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Review: Tharsis (Nintendo Switch)By mikem52 At 13.05.2020 12:11

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It is surprising to discover that Tharsis isn't based on a pre-existing board game product or franchise. From the first blush, it appears to be well entrenched in the genre of tabletop, whereby chance and strategy meet to create gameplay. It too has a design that lends itself somewhat to feeling like a developed-for mobile title, which by no means is meant as a pejorative, but it does however hint at something that would work very well on the mobile platform. Perhaps this is something that the developers are eventually planning with each game being brisk, lasting around half an hour, give or take, and perfect for short bursts. It's developed by Choice Provisions, most notable for making the bit.trip series and Woah Dave! - this however doesn't play anything like those titles.

It's a simple idea, which, like the best of 'em, can be relatively complex at the same time. It plays out as a turn-based affair, with each turn denoting a week of space travel. A team of four characters can be assigned, respectively once per turn, between seven various subdivisions of the ship Iktomi. These ship compartments range from the life support chamber to maintenance sectors, and each of them are in constant need for repair due to the events that occur interstitial to each turn. Each character then has up to five dice to roll, though usually less depending on a given character's condition and dice can then be allocated to a various slots of differing numeric value per move, of which can range from repairing the damage to other perks and buffs. Don't worry. It definitely sounds harder explaining it on paper than it works in practice!

It is a system that creates a lot of interesting choices. Does one allocate dice into food production, to give their team a better chance for surviving the next round, or repair the current section to not risk damaging the hull, Iktomi's overall life gauge? Even between rounds Tharsis is constantly asking difficult questions. On first playthrough this reviewer was given a choice with one option being to allow all living crew members to eat the remains of a recently deceased colleague. This would give them more dice to roll, but at the cost of lowering their overall max health. A difficult and interesting decision. It was a little disappointing, then, to discover that this happens every single play-through, completely irrespective of whether a crew member dies or not.

Indeed, initial impressions are that this will draw comparisons to something like FTL, and one expects some randomised story elements and events as it refreshes and repeats so much from every restart. Ostensibly, though, every game of Tharsis plays out the same, albeit with some variance to start positions and the like and usually with the odds stacked against you by week five or six. There isn't much of progression beyond some mission scenarios and an achievement system character unlock, which grants new special abilities for subsequent play-throughs.

Even with this lacklustre content, there's actually something quite likeable about it being a leaner experience. It makes the core idea undiluted and fit for a quick bash here and there. Presentation throughout is decent. Some character models and animations appear to be stock, or otherwise basic, and there are also points lost for it being a bit of an anticlimax when a game, and the Iktomi, is lost. Otherwise, sound is minimal, but on point. Also expect some nifty camera moves and motion blur when moving between the overview and individual sectors of the ship. Particular mention should also be made of mapping the dice roll and end turn actions to the shoulder buttons. It's a little thing, but a masterstroke, one that makes the core actions tactile and satisfying.

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Final Score
[i]Tharsis[/i] is a time-waster. Nonetheless it is a time-waster that's thoroughly recommended wasting time on - particularly good for fans of strategy and decision-based titles. The difficulty will occasionally peak unfairly, as chance dice requirements can cripple a play-through, even on the lowest difficulty setting, often, though, and probably intentionally, requiring one to make a lose-lose decision to progress. Dice physics may also seem to be working against the player on re-rolls, though it's a small niggle. Whether it's despite or because of this, [i]Tharsis[/i] kept this reviewer coming back for more. It is compelling attempting to make it to week 10 and the planet Mars - with just enough variance and those difficult choices that it doesn't get boring seeing the same story beats over and over. It's probable that this will stay loaded, on console, for return visits for quite some time to come. One does wonder if there will actually ever be a physical board game release down the line. It's certainly ripe enough.



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