Following in the same vein as games like FTL by way of Online Craps Simulator, Tharsis attempts to take on the space survival simulator in the same way that flipping a coin is a good way to determine whether you should punch yourself in the face or let someone else have the pleasure. There’s so much I wanted to like about Tharsis, too. The narration, writing and pictures that replaced cut scenes were so well done but the game cuts itself off by trying to be a ‘Dark Souls’ difficult game, without any way to “git gud.”
The intro cinematic is probably the best part of the game, and while that sounds like a bash towards the rest of the game, it’s more a testament to how well it’s done. It shows, in gorgeously painted pictures, the story of travelers headed to Mars, their liftoff from Earth and the beginnings of their journey.
While repairing the storage unit during the tutorial, a hail of micrometeorides hails through a portion of the ship and destroys the storage unit, killing two crew members. It’s up to the remaining four to keep trekking to Mars, despite all the mechanical and health issues they’ll be facing.
First off, micrometeoroids? We’ve already proven them to be almost completely insignificant when dealing with modern satellites, much less a futuristic spaceship. A hailing of micrometeroids will just scratch your paint job, not cause 22 damage to my sick bay or blow up a storage unit. Well, I say “futuristic” space ship – it looks more like something that was pieced together in ‘Kerbal Space Program’ by someone that wanted a lot of personnel but only enough fuel for a one-way trip to the Mun. Actually, looking back, all the graphics during gameplay look like they came from ‘Kerbal Space Program’. They’re in such stark contrast to the art in the cutscenes, that it’s almost difficult to believe both are in the same game. I can also see something looking like this spacecraft being actually built not too far into the future, possibly 30-40 years. It’s a pretty realistic rendition of what a somewhat futuristic spacecraft might look like, if nothing else.
From there, you’re taught the mechanics of the game. Every new week there’s a forecast of heavy micrometeoroids headed towards your ship. It’s up to your crew to do whatever is needed to complete their mission. At first, seeing the classes of the characters made me think that people would be better suited at specific tasks: the mechanic could fix things better, the doctor could heal people more efficiently, and so on. Instead, their class only dictates a special ability they have that is activated by a high-number dice roll.
At the start of every week, you assign people to one of the seven modules on the ship. When there, the character can roll their dice and use them to do anything from using that module’s ability, using their personal ability, repairing the module or developing research. The game’s only resource are die, and while there’s points where health or stress can be traded around, a proper Yahtzee roll is the only way to survive in the depths of space.
Dice are your main resource for keeping the ship up to snuff. For example, the engine room might take 13 damage. To repair that damage, you’ll have to send a person in, roll some dice, then use the numbers to reduce it to zero. If one character doesn’t have enough dice to solve the problem, others can be moved to that module to try and finish up the repairs. As well, some of the repair numbers have deficits. Sometimes rolled numbers will be held in stasis, meaning that if you reroll your dice, stasis’d dice won’t reroll. They can be taken into the void, where you can’t use them, or they can injure the character. Every round of micrometeoroid showers damages two or three modules, meaning that you’ll always be repairing something. Not repairing a module can damage the overall hull integrity of the ship, harm your characters or cause you to lose other resources like food or die.
Whenever a character rolls their dice, they lose one die on their roll next week. Dice are essentially the physical output that a given character can perform and can be gained through eating food or resorting to cannibalism. Growing food in the greenhouse module grants you one food product that can be fed to a crew member. This gains them three dice. Dead crew members can be served to living crew members at the expense of one life and only offer two dice to that character. No one really seems to make a big deal of it, though. There’s a stress mechanic, but the game will be damned if it tells you what it deals with. Something about the severity of what bad rolls will do in a given damaged module, but I haven’t seen it change too much when it’s higher or lower. I’m just saying, if I had to eat my roommate to survive a blizzard here in northern Pennsylvania, I might become somewhat stressed out over the prospect in iteself, let alone the act.
This is where I find most of the faults with Tharsis. It’s understood that most games like this are random number generators, but the effect becomes somewhat lost when you pull the curtain and implement a visual random number generator like dice rolling. For example, that missile might breach my hull in FTL and cause my pilot to asphyxiate within a few seconds. Imagine if every time a missile shot towards your ship, you’d roll a few dice rolled to see whether it would miss or not. It takes away any control I feel I have in the game. I feel like I’m playing a complicated game of Craps, but instead of being served a martini by a sexy waitress, I’m losing my only doctor while she was trying to repair the engine room because she rolled the one number that injures her.
The game’s way too short for what it sells itself for. Tharsis would have done better had they downed the difficulty a bit and extended it from 10 instances to maybe 15 or 18. The premise, writing, story and cut scene pictures are really all that hold up my want to continue playing. If more focus were put on these few things rather than the way the dice roll and the different random repairs you run around constantly fixing, the game could have a much bigger draw to it to a wider audience. Because of the great storytelling, I really want to know the ending and see what they find on Mars. And there is a certain fun in doing the match between who you should send to fix what, or whether it’s worth it to fix a module. But the mediocre graphics, short game time, and intense difficulty hold it back from being more than a niche product for people that enjoy juggling dice more than their family jewels.