It is somewhat difficult to review Thea: the Awakening for the simple reason that it is unlike almost any other game. It combines elements of an RPG, 4X strategy game, base management simulator, and card battler together to create an experience that is certainly different from most other games you are likely to have played recently.
This individuality assaults you when you first settle down to play. It seems like a totally fresh game that doesn’t share the common, and often tired, elements that come with other similar titles. Unfortunately, Thea just cannot maintain that feeling for very long. Mostly, this is a result of everything just becoming far too repetitive as you progress through each turn. It’s made worse by the constant management you have to go through for every single aspect of the game.
The story of Thea, which you are introduced to very early on, is probably one of its best features. You take on the role of one of several Slavic gods who have been reborn into the world in a heavily weakened form. The task is simple – guide the world as it emerges from a magical darkness that had overcome it.
The story and background of the world of Thea, its gods, and inhabitants slowly begin to emerge, explaining exactly what has happened and why. Over the course of the campaign you also get to influence the world in a very real way. Decisions affect the outcome of disputes and interactions, whilst new pieces of information expand your knowledge of the universe you find yourself in. It’s something that is unusual in this type of game and that perhaps other developers should think about incorporating into their own titles as few strategy games ever have a compelling or engaging plot.
In terms of gameplay, Thea has several main aspects. The first is using your single village settlement to produce the materials you need to survive. As you move forward, though, this quickly becomes a non-issue, with the workers instead being used simply to try and upgrade your warriors. This gameplay mechanic is rather simple by itself and pales in comparison to the likes of Civilization.
Where the meat of the gameplay is concerned, and where most of the fun comes from, is through the expeditions. These are mini adventures that you send some of your strongest inhabitants on to explore the world and complete quests. You’ll also battle your fair share of enemies and monsters along the way. It is here that the distinctive combat system comes into place.
Thea uses a card battling system that players will instantly recognize thanks to the popularity of things like Hearthstone and The Witcher Card Game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any of the depth or complexity of those games. The battles rarely feel like they are conflicts of strategy against other players where you have to outmatch them with clever tactics and skill. After a few rounds, most players will probably choose to auto-resolve most encounters rather than sit through another tedious fight.
Outside of combat, Thea has several pitfalls that make it less than enjoyable to play. Random events often lead to hours of progress being lost through no fault of your own. When a catastrophe inevitably hits your settlement there is nothing you can do other than try to recover the situation slowly. There is also very little excitement to be gained from progression. This is because the game rarely rewards bravery or opportunism, instead forcing you to play at a slow and steady pace. Any other path will undoubtedly lead to warriors dying and progress being lost.
Even with those rather glaring problems and the frustrating repetition that makes up much of Thea’s gameplay, it is still a game that can capture your attention for hours at a time. Partly this is down to the charming characters and entertaining encounters that you experience along the way. Yet, it is also true that it simply convinces you to keep playing to level up your new characters or find new treasures to improve your armor and weapons. It manages to incorporate a feeling of “just one more turn” that the most successful games of this genre are also able to deliver.
The developers of Thea took a big risk in trying to combine such disparate and unique gameplay ideas together. The sad truth is that this gamble hasn’t quite paid off as they might have hoped. The possibilities are definitely something to be applauded but the execution was lacking in several respects. There are only a few parts of the game, such as the story and interesting characters, which are able to truly entertain, while most of the gameplay elements fall just short. A sequel addressing the issues with combat and exploration could be a great game, it is just a shame that they couldn’t get it right the first time around.
This review was based on a digital copy of the game that was provided by the publisher for review purposes. Thea: the Awakening is available now on Xbox One.