Tharsis is hard. Like, Dark Souls hard. It’s a sort of virtual strategy boardgame that centers around a crew of astronauts on a mission to Mars, and your job is to manage the ship’s various mechanical issues while keeping everyone’s stress and general health under control. It’s kind of like that one part in The Martian where Watney’s crew decides to turn around and head back to Mars despite the odds being stacked highly against them, except instead of a cheery montage of the crew Skyping their families back on Earth, they start eating each other and then their Greenhouse explodes and everyone dies. Both of which have happened to me in Tharsis on multiple occasions.
Each session of Tharsis starts the same way: the Iktomi’s journey to Mars suddenly becomes a lot more complicated when it collides with a cluster of micrometeroids, killing two of your six-person crew and causing a domino effect of disastrous mechanical problems that will end your journey very prematurely if not addressed. Though each session starts the same, the positioning of your four remaining crew members within the ship and the issues you’ll face are randomly generated and vary wildly from one game to the next. The game unfolds over the course of your 10-week journey, each week bringing with it a slew of new issues to deal with. In some sessions, I made it fairly comfortably to the sixth week, but sometimes I couldn’t even make it past the second stage without getting squashed by a bevy of catastrophic systems failures.
One of the frustrating brilliances of Tharsis is how well it illustrates the futility of some survival situations—sometimes, even though you might act as intelligently and rationally as possible, the odds might be stacked against you to such a degree that you literally can’t win no matter what you do. This lack of control I had over my own success was simultaneously thrilling and maddening, since we’ve been taught that through skill alone, success in a videogame is inevitable.
That’s one of the things that, despite its overall success, the ending of Mass Effect 2 failed to capture. The build up to the finale of that game was intimidating, but if you had spent a reasonable time doing sidequests and spent even the smallest amount of energy on strategizing your team’s deployment, it was remarkably easy to emerge from the Collector ship unscathed. Not so with Tharsis. Every decision you make will come at the expense of another—whether you decide to let a battery failure continue to eat away at your ship’s health so that you can help prevent one of your crew from having a mental breakdown, or whether you decide to let your mechanic eat the remains of a dead crew member so that he has enough energy to repair the ship, every problem you solve only means that you’re letting another one go unchecked.
Sometimes, though, the difficulty of Tharsis feels needlessly cruel. For example, one time I had most of my ship’s glaring issues under control, so I decided to send my doctor to the Greenhouse to stock up on food for the next round. Once she entered the Greenhouse, I noticed that she didn’t have the amount of dice required to harvest food. Even though I hadn’t rolled any dice or done anything inside the Greenhouse, there was no way for me to back out and send her somewhere else. Sure, I should have toggled the pop-up window that shows the requirements for harvesting food before entering, but in a game that is already punishingly hard, these kinds of minor restrictions (of which there are many) just feel like a kick in the teeth—especially when a single misstep can mean the difference between the life and death for your crew.
Though there is an enticing narrative about the mysteries of your mission objectives that trickles out slowly as you slog your way through each round, it is not what you’ll spend your time trying to understand, at least not until it gets within your grasp. Purposely punishing, Tharsis will kick your ass again and again. In doing so, actually beating the game becomes a far off goal, not something you should expect to experience in just a few sessions of play. Instead, you’ll experiment with a variety of strategies, learning a great deal from every fatal mistake you make. Getting to the sixth week will feel like a victory.
After playing (and dying) a few rounds in a row, I started tinkering around with a few of the game’s settings and literally cackled when I saw there was a hard mode—though that’s probably just the space madness setting in.
Tim Mulkerin is a freelance writer from Tucson, Arizona who started fear-sweating while he was watching Ex Machina this weekend. You should follow him on Twitter and say hello. But not too loudly. He scares easily.