Tharsis Video Game Review: Space Disaster Management Done Right

Mars from Tharsis video game

The very first screen says so much about Tharsis, a fantastic space survival and resource management game. A large screen both hauntingly empty and yet with Mars taking up so much ominous space. This sets the tone for a game that puts the screws to you early and never lets up. The relentless struggle for survival against an expansive backdrop

Originally released on Steam back in 2016, this game was met with strong acclaim as well as some justified criticism about being infuriatingly difficult. The game has gone a re-model, with a lot of changes made from direct feedback to make the game better. Just in time for a rollout to other platforms, including the Switch, Tharsis is one of the best examples of a game that seems like a super small package at first, but continues to deliver over repeated play-throughs.

The re-launch of Tharsis is a good one, and there’s a lot to love about this surprisingly in-depth game. There are a couple minor spoilers ahead, however we don’t give away the main plot points or the endings.

Tharsis Video Game Plot

The story of Tharsis starts off simple enough in a way that gets you right into the action. You have a crew of five going to Mars. You get a bit of drama between crew mates with one particularly foul-mouthed botanist tending to be the player favorite. Sometimes you just gotta love the grump calling out all the b.s.

Then catastrophe happens. I mean, of course it does – this is a space survival game!

Everything goes insane and you are setup with your crew and your mission. When you are playing for the first time you don’t have a choice in the types of crew members: you get the base four. As you go through more playthroughs and hit certain marks you will be able to unlock other crew members and mix and match the starting crew as you see fit.

This opening gameplay screen is going to be one you become familiar with:

Tharsis video game screenshot

Once the beginning stage is set for your mission, the game is organized in a really good way. You get a clear picture of the ship with a main screen that organizes things extremely well. Relatively simple and easy to understand, it also packs in a remarkable amount of information once you see how to read it.

The white bars on the top left tell you how strong your hull is out of eight possible points. The red lines underneath indicate how much potential damage may take place this round. The triangles under “Deploy Crew” indicate how many new issues you will experience each week, with color indicating how serious they are. Green are the easiest to deal with, red indicates very bad times ahead, and yellow is still a very unpleasant middle.

An “Assist” can prevent a Stasis, Void, or Injury result from a dice roll. Up to three Assists can be held at a time. The food is just that. Each food replenishes three die per meal. That’s for an individual player – one food doesn’t give dice to everyone. If the character eats they get dice back. If not…well no dice?

Bad jokes aside, having all that information displayed clearly and organized well is a definite plus. Each character has their stress meter on the left of the picture, boxes of health on the right, and the white boxes underneath are how many dice each character has. They will all lose one die at the end of each round.

Each module serves a specific purpose and offers bonuses the player uses to manage food, stress, dice, health, and of course the all-important hull strength. Because the moment the hull breaches it is game over.

The bottom by the beaker indicates three current areas of “research.” Stored dice can be used to use these to help keep the ship moving. Or if none of them appear useful to deal with the current disasters, one saved die can be used to switch out the research cards.

Early on the “Hull Help” button is a nice way to bring up a screen reminding you of what each module does. This tells you which part of the ship lets you strengthen the hull, where crewman can gain health or dice, or where you can attempt to harvest food.

This basic setting remains when the time comes to try to repair the individual modules, as shown below.

Each crew member’s special ability is explained underneath their portrait, with a spot for the one die that can be used there. Potential dangers like Stasis and Void are clearly marked a well as the total number needed for repairs. The dice hold allows you to save a die in between rolls before using it. The right side shows you what your die rolls can be used for in this module. And of course, there’s always the research projects at the bottom.

Keeping a similar setup means even when shifting from the outside of the ship to the inside you’re not disoriented at all. Although you may hit the help button a couple times just to make sure you remember things correctly, this is an outstanding setup. Easy to learn, easy to navigate, and this allows you to play a game of Tharsis quickly while still putting full thought into your strategy for surviving another day in space.

Very few games are this well designed as far as smooth functionality goes. The dice roll, and you can see at a glance what all of your options are. This makes for a really smooth gameplay experience, especially after just a couple of turns. There aren’t many games that can claim that.

Understanding Important Tharsis Mechanics

Generally the best mechanics for an independent game like Tharsis are simple to understand but leave room for plenty of strategy. Getting through this game is often navigating between multiple less than ideal situations to decide what you can put off and what you have to see to immediately. This involves knowing the mechanics for Tharsis.

Like the base design of the game, the mechanics follow a smooth design that I like a lot.

Dice, Health, and Stress

You need to look at your dice, your health, and your stress. If your characters run out of dice you won’t have the ability to cut down big numbers. That means less ability to fix disasters, less ability to get food or healing, less dice to take advantage of research. Dice are an absolute lifeline in this game.

Then again, you don’t have any dice if you’re dead. Health is one of those stats that is very easy to overlook in this game. Then suddenly you have two damaged modules threatening to take away health and multiple bad dice rolls in the module that cause injury. Then you are all too aware of when you’re low on health. It only takes one die in the medical module to get most of your health back. That’s a pretty good investment when you have the movement and dice to spare.

Food

Food can be a very powerful way to maintain those precious numbers, which is why it is one of the more difficult things to maintain in this game. Even in the right module you need at least two matching die numbers to get one food, and three matching die numbers to end up with three food. One bit of food refreshes three die for a character in between disasters.

This makes having a healthy store of food crucial for success. Not only can you keep characters fully loaded with dice, but this also prevents you from needing to use one or more characters heading to the module during the disaster that refreshes dice. Nothing worse than having to take a character to a module without an emergency when the ship starts falling apart.

Cannibalism

This is a choice you will have to make during the mission. At one point you’ll have three pieces of human meat (or “longpig” as the series Archer would refer to it) that can be used. As you might expect, cannibalism has some serious consequences that are added to the benefits that this action does bring to the table.

First, the positives of cannibalism (Never thought I’d get to say that and obviously I am thrilled)! You get two dice back for each piece of human that you have a character eat. Not quite as good as real food, but two dice is two dice and sometimes you just absolutely need those dice.

The negatives? There are two main ones. One is that you lose one point of maximum health. This doesn’t cause damage if you don’t have full health. It does mean your total health available is one unit less for each act of cannibalism a character takes part in. The other negative is one that makes sense: the psychological stress of that character shoots through the roof. On easy mode this isn’t as much of an issue unless you really go whole hog on the people eating, but it can cause serious issues.

Finally, it’s worth noting that you can choose to kill a character in order to get meat for your other characters to eat. One of the unique challenges is reaching that point where you realize it’s 50/50 whether or not you need to kill a character to get the meat and get your dice back or push for one more set of disasters to try to survive.

On more than one occasion, the only chance to win was to kill a character with only one die and feed them to the other.

The game does a great job of forcing you to feel that tension of that decision. Do you give the others a chance to survive, crossing that line for the greater good, or do you doom them all by refusing to go down that road? Also the sound effect of a character screaming at you the first time you choose to kill to create meat via cannibalism…wow. This game really nails the guilt trip.

One awesome graphic to pay attention to is what happens to the dice after you have made the decision to eat people. The graphics on the dice change, and it’s one of those details that really helps make this a stunningly good game.

To eat or not to eat, that can be a pretty serious question. So…do we really need a pilot?

Special Abilities

You need to make sure to take special care to plan with your characters’ special abilities. The doctor can heal other characters in the same module as them. The specialist gets the all-powerful extra re-roll. Pilots can move through danger without consequence while the mechanic has one of the most powerful special abilities in the game with the ability to add +1 to the hull wherever he is, as long as you can roll at least one 5 or higher.

On your first playthrough you will only have four characters. However, as more characters are unlocked you will have more options to work with. Whether you’re starting with the base four or mixing and matching depending on what characters most match your playing style, the special abilities each character have must be a part of your in-game strategy if you want to survive the tsunami of in-space disasters that are going to be coming your way.

So many options…

How to Win at Tharsis

Tharsis has always had a reputation as a particularly challenging game. My understanding is that the “Easy” mode is a new feature and that although there’s still plenty of bad luck at play, it’s not as heavy as with the original release. This is still a very challenging game from the very beginning. You don’t need to misstep to get hammered. This can happen even when you are doing just about everything right.

If you want to become really good at winning against the game consistently then you will need to follow these steps as well as build up experience.

Step One: Accept you are going to lose a LOT early on. Take this as an opportunity to test out new strategies, answer questions you have about gameplay, and just get a feel for things. The more you play the better you will get at recognizing obvious disasters versus the sneaky “setups” that don’t look bad at first, but can set up a devastating combination of problems on your next turn.

Step Two: Don’t underestimate your science. Those extra dice matter. You can get huge repair boosts, extra assists to protect you from void and injury, heal characters, or even add extra strength to the hull. Using several of these bonuses can make the difference between winning and losing.

Step Three: Pay attention to specific dangers. If you have a character with five dice but only two health, that character should not go into the module where three different die rolls cause injury. That’s almost a guarantee you’re going to lose that character. If you have a science study that lets you cancel out void or injury, make sure to use those prior to going into a module full of them. If you have one of the rare “23 repair to module” use a low die character to get into a module, fix it, and THEN roll dice for more science or whatever benefits that module gives. The type of danger matters.

Step Four: Optimize your character group. With the way I play the Doctor usually isn’t that useful to me, nor is the Pilot. However, other players I’ve talked to love these characters. I know which characters have skills I desperately need (keep patching up the holes, mechanic, and give me the commander – so many 1’s I can use as 4’s). While the opening group is solid, it’s my opinion that some of the unlockable characters are far better in most situations, so mix and match accordingly.

Step Five: Make the cannibalism call early. Once you get a feel for the game, you’ll often understand pretty quickly around mid-game whether you have an honest chance of doing a non-cannibal run or not. One thing I’ve learned from hours of playing: if you get the strong feeling you should sacrifice a crew member for the greater good, the right time to do it is almost always then and there. You almost always get punished worse for waiting and “hoping” things get better next turn.

Step Six: Plan out each turn. What science do you have showing? Or saved? What modules need repairs that can also give bonuses? What are the priority red fixes and which can wait? Plan out who is best for each repair. Nothing worse than using a character and ending up with a module that has 3 or less damage left – forcing you to use an entirely different character to clean up. Combine the character skills, your needs, and your science to get the most done with every turn.

Learning how to win at Tharsis takes time, and even after enough hours where I feel like a really solid Tharsis player, there are times I just get steamrolled early and there just wasn’t much to be done. This is a game that takes talent and patience to overcome, but that just makes the victory all the sweeter once you get there!

You can tell Shane enjoyed the heck out of his playthru.

Advanced Tharsis Strategies

The game shifts a lot as you move up the difficulty levels. In fact, I’m of the opinion that unless you get an insanely lucky run, you need to unlock some of the other characters before tackling this on normal or hard mode for sure. Winning Tharsis in hard mode is…well I’ll let you know when I figure it out. But if the journey is any indication, it will be pretty brutal.

While different players may shift based on how they like to play, a major part of any advanced Tharsis strategy is going to be mixing and matching skills for your team and getting plenty of food and research out early to give you a fighting chance. Also expect cannibalism to be a virtual necessity at some point. In hard mode you just can’t be soft. You need your dice – and as much freedom of movement as possible while the ship is crashing and burning.

A big part of being able to win Tharsis in hard mode with advanced game strategies is making the most of the new characters who are available. Some skills are good situationally, others are game-changers in most games. A break down of those I believe are most useful always down to situation ones:

Always Big or Potentially Game-Changing:

  • The Engineer’s ability to add +1 to the hull from anywhere with a die roll of a 5 or above
  • Specialist’s one extra re-roll. If you keep the Specialist with 5 dice, that extra re-roll makes them a beast
  • Commander’s any low die roll becomes a +4. Turning a 1 into a 4 is super solid and a workaround with low stasis numbers
  • Cannibal. So…damaging her health to provide food (and thus dice) for everyone else

The Middle Ground

  • Technican’s +2 Assist. The harder the setting, the more valuable this is. I wasn’t sure it was strong enough to be on the list above, and it felt too strong to be on the list below. Based on play style this could easily go either way and it’s always a solid choice.

Situationally Good:

  • Doctor – Heal other players in the same module, especially good when you need three players to fix a module
  • Captain – Plus one die to other players is good, but if you’re spending a die on that, you need at least 2 others in the module for this to come ahead. I’m really lukewarm on it to be honest. It’s almost worthless if not for the fact so often one or two dice make all the difference
  • Psychologist – Useless on easy, much better at higher levels though it’s hard to justify this over say a Mechanic or Technician just going to the module that provides the same service.

The Mystery Along the Journey

You wouldn’t think a few cut scenes brought together could put together a really intriguing plot and yet that is something that Tharsis manages to pull off. Mystery, questions, a growing plot that brings out a sense of dread and wonder as it continues to roll out. Do you get the full answers at the end, or are you still left wondering?

Tharsis does a great job of building the mystery throughout the playthrough, and there are slight adjustments in story based on decisions you make while playing. Once you’ve hit all the endings obviously you have all the pieces you’re going to get, and this is a game that wasn’t built on a huge overarching plot. However, for a game its size the use of cut-scenes creating some mystery and story does a really great job. Very impressive for the size and style of the game, for sure.

Do the Tharsis Endings Pay Off?

Nothing worse than a solid game with a weak ending. In this case there are multiple endings depending on a variety of factors. Most revolving around whether or not you resorted to cannibalism, had to kill someone for cannibalism, and how many of your crewmen survived to reach the Tharsis area of Mars.

The first ending I found was with one survivor, and it was interesting. Avoiding spoilers it was a great use of graphics for story telling, creating a nice twist, and setting me up for more runs up ahead. Having been through multiple endings I’ll say that in my opinion the endings do a nice job of really painting a solid plot in a condensed space.

While I would personally like to see a bit more, or maybe some future sequel or DLC content explaining more, for the most part it delivers more than I expect in a game like this. For me the endings are one of those where you had a good meal but it just feels like one little thing was off that could have otherwise made it great.

The Individual Missions

Tharsis Mission Screen

Currently there are 10 missions offered in addition to the main plot. They are a fantastic addition to the base game and create some really truly great challenges. This adds a ton of replay value to the game, not to mention some scenarios that basically sum up this entertaining game in a nut shell: an all out dumpster fire that puts the odds so against you all you can do is laugh.

Check out Shane’s original Twitch stream of Tharsis, especially at 2:20:50 for one such reaction, and one of the best genuine laughs you’ve probably heard in some time when this appeared:

All Large Fire
All the dumpster fires…ALL THE DUMPSTER FIRES!

Braden’s Tharsis Review

I was not 100% sure of what to expect from an experience that combined Apollo 13 style space survival, dice, and cannibalism. Sure, I watched the trailer beforehand and looked at some of the game play tips, but since I had not neither watched nor experienced the game play prior to my initial stream of it on April 10th, I was starting my first play through with basically no experience and an open mind.

Since this was the case, I started by playing through the tutorial. I was able to pick up on the basic controls pretty easily here, and it acts like a prelude to your actual game play pretty elegantly. Figuring out what all the different rooms on the ship did mechanically took me a little longer, but once I found the button that highlighted the map with explanations, I was off to the races.

Or was I? Unfortunately, keeping that menu open hides the active disasters on your ship after they flash on screen at the start of your turn, so I wasted my first turn shoring up stats for my crew. Naturally, new problems show up every turn (the severity of which you are warned about at the top of the screen), so it did not take long for me to realize that I messed up and was only fighting against the inevitable failure of the ship.

Tharsis doomed screenshot
I believe the technical term for this situation is “Boned.”

Tharsis Try #2

My second run started off much more efficiently, and the prognosis for whether we were going to make it to Mars was optimistic – until a poor die roll outright killed a healthy party member. After watching this promising run end in failure, I finally reached Mars – on Easy mode mind you – after my third attempt.

Watching the end of the game (and without spoiling anything), the story feels like it’s setting you up for something epic while leaving you pretty unsettled. I wouldn’t mind seeing some DLC in the future that explores the details of what’s going on a little more, but I also understand the storytelling validity of this open ending.

Replay value is very high, as the other difficulty levels prove to be challenging puzzles that put you in increasingly compromised positions when you start. You also gain access to missions, which set up unique circumstances for you to survive that you won’t see in traditional game play – I was really happy to see some exploration of this pretty unique game play concept here. You can also unlock other characters with unique abilities, giving you additional crew options to play with.

So what does a successful run look like in Tharsis?

Here are Braden’s Tharsis-playing tips for players who are just starting out:

  • Dice are your most important stat. Keep them high at all times for as many of your crew as you can.
  • Don’t abuse your resources. The moment you decide you can trade some of your hull for a perk between turns, expect the game to throw two disasters at you that will damage it if they aren’t resolved.
  • Don’t be afraid to make difficult decisions. The cannibalism mechanic will penalize your final score, but can be instrumental to making sure you finish your journey. Remember, only one crew member has to survive at the end in order to succeed.
  • Make sure you prioritize the active problems carefully. Sometimes you just won’t be able to fix everything, and knowing which issues can be allowed to go unchecked will allow you to focus your limited resources where they are needed.
  • Take advantage of your crew’s abilities. The order in which you assign people to a task can open up a lot of potential options, regardless of where you are on the ship.
  • Manage your stress. Failing to do this can create a lethal problem at the worst possible time.

A huge thank you to Paul at Wire Tap Media as well as QubicGames for the free key – we had a ton of fun exploring this game. If you play games on Steam or Nintendo Switch and enjoy difficult puzzles with some quirky mechanics, we highly recommend you give it a look as well.

What’s The Final Verdict?

I struggle with this one a bit, but I’ve settled on a strong 8/10. This is a rock solid game that I feel comfortable recommending to others. Even though it is very short, the entertainment value is high and it never feels easy. Each game feels like another challenge. The challenges that come with the main quest are incredibly interesting. Sometimes weird, and sometimes very clever. There’s a lot to love about the package of what Tharsis brings to the table.

My biggest complaint is that as stunningly good as the story and ending is, it feels incomplete. Even after uncovering all of the potential endings there are more mysteries left than answers. I want there to be more of all the great stuff that’s going on during the game. I want to know more about the ending, which feels like a cliff-hanger for a DLC or sequel in the feature (speculation here, nothing confirmed).

If you just want to blow through the main game on “easy” mode and don’t care about unlocking other characters or trying the challenges, Tharsis can feel like a delicious bite of steak left after someone else devoured the rest of the plate.

What We Love

  • Challenging. Even for experienced gamers this game is going to provide incredible challenge and admittedly some moments of frustration – even Easy mode is more than deadly enough to “f-you up.”
  • Graphics are simple but careful attention to detail is given – the art during cut scenes is hauntingly beautiful
  • Very easy to pick up how the game works so you can dive into the action
  • The missions are fantastic – big addition to the main game!
  • The music is a perfect fit for this game. Really well done.
  • Multiple endings based on decisions you make and how well you navigate the challenge of survival.
  • Available on multiple platforms, including a rare limited edition PS4 print

What We Don’t Love

  • The dice generator isn’t completely random – it tilts towards being bad for the player. While this can add challenge, sometimes it gets frustrating when it’s clearly out of whack (like rolling 11 ones in 13 dice which I’ve done twice in only a few hours of play).
  • Sometimes it feels like luck plays too much of a role in the game
  • As good a game as it is, I frequently found myself wanting more. More plot, more story, more explanation of the mysteries surrounding the game.

But when the biggest complaint is that you want more, you have a very good game on your hands. I would highly recommend this game as it is entertaining with strong replay value.

Assorted Meeples Note: A huge thank you to Paul at Wire Tap Media as well as QubicGames for the free key – we had a ton of fun exploring this game. If you play games on Steam or Nintendo Switch and enjoy difficult puzzles with some quirky mechanics, we highly recommend you give it a look as well.

And best of luck…

Tharsis video game bloody ending