After a lengthy Early Access program, Tharsis finally hit Steam as a finished product, promising players a harsh survival digital board game aboard a lone colony ship travelling to Mars. With the odds stacked against you, risks of further disasters and supply shortages, this is the sort of game which makes FTL: Faster Than Light look like a walk in the park.
Let’s be absolutely clear here: This game is designed to make you fail. You’re not going to win from the word go and quite often you’re going to risk absolute failure even at the best of times, juggling between one crisis and the next. There’s never a point where you’re not putting the lives of your valued crew at risk or dealing with failing systems, and that’s half the game’s appeal. It offers that XCOM feel of fighting against all odds, desperately trying to claw your way to victory even as things turn against you. This is only enhanced by the variety of choices on offer, which can quickly tread into some very dark territory. After all, if one particular astronaut is going insane and you’re short on food, who is to say cannibalism is all that bad?
The actual menu system offers a good balance between showing areas of the ship and the choices on offer. Rather than using static images or basic information, environments will shift to reflect their status, and it helps to really enforce the idea that you’re on a crumbling starship one hull breach away from annihilation.
Unfortunately, the main aspect which detracts from the game is, ironically, its greatest strength. Being largely dice based and with high risks involved, it’s extremely easy to fail. However, while there is depth and strategy to how you approach your current crisis, you’re perpetually left at to the tender mercies of lady luck. Often there’s no real control you have short of dice rolls, meaning RNG dominates your ever action. Physical board games like this such as Battlestar Galactica, Chaos In The Old World or Pandemic Legacy all have risk management based upon luck. However, they also have more mechanics which aren’t based purely upon rolls of the dice as a fall-back, and however helpless you feel there’s always a fighting chance. In this case, without that, you can feel understandably frustrated at how the game fails to reward careful planning or even long-term success.
This is by no means a bad game, but it could be a lot better. It’s mechanically flawed, but if you’re willing to endure the frustrating RNG dominating the game, there is a fun experience to be had in trying to keep your crew alive.
THARSIS / DEVELOPER & PUBLISHER: CHOICE PROVISIONS / PLATFORM: PC / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW