People like “authentic” “science” now; that much is clear. The success of COSMOS, INTERSTELLAR, and, most recently, THE MARTIAN (still trying to figure that one out) proved that hard sci-fi is the new geek vogue. So it’s only natural that games jump on that bandwagon in the form of THARSIS, the new entry from Choice Provisions. THARSIS is quite the bold leap for the developer, as the turn-based survival boardgame is the furthest thing there is from their popular BIT.TRIP series, and it’s those kind of gambles that the game revolves around.
THARSIS places you into the captain’s seat of a spaceship bound for Mars. After suffering catastrophic damage and losing two crewmembers, you must get at least one of your four brave astronauts to the planet’s surface to succeed in your mission. Unfortunately, you’re ten weeks out, and just keeping your ship together, let alone your team, will take a Herculean effort.
An ideal game of THARSIS will clock in around half an hour, lasting ten rounds. One round represents a week of travel, and with each one comes a host of new malfunctions for your crippled ship. Each crew member can roll a certain number of dice depending on how well fed they are. The sum of these dice can be spent making repairs, researching upgrades, or maintaining systems. But watch out, because some numbers will make you lose dice, or even kill the astronaut that rolled them. You also have to watch out for the health and stress of each crew member. Damaged rooms hurt crew that move through them, and they will continue to remove hull points from your vessel until they’re fixed. And after each round, you must choose from a set of randomly generated decisions that affect the whole group, usually benefitting one person to the detriment of the others.
Does any of this seem overwhelming? It should. THARSIS has a short, but incredibly steep learning curve, and even after mastering the basics some functions and symbols remain unexplained. Hull breaches appear faster than you can patch them up. To add to that, the game is incredibly unforgiving, even on its default difficulty, and it’ll take about 20 attempts to reach your first success.
Almost as stressful as maintaining my apartment
It’s not all hopeless. Each astronaut has a unique ability, such as restoring hull points or healing their buddies, and after you lose enough games, you’ll gradually unlock more. Rerolls exist if you don’t like your numbers and spare dice can be used to purchase one use boosts. If your crew is desperate for food and you’re desperate for dice, you can even eat your dead. Stockpiling rations early and healing your crew can give you a strong enough start to weather the devastation to come, and smart placement of your crew will ensure that you’ll always have someone nearby to respond to a crisis.
This is, however, still a game of dice, and strategy and smart thinking will only get you so far. The later rounds of the game become near impossible to plan around. As you lose crew and dice, and the crises mount, luck is really the only thing that will pull you through. It’s this reliance on chance that undermines THARSIS’ intriguing premise. It almost feels like THARSIS was intended to be a competitive board game, where the randomness would act as an equalizer, but as a solo joint, the mantle of leadership becomes little more than a sick joke in the face of certain death.
Now we know what happened to Buzz’s comrades
THARSIS has a lot of great ideas. Its roguelike race to the finish brings back fond memories of FTL, ratcheting the tension up like nothing else. As a complete package, though, it falls apart. THARSIS is challenging, but in none of the right ways. It tries to sell itself as a strategy game where each decision you make matters, but it amounts to nothing more than gambling in the end. If you’ve got the $15 asking price, you might as well hit the penny slots.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on PC.