I am a fan of developers bringing over board game mechanics and ideas to video games. Video games like Tharsis are great for people who are interested in board games but do not have the time to assemble a group of people to play a board game for hours.

In the end though, it just falls a little short. Don’t get me wrong, reaching Mars is one of the best feelings I have ever had playing video games. However, once I unlocked and tried out a few of the locked crew members there was nothing to keep me coming back. The game mechanics are really well done, there is just not enough of a game here.

Score:
6.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Matt Engelbart

Matt Engelbart

I love all things video games. When I am not gaming I am watching the Kansas City Chiefs and Royals, BBQing, and reading.

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