On a dangerous mission to Mars, unnerving signals are received from mysterious figures on Mars. However when a meteoroid hits the space shuttle and two crew members are lost forever to the deep dark depths of space, the remaining crew is forced to keep the ship in working order for as long is it takes to reach the red planet. It is here where the game begins and so too does the fight for survival.
The best way to explain the gameplay in Tharsis is as a single-player video board game. With the spaceship falling apart and mayhem being caused faster than it can be fixed, it puts you in a state of slow and calculated stress.
Each playthrough has its new scenarios, but it all takes place within the same layout. This certainly leaves less room for replayability, but the game slightly redeems itself by having you start off with four characters and five others to unlock by completing various tasks (e.g. Harvest 20 Food, Beat the Game Once, etc.). These new characters allow for more strategic variety and as you naturally improve at the game, you can work yourself up the difficulties; this leads onto my next point: this game is challenging! And that’s not to say that it requires fast reflexes or timing, but strategic thinking in scenarios where everything that could go wrong is going wrong at once. With each characters having their own abilities, each station its own Module to regain dice/hull/food/etc. and various other factors to affect each playthrough, it takes a lot of practice to remember what each aspect entails and how to proceed in the most advantageous and forward-thinking way possible.
In addition to the story modes, there are also ten missions that place your crew into very specific circumstances, such as only one crew member remaining and needing to survive for five weeks. Whilst these modes come across as thoughtlessly tacked on, it succeeds in lengthening out a player’s time with the game.
Due to its board game inspirations, the gameplay is all about strategic planning and rolling dice in hopes of achieving the desired outcome. Some may say that this makes the game solely dependant on luck, but I wholeheartedly disagree; rather it is the luck of the dice that increases the importance of the player’s strategic preparation.
I also say that Tharsis is a single-player game, but there is nothing stopping you from docking the Switch and putting it on the big screen to have everyone join in. The only issue to this would be the game’s steep learning curve upon first playing it but with an expert at the helm, I think it could be a lot of fun.
As Tharsis initially released on PC, it is clear to see how it was designed first and foremost with mouse and keyboard in mind. However with the Switch being its first console port, Choice Provisions have done a fantastic job to make it work seamlessly with a standard game pad controller. It took me a few playthroughs for the control scheme to work naturally for me, and there were times where I wish there was an undo button if I accidentally pressed the wrong button, but it’s a great console port nonetheless. With the Switch having its handheld tablet mode, the entirety of the game can also be played with the touchscreen, replicating PC controls, and that comes down to personal preference, but the game pad controls work so well that the options are there for you.
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It might be a minor nitpick, but I wish the game had a bit of HD Rumble to provide more atmospheric feedback. Nothing over the top, perhaps just a shake when you don’t repair something by the end of the term and it explodes, you feel that go through your hands.
The plot acts as a driving point for the gameplay, which may seem like an obvious statement, but the idea of the game is to keep the spaceship operational and functioning until you’re able to make it to Mars. The story is intriguing and is full of mystery, but without spoiling too much, it is very repetitive due to its gameplay structure.
Graphics / Art Direction
For Tharsis‘ simple game design, so too does it sport it sport a simple art direction. For approximately 80% of the game, you’ll be looking at nothing but the spaceship with deep space in the background. The variety comes in-between levels, with still-shot cutscenes and a narrating voice over it. It’s not the most visually exciting game, but it works.
Inbetween chapters, you can choose an upgrade that simultaneously downgrades another aspect. In these moments, you get a closeup on each character’s faces and their odd facial animations. They are disturbing; very, very disturbing.
Music / Sound Design
The soundtrack is slightly unsettling, which fits the bill well. However much like the gameplay, it can get repetitive. It’s not too demanding, much like elevator music, so that you can concentrate on the task at hand, and the breaks in-between levels help to break up its monotony.
The cutscenes between levels contain voice acting that is well done however as stated in the Story section, the lines do not vary. Tharsis occasionally swaps between male and female voice actors, but the content remains the same.
Final Score: 72%
Tharsis is a great game to come back to now and then, but it’s not a game that I’d be eager to recommend. It’s theme of isolation and maintaining calm in a state of utter chaos cleverly challenges your organisation and thought processing skills, with unnerving story-beats to add a sense of character. I’ll look back on it fondly, but when I’m looking through my backlog for something to replay on a rainy day, I doubt that I’d be stopping at Tharsis.
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