The console market has relatively few credible turn based strategy games, and even fewer that seek to replicate the grand strategy of leading 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) titles such as the Civilization series. Indeed, the last such game might even be Civilization Revolution, the competent but unloved spin-off from Sid Meiers seminal human race simulator.
Thea: The Awakening focuses on almost the polar opposite angle, with a fantasy setting based on Slavic mythology and a tale about the dying embers of the human race. The player is a God, but not in your usual video game sense. There are no world altering powers to play with and no lightning bolts to thwart enemies with in Thea, just an omnipresent micro-manager charged with the survival of the last human settlement.
It’s a bleak, foreboding setting, but it fits the setting perfectly. Western European and American players will feels instantly as if they have fallen into a story that is as close to being an offshoot of The Witcher as it could possibly be, but in this world, there is no Geralt of Rivia to save them. Character names, weapons and even the dark ink on papyrus art style are all similar to CD Project Red’s game, and Thea even features it’s own unique card based minigame.
Each interpretation of the world of Thea is randomly generated at launch, so variety between plays is assured, but the starting settlement of Ostoya is ever present. A downside for me is that it’s not possible to build additional settlements, nor to support more than ten buildings. I suspect this is to maintain the feeling of desperation and prevent power creep, but it’s also at odds with the core theme of preserving the human race.
From the outset, players have a lot of options to customize the game. There are many difficulty levels, each of which provide preset conditions for the world such as size and so on. Each variable can be tweaked, and for the masochistic among you, creating a truly punishing experience is entirely possible. In an interesting twist, players are given a choice of only two of the games available (and unlocked Gods) when they begin a new game, which is a nice way to force variety. Whilst my earlier comment about the lack of direct ability to influence the world with spells is true, each God does have a number of skills (such as better smiths or warriors among their followers) and a number that can be unlocked through experience. In a roguelike touch, skills are retained by Gods after each game, so leveling them up does allow the player to tackle higher difficulties incrementally.
There are also several ways to complete the game, including via completion of the interesting and branching narrative. Clearly, Thea is designed to encourage replayability, which is a feat that it undoubtedly achieves.
What players actually do is more difficult to explain, which is a problem that the game itself shares. Broadly speaking, Ostoya is home to a handful of named humans, each with individual skills and strengths and weaknesses. The player must balance the need for basic survival (gathering food and wood) with the desire to expand the settlement, obtain better equipment and complete the many quests and encounters that occur throughout the game. Residents can be split out to form expeditions to undertake these tasks, but doing so will mean removing vital skills, equipment and supplies, so it can be a tough decision.
Micromanagement of the settlement and any expeditions is explained reasonably well by a tutorial that is woven nicely into the plot, but advanced explanation of the user interface and some of its features is left to an in game help section. Some things are tricky and unintuitive regardless of how you learn about them (such as assigning people to jobs) but there’s a lot going on and it is far from disastrous. Having gathered tons of loot and items over an hour or two of pay, my first pass at inventory management took so long that it taught me never to leave it so long again!
Once an expedition sets out from Ostoya, it becomes more susceptible to both roaming (visible) enemies and those occur as a result of unseen encounters. There hundreds of unique encounters in Thea, and although you’ll begin to see them recur after repeated plays, each individual game remains a unique and interesting feeling. Encounters can vary from very terrestrial issues such as an earthquake, to small quests that feature multiple layers and outcomes. The latter are undoubtedly more interesting, and act perfectly to help forge an experience that is specific to each Thea.
These encounters, coupled with the desperation of the survivors in Thea is what makes the game. Each character is named, and because your village will likely have ten to twenty of them in the earliest stages, each of them will matter. Having two children eaten by a dragon will be a bitter blow, whilst liberating a desperate survivor from a spider web can seem like a boon, even if it dies mean another mouth to feed.
When an encounter does result in a fight (or anytime a challenge occurs) the player will test his party via a decent card based minigame. These tests are not always fights – they can simply be physical, mental, hunting or sneaking challenges – but the method of resolution is always the same. Players are dealt two decks of cards based on their party members and equipment, and must play them in sequence against those played by the challenge or enemy. One deck is used for direct action, whilst the other in support, to influence the battlefield or take power from the opponent by tampering with their deck. The minigame isn’t perfect (and it can be long winded) but it’s enjoyable and relevant when handling important tests. For mundane encounters of those with a certain outcome, players can also auto-resolve them, but that’s not wise for high risk situations.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed Thea and I’m delighted to see it make an appearance on consoles. The world it depicts is violent and desperate, but it is capable of creating organic, human tales of heroism, survival and sadness. It is in itself quite unique overall, but within it is also a complete mini game that is as credible as Gwent or any other. It looks good, with lovely hand drawn art and it features a beautiful soundtrack that further enhances an already enjoyable escape into the unusual narrative. There may only be one current-gen game of this kind to recommend, but it is a bloody good one, and it will take some beating.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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