Tharsis is a game about how space does not give a F$%k about you!
That is not to say it is a bad game, but I played the game to a completion 45 times, 44 of those times, my entire crew died on the journey to Mars, but that 1 time we were successful made all the rest worth it.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Tharsis is a game about earth’s first human mission to Mars. The cast is made up of 6 crew members and set upon the ship, the Iktomi. At the beginning of the opening cutscene, we briefly see the full crew, but within moments, the Iktomi suffers multiple catastrophic errors, causing a module explode, throwing one crew member into space and another dying onboard, leaving you with 4 crew members and a crippled ship. The catastrophe occurs to late in the mission’s timeline to return to Earth, so you forced to try to keep the shipping functioning and the crew alive until you arrive at the red planet.
With the story out of the way, Tharsis functions very much like a board game. The Iktomi is the board, with each of its 7 modules acting as rooms the crew can inhabit. Each module has potential benefits that the crew can use, if the specific win conditions are met, including repairing the ship, healing crew, or providing food. It is also important to know that your 4 crew have 3 stats that need to be tracked, stress, health, and dice, as well as 1 special trait, that can be activated in a similar manner to the room benefits mentioned earlier. Stress is displayed as a meter on the left of the character portrait and as the character’s increases, the tasks they need to complete become more difficult. The character’s health is displayed on the right of the portrait, with a max of 6 health points, when they reach zero, they die. The final stat to track is dice, located at the bottom of the portrait. All characters have a max of 5 dice they can role, but the number decreases each round, and can only be refilled in a limited number of ways, by eating food, accessing the life support module benefit, or the captain’s special trait. Keeping your crew health, with low stress and with multiple dis to use, is the only way to survive this one way trip.
In order to make it to Mars, you have to survive 10 rounds. Each round will start with 2 to 3 events occurring. Each event will occupy a module. These events can include a large fire, oxygen leak or a specific system failure, and each will list what affect they will have on the ship or crew, if still present at the end of the round, exampled include ship damage, crew injury, etc. Events will remain in play until the crew has paid the repair cost to resolve the event, so it is possible to have events in all 7 modules, if left unattended.
Once the events for that round have been displayed, you take control of your crew and determine what course of action you will attempt. Should you try to clear all of the events, try to fix the ship, harvest food or something else? These are the decisions you will need to make. Once you decide the course, you select the crew member and deploy them to the module of your choice. You then roll the crew member’s available dice. The values on the dice determine how many points you have to pay into the event, or if the dice roll is a high number, you may decide to activate the room benefits or the special character traits, the choice is again yours, and sometimes the best choice isn’t the most obvious. Once the crew member has exhausted all dice, the play must choose finish deployment. At this point, you will be able to choose the next surviving crew member and repeat the process until all living members have finished their deployment. After that, any remain events will take their impact on the ship and crew, and if you survive, you will be brought to a status screen. On this screen you will be give up to three options, each usually having a positive and negative affect. This is a choice of the lesser evil, is it more beneficial to take the +1 to ship health, at the cost of -1 dice this turn or to take +1 food at the cost of -2 health to all crew. They are rarely a pure benefit, but you play it right and you will be able to turn these to your favor. The last part of the round is now to feed your crew. If you have any food harvested or earned during the round you can feed that to your crew, but when things start to get desperate, you can also decide to start eating the dead. If you take this option, it will restore dice, but instead of the white dice you have been rolling, yours will now be covered in the blood of your meal. After this, assuming you survived, the progress meter ticks one round closer to Mars, survive ten, and maybe you will get a chance to science the shit out of Mars, like Marc Whatney from The Martian…. maybe.
There are several other systems that I did not describe, such as research, assists, and status effects. As well as cut scenes in between each round that introduce mysterious happening. But the above covers the basics, the rest you will need to become familiar with as you play. Other bonuses to be aware of is that the 4 crew members and their special traits can be swapped out in later playthroughs with different characters with alternate traits, assuming you unlock them through in game achievements. You always have 4 surviving crew members at the beginning of the game, but once all characters are unlocked, you will have 9 with whom to fill those 4 crew slot.
Tharsis is a tough game, but like I mentioned at the beginning, it is a game about space not caring about you. You will have some sessions where your ship is on fire, being bombarded by meteors, and everyone is dying, and it will just smile at you and keep throwing more obstacles in your way. But once you realize that maybe always solving the events every round is a battle of attrition you can’t win, and you start prioritizing the base resources you need to stay alive, you will start to see more success. That is not to say that strategy will win you ever round, but it will give you a chance, and that is all you have in space, so far from home.
Is Tharsis a game I would recommend? Yes, but with caveats. I kept coming back to this game because of my love for the subject matter and my refusal to let the game win. I thrived on the challenge, that even when I went to bed, I would use my PlayStation Vita to remote play for one more game. I have friends that just put it down because they felt like the game did not respect their time, and they are right, much like space, the game does not care. But with a love for adventure, the yearn to explore and the nativity to attempt the impossible, you can get these people’s asses to Mars
Developer: Choice Provisions
Platform: PS4; Also available on PC; Coming to Wii U and rumored for Xbox One at a later date
Play time: 10 Hours