Platforms: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 4
If there’s one thing many gamers are collectively good at in some regard, it’s problem solving. Some of our most cathartic moments are those times when we finally triumph over a difficult scenario, be it a boss fight or puzzle or other in-game obstacle, letting that sense of accomplishment wash over us like a cooling breeze. Sadly, you’re very unlikely to ever feel this cathartic feeling of triumph while playing Tharsis, the new space simulation strategy game from developer and publisher Choice Provisions.
While Tharsis features an immersive scenario involving a starving crew and a long trip to Mars, any long-term enjoyment the game could have is quickly sapped away by an unforgiving difficulty curve and core gameplay mechanics which rely almost entirely on luck.
No Time to Breathe
The story premise behind Tharsis is presented in a very basic and straightforward way: while travelling to Mars, a space ship is struck by a meteorite, immediately setting off a chain of catastrophes which drain the ship’s food supplies, kill two crew members, and leave the ship adrift in space.
It’s the player’s job to guide the remaining four crew members around the ship, fixing the various problems which pop up as the ship slowly inches its way closer and closer to Mars (with each “round” of disasters representing one week of the ship’s ten-week journey).
With each week that goes by, the player’s crew must deal with new disasters which pop up and affect different parts of the ship, disasters which, if not addressed, can drain the crew’s health, damage the ship, or cause other maladies which can spell doom for the entire crew.
Different rooms also contain different benefits for crew members who aren’t immediately needed to deal with a crisis (which is rare), allowing the player to more easily keep the crew’s heads above the proverbial water. Now, all this may sound like fun at first, until you see the way in which the player has to manage both the disasters that pop up and the crew’s well being: random dice rolls.
Luck Be a Lady….
The success or failure of virtually all actions you can take in Tharsis are determined by dice rolls, with different factors determining how many dice each crew member can roll each turn. When a crew member is assigned to a room and rolls their dice, they can apply the numbers they rolled to various modifiers, such as fixing the room’s disaster if it has one (each disaster has a number value and reducing that number to zero using dice fixes the disaster), gaining that room’s specific benefits, or powering research upgrades which can grant handy bonuses (such as additional dice or protection from hazards).
However, there are several other modifiers in place to make sure the player never feels totally at ease. Disaster rooms also have dice hazards which can trigger negative effects if certain dice numbers are rolled (rolling a three or a five in one room, for example, might cause a Stasis effect which prevents those dice from be rerolled, or a Void effect which make those dice disappear entirely).
These hazards can be negated by an Assist power-up (yet another resource which is available in limited quantities), but since Assists are automatically applied with no direct input from the player, having your Assists “wasted” on inconsequential hazards is a frequent occurrence.
Other resources which need to be managed include precious Food power-ups (which can grant a large amount of bonus dice) and the stress levels of each crew member. If a crew member’s stress rises too high, they’ll negatively affect the intermission choices players make between rounds, choices which often take the form of a trade-off, such as granting every crew member bonus dice at the cost of health or lowering stress at the cost of a ship health point. Managing all these different resources and modifiers is actually very engaging, and it ensures that no two games play out the same way twice, though that’s pretty much the only consistent form of fun Tharsis contains.
Tharsis is meant to be played over a series of matches, since it’s highly unlikely you’ll win during your first few games. Choice Provisions did include some incentives for dedicated players to work towards, such as unlockable crew members, achievements, and an over-arching mystery that is only fully solved if you manage to reach Mars, but none of these incentives are compelling enough to warrant pushing through the game’s myriad of luck-based frustrations.
Working out an ideal strategy only gets you so far, since at the end of the day, the only thing that will assure victory is getting consistently lucky with your dice roles (unlikely) and receiving an ideal balance of manageable disasters (very unlikely).
Choice Provision’s goal of making a game which forced players to constantly think on their feet and deal with undesirable outcomes was an admirable one, but also one which it took a little too far. Future updates could help to smooth out the game’s difficulty curve a bit (currently there’s Normal and Hard, but Normal is plenty hard enough), but for now, the only people who’d likely find any sort of long-term appeal in Tharsis are gaming masochists.