Something I vastly underestimated before jumping into Thea: The Awakening was how strong of a survival game it truly was. Masqueraded as strategy with a turn-based system, your goal is to last as long as you can with a group of villagers in a darkness-infested world. The story is told entirely through text, with dragons, witches, and fantasy characters all coming to life thanks to fairly well-written lore.
It’s funny that the writing is so strong, because the amount of missing information throughout the game is staggering. From the get-go, I found myself having a hard time grasping what to do or what anything meant. The tutorial consists of a strange creature telling you what he wants done, but without the process of how to do it. This caused some frustration early as fumbling around with controls and menus is not really what I’d call a good time.
Featuring roguelike elements, Thea: The Awakening makes every playthrough unique thanks to random generation. Choosing from a list of deities (a list that starts small and unlocks through play), you enter a small town populated by about ten individuals. Once in, you’ll need to gather supplies, equip your villagers, and fight back against the encroaching evils who make their way towards you with the goal of killing you off.
The map is diagonal hex-based, and that makes movement a bit sticky at times. Having an expedition party to traverse the world is necessary as they explore areas and defeat bands of monsters, though movement with them can be difficult. You can have more than one exploring party, but in all honesty it’s not something I personally would recommend. Having to deal with multiple groups can get tiring, as you’ll need to monitor equipped items, food, fuel, and weight limits.
Another reason I suggest only going with a single group, outside of the micromanaging, is the way combat and challenges work. Whenever a dilemma needs to be solved against a foe, you enter a card game duel against the computer. Giving you solutions other than fighting, such as tactics, stealth, or just outlasting sicknesses, it works to be a unique way of overcoming problems.
When you enter a card challenge, each character in your party is given an attack and defense value based on their individual stats. Equipment is available to pump these stats up, and over time, everyone, regardless of their location, will have a skill increase randomly. The straight-up fighting comes across as the worst option since damage taken can and will kill off your party members, making the challenge a straightforward kill or be killed scenario.
Where the system works best is with the alternative solutions to fighting. Because not every character is going to excel with the skills for the challenge, it allows you to be more flexible in your strategy. With damage to the cards not killing characters as long as you win, there’s more unique strategies you can take. One such strategy is using your weaker people as meat shields to protect the stronger attackers.
You and the AI take turns placing cards from one of two stacks — offense and tactics. Offensive cards are your main attackers, and can only be played to attack in both of the fight phases. Tactics cards are where more value can be gained, as they can augment the battlefield. Different abilities are given to the character, again based on their stats, and provide boosts to your side. One such bonus is being able to increase the attack or defense values of your offensive cards on the field. Another power is the ability to discard opponent’s cards, stun opposing offensive cards, or adjust the turn order. Tactics card can also join the battlefield, sacrificing their first attack, to complete their versatility.
Once both sides are done playing cards, the fight phase begins. Consisting of two rounds, cards take turns from left to right and attack nearby adversaries. Combat focuses first on the area where cards were played, but the discarded piles are attacked if one side removes all the attackers of the other. If both rounds fail to destroy every card for one side, the remaining cards are redistributed and the process repeated until a victor is crowned.
While there’s a strong concept for challenges, failure can be devastatingly game-breaking as recovery is difficult. The best strategy is to load up characters to a single group, and choose skill over fights when possible to minimize any sort of major losses. You also need to be overly wary, as entering a challenge out of your capability range will be a singular kiss of death for that run.
The game encourages restarting, though, as a countermeasure to the presented difficulties The map is different on each go, though the in-game events and stories with a single god are not. With only a small selection of gods to choose from at first, you’ll see the same story measures play out on repeated attempts, and I found myself checked out of the story on my second go. You’ll need to play with the same deity as well, as clearing major storylines and leveling them is the only way to unlock more gods.
The narrative that I experienced is quite well-written, as it finds a good balance between depressing bleakness and sarcastic comedy. Often, the game presents multiple paths to follow, with positive and negative sides to every choice, making them sit in the moral grey area. I actually found making decisions challenging, and these paths were one of the most rewarding systems of the replaying aspect.
I was able to get three runs in, and each highlighted major issues with the game. My first attempt ended with me just restarting. I was unable to make substantial progress due to the game’s inability to properly introduce and explain concepts. The second run ended because I failed miserably. It pointed out how a single failure could snowball into more of them, with no chance given to recover.
I didn’t officially end my last play, and I even found success by completing two storyline quests. Yet, it still was an example of negativity, as my solution was to just throw a zerg rush at every challenge, choosing every alternative I could. Even the most difficult skill challenges no longer felt threatening, as I had plenty of fodder to throw into the fire.
Thea: The Awakening isn’t a bad game, but it’s hard to recommend. Those looking for a tough survival game could do better, yet they could find some enjoyment in it. The highs, though few and far between, did provide a sense of accomplishment when there was actual difficulty behind them. However, the anger and lack of joy found in the defeat, with restarting being almost the only option, is enough to turn off a lot of people.