Most people hate being proven wrong. I, however, don’t mind it one bit. When I first read about Thea: The Awakening by MuHa Games in our Q&A by Nate, I was very skeptical. Despite the fact that many of the developers had worked for the esteemed CD Projekt Red, I had a lot of questions. “What do you mean we only get one city? Combat is handled by a card game? Their corporate logo is a bug? Is that the kind of message about their software they want to send to customers?” I was sure I was going to hate this game.
After playing it for more than five dozen hours and making countless videos, I can honestly say this is about the only game I want to play right now. Thea has surprised me at every turn by delivering an engaging and challenging experience every time I play.
In Thea, players take on the role of re-ascending deities. The pantheon, apparently, was violently usurped in the ancient past. All the gods and goddesses were stripped of their powers and prestige, then cast into a dark oblivion. Hence, Thea can be a difficult game to categorize. Back when Rob was reviewing Sorcerer King, he coined a new term: the 4X Roguelike. I feel that moniker is at least somewhat appropriate for Thea, though the game also includes elements one normally sees in survival and horror games. One might also think of Thea as a 4X-lite game – the four key mechanics of the genre are present, though one is de-emphasized. How you choose to categorize Thea ultimately doesn’t really matter. The game should appeal to gamers of all stripes.
eXplore: Thea is a dangerous place. Let me repeat that: THEA IS A DANGEROUS PLACE! It’s a moody, post-apocalyptic, medieval world recovering from a magical curse. Ravenous denizens roam freely, desperately searching for mortal flesh on which to dine.
Everything you’d expect from a 4X game is here. Fog of war? Present. Hex-based procedurally generated map? Present. Places of interest? Present. Varying terrain with movement modifiers? Present. Angry monsters that want your soul? Present.
Typically, eXploration in the 4X genre gives the player a chance to scout out the locations of enemy factions, discover optimal settling locations for future eXpansion, or raid empty goodie huts for easy-to-get loot. None of these exist in Thea. There is no enemy factions, no settling of new villages, and what scant goodie huts exist almost always have some nasty guardians lurking inside. Exploration in Thea, instead, is meant to set up eXploitation.
So if you aren’t eXploring the map, what are you eXploring? The people! Thea is different from many other 4X-like games in that it has diverse characters that change from game to game instead of static units. Most of us are used to population being abstracted in some way in the 4X genre. We can usually divide them into workers, researchers, farmers, specialists, heroes or something like that. In Thea, each unit of population has its own personality and avatar. They can move around, gather supplies, craft items, fight, and level up much like in a cRPG.
This departure from the norm may take some getting accustomed to. Over time, the player develops a much more personal relationship with the people in the game. The loss of even one is felt on a visceral level. When you take these people out to explore, you worry about whether they’ll return.
Check out the image above. At first glance, the multitude of abilities available to villagers seems overwhelming, and some may wonder how players can keep up with them all. Easy. The game does it all for you. Thea knows which abilities should come into play and which shouldn’t. The only values I ever really think about on a turn-by-turn basis are: Armor, Damage, Gathering, and Crafting. That’s very manageable. However, all of the abilities are used in cleverly designed challenges and combat situations that ensure well-rounded and refreshing struggles each new game.
Just like your villagers, your resurrected deities level up through a simple XP system. There are eight different deities in Thea, and eXploring each one is quite a treat. Players start with only two random deities unlocked. Many of their powers are kept secret until you advance them. I won’t reveal any details about them in this review, as that might be too much of a spoiler. I’ll just say this: to beat the game, you’ll have to unlock the deities’ potential in multiple play-throughs.
There are also a huge number of quests to eXplore. Each one is brimming with well-written lore and adventure hooks. The quests can be a little text-heavy at times, but the developers included options that allow you to skip the story if you want to. It’s much appreciated! But I do encourage you to read them the first time. Many are written with a good sense of dark humor or present you with some fantastic moral dilemmas such as, “Do I kill the child of an enemy? Or do I let it live and risk having it grow up to attack my village in the future?” Those are some nice conundrums that make the player’s choices matter.
Thea is not the kind of game you’ll beat on the first try. The monsters and events will brutalize your meager villages at first. Have patience! Win or lose, each playthrough will bring your gods and goddesses closer to their former glory.
eXpand: Of the 4Xs, eXpansion is the one where Thea is the “lightest.” Rather than eXpanding an empire in Thea, players eXpand their operational range. The game always begins with a single, solitary village and that’s the only permanent settlement players will ever control. Players will, however, create temporary settlements called “camps.” But, first, an expedition must be formed.
There are a lot of steps to forming an expedition starting with which villagers to take and what armor, weapons, and supplies you think you’ll need. This requires a lot of clicking and dragging, which we’ll discuss later. Then, you must provision them accordingly. Without both food (vegetables, meat, mushrooms, etc.) and fuel (wood, coal, straw, etc.), characters will not heal from their wounds and could starve to death. Once that’s finished, you are ready to depart.
Camps are started by an expeditionary group of villagers that leave the relative safety of the hamlet and roam the violent wilds. At any point, that party can form a camp. When characters are in camp, they gather resources and heal their wounds. The denizens of the night will harass you mercilessly , and wounds become common. Camps will give your people a place to recover. They also serve the purpose of keeping the fog of war at bay. Their increased vision can give you warning if some nasty undead or huge dragons are heading toward your town. In this way, you expand your range and area of influence, but do keep in mind, you’ll still only ever have the one village.
You’ll also eXpand your population. There are two buildings that explicitly state they’ll add people: the pasture and the cabbage patch. They don’t automatically recruit new people every so many turns, they just give you a greater chance at acquiring someone new through birth or migration.
One aspect of Thea that I really appreciate is that it uses randomization so well. The game keeps you guessing as to what will happen next, and population expansion is no exception. The benefit from such randomness is that each time you get a new villager, you cherish that person. Thea is one of the few games that really makes you stop and consider the importance of the individual.
eXploit: Thea has a fantastic, engaging set of eXploitation mechanics at its heart that will dominate the majority of your playtime. The premise is this: the world is recovering from a dark apocalypse. Gone are the once-powerful empires, brushed into the abyss by the dark powers that swallowed the world. However, they left behind valuable raw materials you can turn into weapons, armor, tools, and artifacts scattered all over the world that can aid you in rebuilding society.
If you ever played any of the late 90’s classic MMORPGs like Ultima Online or EverQuest you will quickly recognize the crafting system in Thea. I spent hours, no, days, no, YEARS of my life playing those games, so when I see a set of mechanics that hearkens back to those halcyon days of my youth, I am highly predisposed to liking them.
Exploitation begins with harvesting. Most of the time, your village will start with two or three resources. Hopefully at least one is a food (like vegetables, bird meat, or fruit), and another is a fuel (like wood or coal). If you start a game with a city that is lacking one or both of these, you’ll need to start up a new game. I know it’s looked down upon by some to constantly restart games if you don’t have a great starting location, but the lack of those two resources is a guarantee of doom.
Once you’ve addressed the necessities, it’s time to start crafting gear. Much like you might outfit a character in a cRPG, you must outfit your villagers in Thea. There are close to 20 different types of items you can make that range from baked foods to armors and weapons to jewelry. Each has its own bonuses based on the materials you use to make them. The better the materials, the better your equipment will be. Warriors have six equipment slots while all the other classes have eight. Trying out all the recipes is one of the best parts of the game. You feel like a mad scientist at times, experimenting with combining dragon bones with diamonds or mithril with malachite.
Don’t think it’s a simple matter, either. Gathering resources is hard. You have to expose your villagers to a dangerous journey – the best materials are almost always far from your village. Once your expedition has reached the site where these resources can be found, you must establish a camp and painstakingly harvest unit after unit, turn after turn, hoping you can return home with enough supplies to fashion something useful. But the rewards are worth it. This is the sort of frustration-reward cycle that makes 4X games so gripping.
New materials, equipment recipes, and building blueprints all come through research – a tried-and-true 4X mechanic. In this, Thea does not materially differ from your run-of-the-mill 4X game. The tech webs are very intuitive and the tooltips are moderately helpful. It only takes one research point to unlock something new. Each new research point is incredibly valuable, especially in the early game. When you get one, you’ll breathe a small sigh of relief and allow yourself to hope that the new material/weapon/building will put you over the hump so your village can become self-sustaining.
Since Thea is an intentionally single-player game with asymmetric threats, many of the typical eXploitation mechanics one might expect are missing. There is no resource conversion in Thea such as converting gold into mana or dust into science like we expect in other fantasy 4X. The game lacks a diplomacy system because there are no other factions. You’re alone. It is your one village, standing against the night as humanity’s last, best hope to rekindle its feeble flame. So, if you want the traditional 4X experience, you will be disappointed, but I for one am quite glad there is something new and different on the market.
eXterminate: Of all the various aspects of Thea, I think combat will probably be the most controversial. I can identify with anyone who feels trepidation about playing a strategy game that uses cards instead of 3D models to resolve tactical conflicts. I freely admit that when I first heard about Thea’s system, I was highly suspicious. Anyone who recalls how much I despised the card-based combat in Apollo4X will understand why. When I heard the person that designed combat for Thea was also a coder for the Gwent card game for The Witcher 3, I was intrigued but still quite sure I’d have a negative experience. And yet, I’m here to say that the combat in Thea is a success.
Thea is a 4X Roguelike and that means combat will be unforgiving, especially early on. Your characters are going to die a lot, and you’ll be restarting games frequently as you try to get a handle on all the mechanics. There were times in my Let’s Play series that I got borderline upset with the game. It’s all a part of the learning curve though, and now that I have 62+ hours with the game, I can see that all the trials and travails were worth it.
Every villager in Thea is represented by a card. Each card has a number of values, none of which are very well explained and, even if you do read the abilities, the descriptions can be so vague they aren’t much help. The first time you try combat, all the numbers and abilities may be a little disorienting.
Having said that, however, I enjoy the fights. Engagements takes place on an attractive battlefield similar to what a lot of trading card games use. Essentially, when combat begins, all of the villagers involved get divided into two groups: Offensive and Tactical. Offensive cards can engage the enemy immediately on the battleboard. Tactical cards have special abilities that can boost the offense, defense, or starting position of Offensive cards. The player and AI then take turns playing one or two at a time until all cards are used or both pass. Then the game resolves combat from left to right. Characters do damage according to their offense, and that is subtracted from the target’s defense. If the defense gets to zero, the card/character is removed from the fight as a wounded combatant. Combat is over when one side has no cards left. That’s the basics anyway. It’s actually a lot more complicated and nuanced in practice.
Like so many games based on classic tabletop RPGs, Thea divides its weapons up into piercing, slashing, and crushing types. Slashing weapons can provide extra defense or do extra damage. Piercing weapons allow characters to jump ahead in initiative and land a free strike against a target. Crushing weapons deal “trample” damage, which allows excess damage to transfer from the initial target of the attack to the next. I don’t know if I can recommend one type over the other, since they’re all situationally useful and fun to experiment with.
Weapons can also have special abilities like poison and leech. They get those abilities from the materials used to craft them. Players can customize their characters in a myriad of ways, but it takes time and patience to learn all of this.
I’ll let you in on something that helped me. The one aspect of combat that bothered me the most when I first started playing is how characters would sometimes attack to their right and other times attack to their left. It seemed totally random and unpredictable. The truth is, it is random! Characters will always attack the nearest enemy. There’s a 50/50 chance a character attacks right or left. Once I learned that, combat made so much more sense. The designers didn’t want players getting complacent in combat, so they added this bit of randomness to keep us guessing. Now that I understand how it works, I’m much more comfortable with it.
For those who want a game where killing your enemies is not the only solution, Thea is absolutely the game for you. Thea has nine other ways of resolving conflicts through its challenge system. They range from Social challenges to Curing Sicknesses to performing Hexes. This is where all those abilities I mentioned in the eXplore section come in. Every opponent, whether it is virulent disease, marauding tribes of orcs, or chaotic mystical energies, has a weakness. The more varied your villagers’ skills are, the more likely you are to recognize those weaknesses and exploit them in lieu of combat.
For example, a challenge might present you with three options: Social, Hex, and Fight. Fight is standard combat and every character can do that at least moderately well. However, Fights are often the toughest to win. If you can get your characters’ Speech or Attractiveness skills up high enough, you might be able to win the the easier Social challenge, instead. Social challenges also have the added benefit of being non-lethal, so you run a much lower risk of any of your villagers getting hurt in a Social challenge. Since dying from wounds is pretty common in Thea, being able to take advantage of the card system without resorting to melee combat is a serious boon. They all use the same basic card combat resolution system, but there is an array of different abilities for each type that keeps them unique.
Before closing the eXterminate section, I personally want to compliment the programmers at MuHa Games on one thing in particular: auto-resolve. I’ve played tons of fantasy 4X games and hated auto-resolve in almost all of them – including esteemed games like Endless Legend. Auto-resolve seems to nearly always give me a far worse result than playing combat out. Thus, I’m stuck with the decision to sink a ton of time into a combat I don’t enjoy or take the loss of an inordinate number of units. In Thea, I don’t have to make that choice. When I auto-resolve combat, I get a result that is just about as good as I could do manually. This isn’t always true. If the forces on each side are very close in power, I can certainly do better manually. But those are the kinds of combats I like to resolve myself, anyhow. It’s the fights against weaker enemies I want to skip. I want to thank MuHa Games for getting this right because it makes playing the game so much more enjoyable and less of a grind, especially later on.
eXperience: The most critical aspect of any game is whether or not it can deliver a satisfying experience. For Thea it’s a no-brainer: yes, yes it does. Thea has become the second-most-played game in my Steam library. I love the game’s atmosphere. The dark Slavic fantasy setting isn’t a major departure from Tolkienesque fantasy, but it’s enough of a difference from games like Age of Wonders III, Sorcerer King, or Worlds of Magic, that I actually want to learn something about this game’s lore. I enjoy the moody graphics, the roiling fog, the change from daytime to nighttime, and the grim personalities of the villagers. It’s the fantasy dystopian game I’ve been waiting for.
Before I continue gushing all over this game, I do need to point out some of Thea’s problems. They boil down to three areas: the user interface, the endgame combat, and the leftover resources.
First, the main UI is too bulky. There’s a lot of wasted space. The illustration of the deity in the upper right is unnecessary. The information under the picture belongs on the city screen, not the main UI. The XP and Research counters under the deity illustration could be moved down with the other circular icons. All of the brown, empty areas of the UI just block the view of the map and make the UI look heavy and intrusive. In the lower left-hand corner of the image below, you can see four red icons warning something is amiss with my villagers. That area of the UI is rarely in the line of sight making those icons easy to miss.
Another UI issue surfaces on the city management and the inventory screens where the icons are way too big. You will wear out your mousewheel in this game from all the scrolling you’re going to have to do as you assign villagers to various tasks and experiment with materials in your recipes. I like the min-maxing aspect of doling out jobs to characters and trying to concoct the perfect combination of weapons and armors, but the amount of time I wasted searching around for that last unassigned villager or that one resource that gave me an additional +1 to my magic skill was tedious to say the least. MuHa has certainly made a lot of progress since I first started playing this game prior to its Early Access on Steam. Still, this is certainly an area that will need future improvement.
One area where the UI somewhat succeeds is in how tooltips function. On the one hand, I love the way they work in Thea. There is a small label anytime you mouse over something. Then, a more detailed explanation unfolds if your cursor lingers on an element. That’s a great innovation. On the other hand, the tooltips (and many of the descriptions of things in general) provide little practical information. As an example, here’s what the game says about one of the Enchanted Bones resource: “Someone has spent a good amount of time and energy to imbue regular bones with magic. Enchanted bones are more durable and acquired [sic] a mysterious green glow.” That’s not enough for a new player to go on. How is anyone to know if they should choose Enchanted Bones or Dragon Bones when spending their research? What can these materials actually do? What sort of bonuses might each give? There’s no way to find out without additional clicks.
Second, as you get near the endgame, combat becomes a little too predictable with large numbers of villagers. 15 characters in an expedition or 25 in a village fully armed and armored can obliterate even the most ferocious enemies. I just end up auto-resolving almost everything unless I actually just want to see what a monster does in combat.
I think one solution to this problem might be introducing more magic to the game. If monsters could enchant your villagers as an ability with lasting effects, it would force the player to engage in the card combat more seriously. Sure, you can just auto-resolve against hags and dragons, but they’ll get off a spell that curses your characters with something that will weaken them for 20-30 turns, making any future encounters more risky. Also, I’d like to see the introduction of additional high-end creatures like vampires with enthrall abilities that steal villagers from the player.
Lastly, excess resources are a constant problem in this game. Let’s start with materials. The materials which cost more research points to buy and are harder to harvest are naturally going to be better materials. However, the high-end materials are so much better than than the low-end materials that there’s no reason to ever use to low ones again. They are made obsolete very quickly. Since there’s no resource conversion of any kind, you end up with piles of junk lying around that you are loathe to give up, just in case. You cannot convert wood into charcoal, coal to diamonds, or iron and coal into steel or anything else along those lines. Random events and loot from combat constantly add these outdated and useless materials to your inventory.
To be fair, the developers have discussed the idea of introducing recipes in a future DLC that will allow you to change one material into another. That’s down the road. I’m sure this problem was apparent in MuHa’s closed alpha and beta testing, so I can’t believe it just snuck up on them. Such a system was not implemented, however, and I feel the game suffers for it.
It’s not just excess materials that are a problem but also excess advancement. There comes a point where research becomes mostly superfluous. After 40 points, you just don’t need it anymore except to score knowledge points for your deity. It would’ve been better if players could spend extra research on improved versions of old recipes, additional sources of rare materials, or upgrades to older buildings. But, alas, after turn 600 or so, you’ll get an annoying warning every turn that you have unspent research.
Now, if you’ll take a step back and think about my complaints you’ll quickly note that they are barely complaints at all. Very few games have a great UI, so that complaint merely puts Thea on the same level as many other 4X titles. Just because endgame combat is trivial doesn’t mean the endgame, itself, isn’t fun and engaging – far from it! There are multiple victory conditions including two great endgame quests that you can embark upon. Finally, the problem of excess resources is an issue only for gamers like me that want to maximize every little aspect of play. It’s so unobtrusive, most players will not even notice it.
When it comes to whether or not I’d recommend this game, it’s a cinch. I have absolutely no reservations in recommending Thea. I don’t have to offer any qualifiers; the game is simply fun. All of the different aspects from character abilities to god abilities to quests and random events provide ample replayability.
The bottom line is this: Thea does a brilliant job of combining the best elements of 4X, Survival, RPG, and Roguelike into a fascinating and engrossing experience. Thea is vicious. Finally beating it made my heart leap for joy, and the first thing I wanted to do was fire it up again and try a harder level. If you purchase this game, count on losing hours and hours of your waking life to it. Once Thea grabs hold of you, it won’t let go very easily. At $19.99 on Steam, I feel it’s a great bargain. I wish MuHa the best of luck with this game. I am sure it’s going to do well.
Brittany’s Additional Perspective:
When I started playing Thea, I didn’t know what to expect. Initially, the clunky UI stalled my gameplay eXperience in Early Access, then Muha Games streamlined the village and inventory management screens into something much more intuitive and time-saving. Another point of contention is the flavor text of the tooltips. As Troy mentioned, they are entertaining though rather unhelpful. They force the player to guess while crafting and to memorize the hidden traits of materials. It would be interesting if MuHa incorporated a system in which, once you’d crafted with a material, it would unlock additional information in the tooltip about whether it enhances a skill like Dexterity or Sixth Sense.
For those of you that rolled your eyes at the mention of a card game for combat, I hear you. I also felt hesitant – card game battles tend to feel hollow and lackluster. But I’m glad I persevered, because the clever mechanics in Thea’s card combat reward skill and strategy. Not only that, but a variety of other challenges, including battles of will and intellect, are played out using the card deck. This change-up allows for all the villagers, with their various skill sets, to shine. For example, the villagers may need to mediate a dispute between a dwarf and a demon. An unprepared player might suddenly find the thugs they relied on earlier in physical challenges are suddenly rendered useless in Social combat. Instead, their sages and medics take to the battlefield with their prestigious knowledge of curses, relationships, and hefty concentration, leaving their meat-shield compatriots in the dust. It’s astoundingly brilliant of MuHa Games.
Thea: The Awakening is a breath of fresh air amidst titles taking safer and more familiar routes of Roman and Norse mythology. The setting of a grim and brutal world dredged in magic and myth is immersive, and I quickly found myself caring deeply for the fate of each of my villagers. However, I would advise caution to those looking for immediate gratification, or those who find text-heavy games tedious. Thea is merciless, complex, and rewarding. Be prepared to play this title ‘til dawn.
TL;DR: Thea: The Awakening combines the most enjoyable aspects of 4X, Survival Games, RPGs, and Roguelikes, including a robust crafting system, unrelenting challenges, a tantalizing post-apocalyptic fantasy setting, and a very healthy dose of character death into a surprisingly engaging, fun, highly replayable experience. Don’t let the card-based combat scare you off. It is very well designed and well implemented. Overall, I feel the game is a fantastic example of where 4X strategy can go in the future. The developers have created an engaging and deep set of mechanics that serve both the thematic mood of the game and the needs of the player.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re into fantasy 4X or fantasy survival games
- You want to try something new that still in the 4X wheelhouse
- You’re interested in Slavic folklore
- You’re a big fan of games with in-depth crafting systems
- You’d like to support more innovation in our genre
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You’re a 4X, Roguelike, or Survival Game purist
- You need traditional expansion mechanics to enjoy a strategy game
- You prefer multiplayer to single player
- You’re not a details-oriented player who prefers big-picture play style
Troy played 62+ hours on his Windows 8.1 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.
Brittany played for 27+ hours on her Windows 8.1 home-built system with Intel(R) Core 2 Duo CPU @ 3.00 GHz, 8 GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, x64 based processor, and a NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 graphics card.
Disclosure: Troy received a free copy of Thea: The Awakening direct from MuHa Games prior to Early Access for review purposes.