by Robert Thomas
reviewed on PC
A Roll of the Dice
Dice have a big role in video games. Most of the time the rolls go unseen, happening behind the scenes, inside the games coding. In Tharsis, the dice rolls play a huge part, and they are not hidden at all. The dice will be rolled right on top of the game. An unforgiving game of luck and chance, you must manage a dying space expedition to Mars, with things going more and more poorly as the trip continues. It's the kind of game that prides itself on its cruelty to the player.
You start off the game controlling a team of 6 astronauts on their way to Mars for a special mission. Everything seems fine and dandy, until there's a small error in one of the ship's modules. One of the astronauts is sent to fix it, and the whole module gets totally destroyed by an asteroid, killing two of your members. From there on, you have to manage four people, as devastation after devastation happens to your ship, all in a matter of 10 turns.
Every turn, two or more things are going to go wrong on the ship. Perhaps a machine will fail in the laboratory, or a fire will break out in the greenhouse. When that happens, those events will have an attached number. For instance, let's say on turn eight that there's an impending asteroid collision on the laboratory. When that disaster hits, the number nineteen comes up. In order to stop the effects of that disaster, which in this case would be losing one or two levels of the ships health, you need to send a character into the module and roll the die and reach a total number higher than nineteen. Once ten becomes zero, the repairs to the module are made and you avoid those repercussions. If you fail to repair the module, you'll be hit with the negative effects once the turn is done, and every subsequent turn until you make the repairs.
It seems simple in concept, but Tharsis throws a lot of hurdles in your way before you're able to repair any module. For every crisis within a module, there will be several numbers that, if you roll them, will have an effect. In some cases, when you roll a two, the character rolling will get an injury, or when you roll a five that die will be put in stasis and unable to be re-rolled. So, it adds a whole other layer of luck.
A Forlorn Crew
Not only do you have to manage your ship and its modules, but you'll also have to manage the ship's crew. All four members of the crew have a little ability that offers an extra re-roll or an extra die for crew members in the same module, so you'll need to calculate who to send where based on these abilities. Throughout these ten turns, you'll have to watch the character's stress, health, and the amount dice they can roll. Taking an action with a character is liable to increase their stress and decrease their very limited health. Tharsis puts emphasis on the fact that's very unlikely everyone will make it to Mars.
After every turn, the crew will pick sides on a decision, whether that is to conserve strength or work harder, eat extra food or don't eat any, or other situations with both positive and negative consequences. You'll need to make the decision for them. After that, if you're lucky enough to have any food, you can give some to a crew member to increase their overall die count. If things have gotten very dire, there's an option to cannibalize the crew member who died earlier, and any crew members who die later on. Cannibalization comes with great stress and fewer positives than eating actual food, but it can be a desperate substitute for someone without any other options.
Although Tharsis is not outstanding in its visuals, it does capture the cold loneliness and hopeless feelings through its soundtrack. The music can be dull after long stretches, but its somber tone reflects on the game well. The developers also decided to show the face of each crew member, as though there's a camera inside their helmet. Their expression changes as the situation gets better or worse, and I think it's supposed to make you feel a little sad when they die. Unfortunately, be it the engine or the style, they just end up looking kind of goofy.
Unless you're incredibly lucky with your dice rolls, damage will stack up and you'll have to make some hard choices. You'll need to decide if you can sacrifice one crew member in order to avoid damage on the ship, or take some damage on the ship to avoid your crew losing health. Managing these kinds of decisions is the game's selling point, but really it comes down to luck a lot more than the ability to work under pressure.
Luck is what Tharsis seems to be all about. The disasters that can hit are all random, as are the numbers they generate in order to counter these disasters. It's just too much luck and difficulty combined; there's no real skill involved. There have been rounds where the first two disasters both have a total number higher than 20, making it nearly impossible to make it through the turn without something going wrong. I've had rounds where I get high rolls and low number disasters, and there have been games where things just don't go my way, but in both instances I don't feel like I'm playing a video game.
Tharsis is a fun idea in theory, but in practice, doesn't make for a fun game. To me, the game seems like it'd be better suited as a tabletop board game, as opposed to a video game, where players expect a bit more agency. Most of the game is out of your control and there are very few things you can do to counteract a couple bad rolls of the die. There's simply too much luck and not enough player influence to get a whole lot out of it.
Solid atmosphere. Good bits of working under pressure.
Too much luck. Not enough player agency.