Tharsis Review – Space Sucks (PS4)

Space. Vast, desolate, beautiful, and ridiculously unforgiving. Once you leave the sanctity of our home planet’s atmosphere, and indeed, even just a few miles up or so, this becomes abundantly clear. Tharsis is a new game by Choice Provisions which hopes to capture that feeling of being hopelessly stranded with no aid coming. One part tabletop, dice-rolling simulator, another part sci-fi, and yet one more part survival horror, find out if this game has what it takes to take you to the final frontier.

Take a Turn for the Worse

Tharsis is a turn-based strategy game. You start with a crew of up to four astronauts, embarking on a manned mission to Mars. Some sort of radio signal has been picked up, and you’re answering the call. Problem is, your crew has been placed on a spaceship that NASA would never allow. Parts fail all the time, endangering everyone aboard. There’s the occasional meteorite strike (and indeed, one sets the game in motion), but for the most part, dangers involve something going haywire in a section of the ship.

The task sounds simple — survive ten weeks on your journey to Mars in a turn-based strategy tabletop-like game whereby you roll the dice to seal your fate. Three hours in, and I had hardly made it past week six before losing…over and over and over and over again. Tharsis is a tough game. It’s both tough, and unfair. Not only do you have to plan the utilization of scarce resources, but you also have to be just plain lucky to get a dice roll that’s in your favor, especially in the last turns of a game. You can be off to a great start, but very quickly things will escalate, and before you know it your ship is destroyed before your otherwise healthy astronauts can fix it. The tutorial that the game runs you through is very quick, and doesn’t explain the best strategy. Instead, you should expect to lose your very first game. As well as the one after that, and the one after that…It’s going to be a while before you even get a hint of sweet, sweet victory. Tharsis has a hell of a learning curve, and some gamers may not be able to make it over the many hurdles that it throws at you.

Eat Your Heart Out

Tharsis is for a particular type of gamer, looking for a particular type of challenge. Whereas games like Bloodborne are challenging simply because they require fast reflexes, Tharsis requires that you think a long time between actions. You have to weigh all your options, at all times, and consider each aspect of the game’s mechanics on their own, as well as in a holistic fashion. There is no easy victory; even if you’re lucky in the early stages of the game and manage to stave off most ship and crew damage, eventually your luck will turn. It’s what you do when that inevitable alarm sounds that can mean the difference between success and horrible, terrible, possibly cannibalistic death.

Yes, that’s right, there’s cannibalism in Tharsis. You see, each character starts with a random amount of dice. These dice get depleted each turn, and replenishing the supply involves consuming food. If you’re out of food, at a certain point in the game you are given the option of consuming meat from a fallen astronaut. While this can restore many dice in one go, it does decrease the maximum health of the player who turns cannibalistic, as well as raises their stress level by a fair amount. Oh, did I forget to mention the stress level? There’s a lot of bars and stats to measure and take care of for each astronaut.

Light Presentation

Choice Provisions is a smaller development house, and the only area in which this shows is in the graphics. The game doesn’t look too bad, however the character models leave a lot to be desired. Yet on the other hand, the ship’s interiors have a lot more detail than it appears at first, with small items floating about in the weightlessness of the spaceship, spinning centrifuges, and computer circuitry strewn throughout. Tharsis also sports a fitting audio track, which varies in tone from hopeful to tense, and everything in between. The story is told through voiced cutscenes, by either a male or female voice depending upon the gender of your randomly-assigned captain, which is an unexpectedly nice touch. Though truth be told, once you’ve gone through the cutscenes a few times, you’ll likely skip the ones that you’ve seen before because they don’t change. Tharsis is a bit light on content, to be honest — there’s the one game to play, and you either win or lose. There are no take-backs; you can never replay a game that had a particular set of dice and initial ship damage that you liked.

If the thought of losing at a game over and over until you finally understand all of its nuances does not sound like a good time, then you can safely pass on Tharsis. If, however, you love tabletop games, or enjoy the challenge of micro-managing several scarce resources at a time in an almost vain effort against nearly insurmountable odds, then by all means buy Tharsis. There’s a great challenge to be had, and some replayability in the form of chasing an ever-higher score by not resorting to cannibalism so easily, taking less damage, and keeping ship morale high, as well as new characters to unlock. This is not a game for everyone, but for those who know what they’re getting themselves into, Tharsis is well worth the effort.

Tharsis review code provided by publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.

7.5Bronze Trohpy
  • A micro-manager's dream
  • Rewarding risk-and-reward system
  • Short but deep games
  • Steep, steep learning curve
  • Light on content