In one of the developer diaries, Zach Gage, the system designer at Choice Provisions, talks about the decision to make die rolls the foremost mechanic in Tharsis. In that particular video, Gage states that he wanted to make a game where, “the dice are the arbiter of [the player’s] life.” To Choice Provisions’ credit, Tharsis accomplishes exactly that.
Tharsis puts players in control of the first manned mission to Mars. The astronauts under the player’s command were sent to investigate a mysterious signal coming from the Tharsis region of the red planet. However, mere weeks from their destination, the crew of the Iktomi meet disaster. Their vessel rockets through a field of micro-meteoroids, destroying their food supply and killing two crew members. The game tasks players to lead the surviving astronauts to Mars while facing down the dangers posed by the damage done to the ship and the dwindling scraps of food that remain on board. On top of that, every playthrough is randomized, leading to completely different experiences with every attempt to reach Tharsis. It’s a catchy premise and one which certainly caught my initial interest. However, the way in which Choice Provisions executed on that premise leaves something to be desired.
Imagine you are playing slots at a casino. You are pulling the lever, watching the results mix around on the machine, sometimes winning, more often losing. Along comes the owner of the casino with an offer: You can participate in the grand slot game of the night! In order to win, you have to successfully combine the right slot results over the course of ten rounds. Each round, the required slot results change at random while the casino reduces the number of slot machines you can use. I have basically just described Tharsis.
You see, Tharsis revolves entirely on digital dice rolls. Every round represents another week in space and each astronaut can move to one module of the spacecraft and make rolls to perform tasks, fix broken systems, or use special abilities. However, each week new problems arise that will cause more damage to the ship, the health of the astronauts, or the number of dice available to the crew. These disasters can be fixed with dice rolls added together to hit a target number. If the ship runs out of health, it explodes. If a crew member loses their last remaining point of health, they croak. On top of that, the crew loses one die for every action taken. Juggling health, dice, and the structural integrity of the ship is a delicate act of probability weighing. One false move could mean almost instant death for the entire mission.
Tharsis shines best during that balancing act. Unfortunately, much like in the earlier comparison to a casino game, Tharsis is heavily weighted against the player. Two to three new events happen each round and all of them are bad. Any attempt to repair the resulting malfunctions carries with it the risk of to freezing certain dice results so they can’t be rerolled, completely taking certain rolls out of play, or damaging the crew member working on the fix. Combine these stresses with an ever decreasing dice pool for each astronaut (barring some exceptionally lucky rolls in the right areas) and the frustrations become clearer.
Choice Provisions attempts to alleviate those frustrations via a mechanic with which players can save and spend die rolls for certain boosts like additional die or ship repairs. These boosts revolve in groups of three and are generated at random. Sometimes they can be immensely helpful and other times they merely represent the hollow hope of survival. If the dice situation becomes extremely bad, players can resort to cannibalism to keep surviving crew members alive and rolling large dice pools.
I dearly wish Tharsis had any amount of character development. Who are these astronauts? Why should I care about them? It sucks when a crewman dies, but it sucks because I don’t get their dice anymore, not because I care about them in any other respect. Cannibalizing these people should be horrible, but it instead feels like a very mechanical decision done for dice with little to no thought about the digital humans stuck in that situation. Having characters we can care about would only serve to deepen our investment in the game and the sense of importance each dice roll possesses.
On the aesthetic front, Tharsis consists mainly of the Iktomi, close ups of the crew in their helpfully colored space suits, and some animatics. While the animatics are visually engaging, the ship and crew appear bland in comparison. The audio in Tharsis is slim, but serviceable. When it plays, the music draws you into the desperate atmosphere of the doomed ship. Meanwhile the voice acting effectively conveys emotion and mounting intensity as the crew approaches their destination. The small budget shows, but it does what it needs to regarding the visuals and audio.
I can’t shake the feeling that there is something really great in Tharsis despite the amount of frustration it gave me. Perhaps with additional ways for players to save their good fortune for the harsh events and poor rolls that inevitably occur along with general rebalancing could save this game. The potential exists for Tharsis to create a more engaging, exciting experience with an expanded array of random events and character development. The core concept of the dice being the arbiters of life and death is a good one, but maybe one or two bad rolls shouldn’t be a death sentence.
Tharsis would be a great hit as a co-op tabletop experience in the same vein as Pandemic. I can see a group of friends really enjoying themselves while taking a morbid trip to Mars, casting lots to see who should be cannibalized to give the others a shot at successfully completing the doomed journey. However, as a video game it feels almost hopelessly stacked against the player, leading to a frustrating time with none of the distractions or house rules that a group of friends can provide. I can’t in good conscience recommend it at the price of $15.
Tharsis is available now on PC and PlayStation 4