App Reviewed on: iPad Pro
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There’s a lot about Tharsis that feels tuned to my exact interests. I’m a big fan of grounded science fiction, roguelites, board games, and creative soundtrack choices. Despite ticking all of these boxes though, I don’t walk away from sessions with Tharsis feeling as giddy as I expect.
Mission to Mars
Tharsis gets its title from a place on Mars. You play as a crew of brave astronauts on their way to the red planet when things go horribly, horribly wrong. Your ship simultaneously loses two crew and its entire bank of food stores thanks to a pesky meteor shower.
The game puts you in control of four survivors as they try to hold things together for the 10 weeks remaining until landing on Mars. This includes performing routine maintenance and self-care for your crew, but also dealing with other disastrous situations as they crop up.
The way you play Tharsis is remarkably board game-like. Your ship is a set of interconnected locations, each of which serves a purpose and can experience a variety of different issues. Each week (which is essentially a round of gameplay), brings some new, random set of problems to your ship, and you have to use your crew to deal with them while also maintaining your crew’s energy, health, and stress, lest your hull rupture and you lose.
You can only use one crew member once per week, so you need to plot your moves carefully. Once arriving at a location, your crew member rolls dice, which you can redeem for a variety of actions. Most of the time, you’ll throw your dice at disasters, which will pay down a number that resolves said disaster once it hits zero. You can also use some dice to activate crew-specific abilities or use the function of the room that you’re in. The crew captain, for example, can restore dice to other crew members, and the Green House can let you harvest food for your crew members.
There’s a lot of nuance to Tharsis’s dice-based system that make it much deeper than it initially appears. There’s also a decent variety of different disasters and crew events in the game to keep you on your toes. If that weren’t enough, Tharsis also sports some missions that test your skills in pre-arranged disaster scenarios and there are unlockable crew members that let you switch things up on every new run.
As great as all this systemic depth and variety is, it almost feels like it isn’t enough. Or, rather, that Tharsis injects all of this variety into a pretty formulaic mold that makes it feel textureless. The “Meteoroid Strike” disaster is meaningless except for the fact that it reduces my crew’s health by one if I don’t fix it. Similarly, there comes a time in every run of Tharsis where you can resort to cannibalism. The game makes a big deal about it, though it’s just another tool for managing dice and stress meters and doesn’t really affect the overall story or other crew members.
This is a shame, because there are a lot of things I really like with Tharsis’s atmosphere. The game’s soundtrack (which is comprised of tracks from the band Weval) in particular is superb. I wish the game just went a little further to marry its mechanics with its setting. The Missions mode almost does what I’m looking for here, but even those boil down to pure puzzle-solving (which, by the way, offer no way to save your progress).
The bottom line
I like systems-heavy roguelites because they can allow me to tell stories. Variables can align such that I have a game experience that feels uniquely mine. Tharsis should be able to do this in theory, but its systems are a little too transparent for that. The result is a really tightly designed roguelite with a great soundtrack, but not one that will give you unforgettable experiences.