Early Access Review: Thea - The Awakening

Thea - The Awakening is a narrative-focussed 4X strategy game developed and published by MuHa Games.  I had a few people asking me after this one given my review of King of Dragon Pass given the thematic similarities and I have to say, it's an interesting one, though somewhat it's own beast.  It's somewhat like KODP meets the Civilisation games, or perhaps more aptly, like a Heroes of Might and Magic game where the quests actually involve narratives rather than you just shaking things down for an item or three.  I rather enjoyed it, though it has it's flaws, so let's break it down, shall we?

From the Darkness

The "Awakening" part of the title relates to the setting of Thea and its context - a world plunged into a mythical apocalypse and overrun by the forces of darkness, finally starting to recover and lick its wounds.  The game begins with you selecting one of a handful of the good or neutral-aligned deities to guide your people with (though you begin with two available and unlock more with play) and then a starting village and expedition.

The village is your city basically, and shares most of it's mechanics with Civilisation.  You can build upgrade buildings and gather resources here, all pretty much in the same vein as Civ here, although each of your villagers has individual stats, and some will be better at gathering resources than others, so allocations become a more involved decision.  The newer item on the city screen is crafting, where you can also assign villagers to create items for your people, be it craft tools that increase their abilities, or weapons and army to outfit your expedition party.  Statistics of the villagers are the big new add here, and the items allows you some control over the randomly-generated nature of these.

Second mechanic to the mix is that of expedition parties, which are essentially your "armies" of a sort, but they are more akin to an adventuring party than an army.  Consisting of a handful or two of your villagers, these explorers can go out, fight roaming enemies, go to special locations to interact with neutral locals, and quest in ancient ruins and the like.  Each is outfitted with arms and armour you craft in the village or find on your travels, and must carry with them fuel (wood and the like) and food to support themselves, creating something of a logistics need as well, though you can also have an expedition forage for food in the field.

"Learn from the past to shape a better future"

A central mechanic to the game is the idea of the gods giving bonuses to their followings, much like how the leaders in the Civilization games have their own bonuses.  However, Thea - The Awakening expands upon this, by having a sort of levelling system for each gods.  Each god starts with one base bonus, and then as you "level" them through obtaining score in various games, they "level up" with additional bonuses at different levels.  This creates a sort of meta-progression whereby you gain additional bonuses as you play more games.  This essentially makes later games easier, in about as much a curve as the difficulty increases with world size, though it is worth noting that world size is a setting, so if you prefer an easier game you can simply play a higher-levelled god on a smaller world.  The progression here, as well as experimenting with different world sizes, and the procedural-generation nature of the world, gives the game a lot of replay value, in my opinion.  Though it also has it's flaws - which we'll get to in a moment.

Of course the other way in which that heading applies is in the rich lore of the game.  Even replaying it a bit now as I pen this review for purposes of getting screenshots, I come across new little encounters that shed a light on the game world's story, and what I read only makes me want to find out more.  There's a very good way in which they lampshade a greater plot, and thrust you into the game in media res.  You get enough information to have the general idea of things and be able to recount that basic story, but every new play adds to the game lore in its own little ways, and much as King of Dragon Pass, I found myself compelled to play more, to discover more about this strange and compelling fantasy world that Thea paints.  It's quite well done, and illustrated throughout with some quite grand digital painting artworks that both added to the game thematically and were quite well done.

Combat is quite interestingly done

Card game mini-games seem to be all the rage right now, so I have to admit, on its face, I was actually somewhat of the mind to discount the combat in Thea being such a card game.  A lot of the time they tend to be shallow, and disruptive to the gameplay, when they aren't almost vestigial side content.  In Thea's case, though it isn't, and it rather actually kind of fits with the game being something based so deeply as it is upon statistics and certain abilities of villagers.  With the procedural-gen bent to begin with, it doesn't really so many seams in the design sense, and it is not very difficult to pick up, but has a level of nuance that means you have to have some skill to be successfull with - that old "easy to learn, difficult to master" chestnut, as it were.  And if you have a superior force and don't want to be bothered, you can just auto-resolve the battle like many similar strategy games, though as is oft the case with such automatic resolution, you'll usually take more damage and possibly casualties than you would if you played through the card game "combat" system for the combat.

The combat actually somewhat resolves like the initiative order in 3rd edition D&D meets a card game (4th ed D&D dare I say?  Nah, that was all card game, but that's another discussion for another review).  Basically, you have two "stages" - a series of "initiative resolution" turns where you go back and forth playing the cards that represent different party members and monsters and the like, with those played first going first, essentially (barring special abilities), and then the actual combat resolution, with each party member or monster trading blows until only one remains.  The combat stage goes through two iterations, and if combat is not resolved at the end of that, you're returned to the first stage, to go at it again, and indeed, repeating those two stages as is necessary until only one side remains, though I've thankfully never had that drag on - the most I've ever had to go through that is two times, and I find it difficult to conceive of three, though it could be possible with a great number of hostile creatures perhaps, if your party is particularly resilient.

Depth comes to the combat in the design - your party gets randomly shuffled into two 'decks' - one which forms the deployable rank-and-file that will be on the field of battle, as it were, and another that is considered the 'tactics' deck - able to utilise a variety of special abilities to buff allies, debuff enemies, or change the initiative order, for instance, one ability allows you to place your last-played card first in the initiative order.  Each of these abilities derives from the skills of said party member, and may or may not actually affect it's possible target (which you can tell before playing, thankfully), based upon the skill level of that party member.  There is a good variety of buffs and debuffs as well, each with different effects, so there's a lot of depth on offer there.  The first build I played initially had very bland enemy abilities, that was something of a shortcoming, but it's since gotten quite a variety of them, and indeed, the game has plenty to offer there now, and if the pace of development is any suggestion, with how fast that variety increased, it'll only get better.

Procedural Generation Can be Thea's Achilles Heel

The combat, city-building, research and all of that are all pretty well-implemented, I'd say, cohesive and tight, without too much feeling vestigial, but the foundation on which this house has been built is a little wibbly, I'd say, and that foundation is procedural generation.  As many of you whom are regular readers are quite aware, I'm quite an avid fan of rogue-likes, or rogue-likes done right anyway, so I've had a lot to say about proc-gen as it's oft shortened to, over the years.  The central point that becomes important here, is my assertion I've made time and time again: the procedural generation is best when a skilful player has levers with which to manipulate it, which essentially makes it such that a skilled player can still succeed even with a harsh generation.  Now that's not to say Thea doesn't have this to a degree, but it's more a side effect of the design, rather than something inherent, and I do find some seeds can be more difficult than they need to be.  Even others are pretty much write-offs.  Now with cards hurled onto the table quite resoundingly to the gasps of the assembled crowd, let's take a step back and disassemble my problems with it's proc-gen.

The first big thing, and one that you can notice almost immediately, is that the resources you have available to your village are themselves a product of the random generation, since they're just in the immediately adjacent squares you can gather from.  Unlike Civ, you can't expand outward to pick up additional resources, nor can you improve tiles to increase their output, though some buildings you may construct will give you different resources.  That has it's own easily-deducible problem, though - if you don't have the resources to begin with, you're not going to be able to construct those buildings.  This is what leads me to say some seeds may as well just be write-offs - because while you can have an expedition harvest resources abroad (essentially what they've replaced expansion of city tiles with) - it is out in the open, and highly-risky.  It feels like you may as well scum seeds if you get a bad game, and I dare say that's kind of the hallmark sign of troublesome random generation, when you feel that itch to reroll the game.

There's other smaller but still significant ways this leads to its problems as well.  Sometimes you'll get quite normal monster spawns, which come from lairs much like the random barbarians from Civ.  And while Civ let you disable that option because it can get quite silly, Thea doesn't.  Many games its fine, but nothing is quite as frustrating as feeling you're doing quite well just for the game to spawn a couple of particularly-difficult roaming parties on top of your expedition parties and leave you just wrecked.  It feels like the game is messing with you, and yeah, again, not great.  Ditto on the generation of new villagers, which basically come from children passing into adult-hood.  Since the three basic types - warrior, worker, and crafter - are always available as options here its not that bad in this case, but the special ones are basically at the game's whimsy.

In short it feels like there's a lot of aspects of the game you can't really control.  There's not really much of an external recruitment option for instance - Heroes had places you could pick up additional party members, but if Thea has it, it is another random event and I have yet to encounter it.  With the game's depth of stats, items, and such, you could easily add additional buildings or research that would temper the random nature sufficiently, in my opinion, and I hope they do as development progresses.  As is, if you start getting some bad luck with the proc-gen, even a game you're doing quite well in can rapidly snowball into a losing run, and that's not the kind of snowballing that's at all fun.

Aside: It occurs to me after writing the above I haven't really touched on the research mechanic - but it's bog-standard research in any 4X game really, so nothing to really comment on here, I don't think.  You research new materials, new items to craft, and new buildings.  Beyond that it's a standard research tree.

Technical flaws and a weak tutorial are the other problems

Granted, the tutorial's changed once already since I picked up the game so it's quite possible they're aware of that, but nonetheless, there's a lot that's left assumed with the tutorial, and since it can be rather heavy on text, it's rather dense and a lot of information to process.  The first bit of the tutorial does it better, with the game taking you through the motions, a much more effective method in my opinion, but the rest of it, such as stuff about exploration or development of your city, you're mostly left to your own devices.  It's entirely possible maybe there is something I'm missing in so much of the game, because it's rather weakly-tutorialised to say the least.  It's not terrible, but it could be a lot better, and given the complex nature of all the stats, abilities, and what have you at play, I'd say it is a game style that demands it.

There's a slew of little things as well, none of them really game-breaking mind you, but I'd be remiss not to mention.  Some of the UI elements are clearly resized with that sort of blurry bicubic filtering that looks a bit naff, the Unity game engine it's clearly built on still has multiple-monitor issues and it never centres the window properly or onto the monitor I want it to, and in windowed mode, the game still gives sound effects for scrolling over icons even when you don't have the game in focus, something I've been reminded of constantly as I write this review.  All bugs that can, and hopefully will, be resolved, but nonetheless there at time of writing.

A compelling adventure

Despite all those problems, this is quite the fun little game, so I feel it would be wrong of me to end on a negative note.  Really the same thing that can ruin runs is also what makes it compelling - that random nature.  No two plays are the same, and there's quite an interesting world to explore, and most importantly, an interesting world I want to explore.  So many games give you that open world, or big story foci, but don't really involve you, or a lot of it feels extraneous, but Thea focusses on it's main theme quite effectively, and by telling it in such a way that you're following your villagers on their respective journeys from the adulthood ceremonies all the way to whatever end awaits, there becomes a brilliant amount of investment in those characters.

<p><strong>Recommended:</strong> Thea is at its core a compelling mix of 4X strategy and rogue-like RPG that suffers somewhat for proc-gen but is still quite fun.  It's hard to understate how the proc-gen does make some runs rather frustrating, but the way the game involves you in the story of the villagers you are trying to see survive from adulthood to whatever end awaits inevitably weaves quite an interesting tale.  While there's no doubt more that will be added over the course of its stay in the Early Access program, there's a lot to love already in Thea - The Awakening.  Worth a look for fans of something like Heroes of Might & Magic or King of Dragon Pass, certainly, even as is now.</p>