On April 15th, Muha Games launched its first DLC for Thea: The Awakening. Back when I reviewed the original game, I gave it a “Recommended,” but I still had several problems with it. Thea needed better endgame challenges. It was too easy to assemble an uber stack-of-doom and throttle the high-end creatures. Further, there was an issue with excess research points – players would routinely have too many left over at the end of a run. Thea also suffered from clunky UI, early game quest repetition, and mid-game grind. Does the new DLC address these problems? Let’s find out!
Let’s begin at the end. Thea was certainly a different game from most 4Xs, but in one way it was the same: the endgame. Part of the problem was that players could create expeditions of unlimited size. This would allow someone to make 20-villager stacks that could blow through any obstacle. The other part was that the monsters at the endgame just weren’t tough enough. Dragons and Strigga (Slavic lore vampires) were hard, but for a well-outfitted group, they weren’t all that scary. Muha Games has addressed both of these issues.
First, they instituted an option in game setup where players could adjust the maximum number of characters allowed in an expedition. The result is perfect. Now players can gain an XP bonus by limiting their party size. Thus the difficulty of the game is increased and the players are rewarded.
Second, Muha has introduced a whole host of new monsters to Thea that have absolutely kicked up the danger. Naturally, there are the giants. These hulking brutes are fearsome in battle and often travel with allies that pester your villagers and sneak in a good amount of damage, as well. The giants don’t show up right away. They’re more a mid to late game phenomenon.
These titular giants are diverse and very fun to interact with. I know I haven’t faced all the different types of giants yet, and I’ve got over 37 hours into the DLC so far. That tells me that the new content is vast and will keep players engaged for a long time.
It’s not just the giants that plague the world of Thea, though. Muha has added several other new creatures that are far more insidious than the zombies and broken skeletons that we once feared in the base game. For instance, Nate came up against a Mroki. I’m not even sure what one of those things is; I just know that they are incredibly difficult to beat in combat. If you felt that Thea was a little too easy for a roguelike survival strategy game, the new NPCs Muha has added will more than address your concerns.
Research didn’t get a total revamp in Return of the Giants, but it certainly got a major update. Originally, every item in the three tech trees cost 1 Research Point to unlock. Now, the dev team has assigned additional point costs to the most powerful resources, recipes, and buildings. This has the much needed benefit of balancing out various techs while making it more difficult to max out the research.
Also, new buildings have been added to the appropriate tech tree and some of the older buildings got a slight tweak. Take the Smithy for instance. It still gives your villagers a bonus to crafting, but now it also increases the likelihood that your crafters will create “high quality” items. As an added wrinkle to Thea’s fantastic crafting system, items can randomly turn out to be “good” or “bad” quality. The Smithy increases the odds you’ll get a good quality item with better stats and effects than you would see normally. Since players are now more incentivized to build a Smithy, this also addresses the mid-game grind somewhat since a Smithy also increases the pace at which the player will earn new techs.
Speaking of the mid-game, a good number of midrange monsters are included in Giants, even beyond those I mentioned above for the endgame. When I first loaded up the DLC, I expected there to be just a few different giants and maybe a new dragon to fight. I was quite surprised to see all sorts of different baddies.
For instance, shades and shadows really add a lot to the conflicts players encounter between turns 100 and 300. They’re challenging, especially with their high poison scores. However, I feel they’re fair. Thea certainly gets a lot harder with all these new NPCs, but I think that makes the middle part of the game more exciting. There’s never a dull moment in conflicts now, and the combat AI is just as good as ever.
Of all the challenges Thea faced in improving its gaming experience, making the UI more usable was probably the hardest. For the most part, there isn’t much that can be done without reimagining the entire UI from the ground up. I’m not sure it would be worth all the time, effort, and resources necessary for the devs to do that. Such a UI overhaul will have to wait for a sequel, so the developers (and the players) will just have to make the best with what they’ve got.
There have been, however, a few enhancements to the UI since release and even more with the Giants DLC. First, a button was added to the main UI that will bring up the main menu. That may sound minor at first, but plenty of fans complained about having to reach across their keyboard to hit the Esc key in order to bring up the menu. Adding the button is a nice creature comfort.
Also, preview windows were added to the equipment screen making it much faster and easier to compare gear. Outfitting your characters with the right equipment at the right time is one of the mini-games within Thea. Alternating between weapons or armor was a chore because it involved a lot of guesswork. The new preview windows help eliminate a lot of the uncertainty by giving you a side-by-side comparison of what the character is currently using and what your cursor is hovering over. This added feature streamlines the process, and anything that accomplishes that in this game is great in my book.
Another great feature has been implemented on the research window. It used to be that you would have to memorize where all the different resources in the game had spawned in order to find them again on the map. Now, you can just go to the research page, click on a resource icon, and then get a resource symbol to popup on the main screen. Clicking on that symbol directs you to where the resources can be found. This is a fantastic and most welcomed addition.
According to the devs, over 100 new quests and quest branches have been added with the Giants DLC. The impact is immediately noticeable when you start a game. New NPCs, factions, and events hit you left and right, and old events have new outcomes. It’s very exciting to get to know all the new characters that have been cooked up by the lore team.
An important facet of a number of these new quests and events is that they target your stored resources. Thea, like so many 4X and strategy games, suffered a bit from snowballing – that is, the more powerful the player’s’ game pieces got, the more likely they were to get even more powerful. The result can be a straight line march to victory. Giants changes that dynamic by strategically introducing challenges that can rob you of your gear and materials. One event that I particularly like involves a new faction of orcs. I thought I was making good choices as I wound my way through a particularly complex quest web, but when I arrived at the end, I accidently insulted the honor of the orcs, and they took every piece of gear I had on my expedition! This set me back many turns but made the experience much more engaging and certainly memorable.
Muha Games also added an “Events Editor” in Giants. The idea is to give players the power to make their own triggered challenges and quests that will add to their enjoyment of the game. It’s not the easiest editor I’ve ever used in a strategy game, but it certainly does address the problem Thea had at launch where quests and events became too repetitive. I have no doubt that mod packs of player-made events will be available very shortly after Giants launches. I can’t wait to try them out.
So aside from all that, what else is new? Well, we’ve gotten a smattering of new icons. For instance, the symbols for poison and leech damage (and all their non-fight derivatives) have been redone and standardized. I feel they’re much more attractive and intuitive now. Also, we’ve received a totally new set of icons for crafting and gathering tools. Whereas there used to be just one icon for each, now there are a dozen or more images that makes them much more visually appealing, not to mention rewarding when you see a new one for the first time.
Additionally, there’s plenty of new 2D art. Quests, events, and battle summaries have all been freshened thanks to the work of the artists Muha has contracted. Sometimes it can be a little deflating to come back to a game when it gets a new DLC and see a lot of the same images that existed prior to the new content. Thea doesn’t suffer from that as much as I expected, and I really enjoy the new evocative illustrations. Also, the artists added a moderate amount of new “paper doll” sketches for the villagers that helps differentiate them better.
Even better – there are also some brand new character types! With the new DLC, Thea is a very deep game. Even though I’ve accumulated over 37 hours of play, I still haven’t been fortunate enough to see an Inventor – a new class that is something like a super-crafter. I have seen a Scavenger, though.
Scavengers are the dregs of Thea’s post-apocalyptic society. They scrounge for anything they can get and aren’t all that productive. They have weak combat stats that prevent them from ever being all that great at any type of challenge. In a roundabout way, I think they are a brilliant method of adding difficulty to the game. Rather than only taking a direct approach and amping up the stats of monsters, the devs have come at the player from an unusual angle that rewards them with a new villager on one hand but on the other, that villager is weak and can be a drag on your resources.
There are a few new recipes in the game, but for the most part, crafting hasn’t changed very much. I would like to have seen a new resource or two thrown in, but when I think about it, I can see why the devs declined to add one. There are 34 different materials in the game right now. Adding even a single new one would force them to design how that new resource would interact with all 34 in both the primary and secondary crafting slots. Then they’d have to decide what the effect the new material might give a weapon, armor, artifact, building, etc. It is a mammoth task, and I don’t blame them for passing on it, given they wanted to have a quick turnaround time on this DLC. That doesn’t mean I can’t hope for one in the future, though.
The eXperience of Thea has absolutely been improved with Return of the Giants (new LP series). I feel more satisfied with how the game plays now than ever before. The difficulty at each level has been increased, but I feel it is in the sweet spot now. I’ve played everything from 95% to 250% normal difficulty, and the challenges at each are appropriate and satisfying. I think most current fans will have a similar reaction.
For those who are new to Thea, right now is an excellent time to get into it. I don’t think you’ll regret your purchase. I do want to warn you, however. Thea is a hard game – really hard. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Muha gets some complaints about how much harder the game is with Giants. It will take you a little while to learn Thea’s nuances, and there will be plenty of setbacks as you do. When starting your first game, I recommend using a custom difficulty that looks something like this:
That setup isn’t the easiest, but it will give you the full Thea roguelike experience without totally killing your final score (which is used to level up your deities). Once you learn the game, you can move the difficulty up and really see the fantastic workmanship of the developers.
The game is more vibrant thanks to the new artwork and world features. Thea has always had a visual style that I enjoyed, and Giants has just extended that. I look forward to firing the game up any time I get the chance. The UI changes, despite not getting an overhaul, are much appreciated and well-suited for the game. The tedium isn’t entirely eliminated, but it has been ameliorated to a small degree. Oh, and I almost forgot: no bugs! In all the hours I’ve played, I haven’t run into a single game crash, game freeze, or malfunctioning mechanic. It has worked flawlessly.
In the final analysis, what has Return of the Giants done for Thea? The answer is that it has addressed many needs the game had and added even more to its replayability. The early game has been freshened with new events and characters. The mid- and late-game has been enhanced with new monsters and quests. Research got plenty of new tweaks and city-builders got some new toys to play with. All in all, I would say this is an extremely successful DLC.
I wouldn’t mind seeing more materials, more deities, more monsters, more quests, and greater improvements to the UI in the future, but those amount to little more than seasoning on an already well-prepared dish. Muha Games would be perfectly justified in charging $25 for the base game and an additional $5 for Giants (since it’s free), but you can get both for $20 (Steam and GOG) or less, since Thea is frequently put on sale. I’m not sure there’s a better value out there right now for a new title in the strategy game genre.
TL;DR: Return of the Giants is an absolutely great DLC for an absolutely great game. In an era when micro-transactions are becoming more and more accepted, it’s amazing to get such great content for free. Muha Games has greatly enhanced their title in almost every aspect. The UI, quest system, bestiary, and artwork have all been improved. There are very few games at this price point that can compete with the experience Thea: Return of the Giants offers. There hasn’t been a better time to get this game than now.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re already a fan of Thea: The Awakening
- You love challenging strategy games
- You’re looking for something new and exciting in a 4X-style game
- You really like questing, crafting, and exploration
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- Repetitive actions like crafting really bother you
- You’re not into strategy or survival games
- A game with a very high challenge curve turns you off
- You don’t like the Slavic fantasy motifs
Troy has played 175+ hours of Thea: The Awakening with 38+ hours of Return of the Giants alone 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.
Disclosure: Troy was given an advance copy of Return of the Giants by the developer for the purposes of this review.