Sometimes, a madman will go out of his way to review two strategy simulation titles back-to-back. I’m not saying I’m a madman, but yes. I’m a madman.
Thea: The Awakening is a tabletop-inspired Role-playing Game that combines extensive simulation mechanics with a roguelite campaign style. Anything can, and will happen in the world of Thea, but is that necessarily a good thing? Do you want your expedition party to accidentally tumble into an abandoned Dwarven Cavern? Do you want to have to explain your motives to a giant talking tree? Let’s take a look together and make sure.
Thea begins with the player selecting their patron deity, one of the eight gods that ruled over the realm. These gods have experience points that can be gained via completing their main quest, a series of events that will appear over the course of a playthrough. After this, you’ll need to generate your world, and are free to adjust any of the extremely extensive paradigms that go into creating your “board,” the terrain on which your game will play out. It’s important to understand that Thea doesn’t expect these campaigns to last forever – but by tweaking the parameters of your board layout, from world size, to economy, to starting village size, and even the level of realism, you can extend or shorten the length of each game.
Upon entering the world of Thea, the player is greeted by a vast, hexagon-partitioned world, and a starting community where they may begin harvesting and working towards their goals. Players can use their town to craft and build structures, the former crucial to equipping and prolonging the lives of your warriors, the latter boosting the abilities of your town and the potential of your growing villagers. However, the resources that can be gathered in town are fairly basic, and won’t help you create anything very effective. You’ll need to risk the wilderness by creating expedition groups in order to gather materials and unlock quests.
While out exploring Thea, expedition groups can encounter a myriad of different enemy types, as well as randomized events that will test different parts of their skillset. Based on their defining class, villagers will have strengths in specific kinds of engagements, whether scholarly, strength-based, or otherwise, and depending on the type of encounter, players will need to utilize these in order to grasp victory. Of course, at the start of every game, most villagers have a randomized set of stats with a specific area enhanced by their class. As a player builds more structures in their settlement, they’ll unlock new classes and bonuses that will improve the stats of new villagers.
When challenged, players will be sent to a skirmish screen, where each of their villagers will be represented as a card. This “hand” of characters is split neatly down the middle, the left side engaging in conflict as the offense cards, the right as tactics cards. Depending on weapons and stats, the HP and attack numbers of offense cards will vary, while tactics cards gain a variety of buff and debuff functions. As players lay their offense cards out on the playing field, they’ll need to remember that cards can only deal damage to adjacent enemies. Setting up combinations of fighters and careful tactics can help tip the scales in your favor, however, if your party is a higher level than the enemy on the whole, you can choose to auto-resolve these challenges in order to expedite the process.
Each encounter, whether successful or not, will gain the party experience points, which max out at a certain level and cause all active villagers to grow a level. Some encounters will also grant research points, which will grant a single unlock on one of the game’s three tech trees, so players are encouraged to explore with expeditions for multiple reasons. However, there are specific board spaces that offer certain services and narrative importance. For example, there is a set area for healing curses on the map, just as there is an opening “event” for one of the game’s many quest lines. If a player completes the challenge at the event space, a new space will unlock the next event in the quest. Completing these can lead to great rewards, while the specific Divine Quest can help level up the patron deity of the community. Even if a player completes or fails their current campaign, the accrued deity experience carries over into any future games where that specific deity is used.
With such lovely benefits for exploration, one might think that abandoning the town and having all villagers go off and gather is the best choice. However, villagers possess very specific strengths, and spreading them out too thinly among different expeditions will result in parties that are unable to surmount specific kinds of encounters. Physical combat is the most risky of these ventures, as villagers with the gathering or crafting role are simply unable to operate on the same level as warriors, however, a group of warriors will take upwards of ten turns attempting to gather a single resource. Leaving the town exposed to threats risks having resource stockpiles thieved, and the specific benefit of having crafters continuously working at can actually grant passive buffs to the entire community. In any case, starting a game with a low number of villagers can cause turns to speed by rather quickly, but the more expeditions are available and crafting to be done, the longer each turn will become.
Narrative and Aesthetics
With a world built upon Slavic folklore, Thea features some familiar elements and others that may surprise seasoned fantasy enthusiasts. Its main narrative has the gods attempting to reclaim their place after a cataclysmic event robbed them of their power caused by the coming of the Darkness. Over the course of multiple playthroughs and a variety of quests, players will uncover the background of the game, such as the schemers behind the cataclysm and the current culture and state of the world. However, the random encounters have their fair share of variety outside of this, some ranging from mysterious and horrific to absurd and comedic. There are a few jokes ripped from better pieces of media here and there, but the writing is suitably in-depth for lore-thirsty players, and the tone of the game never seems too divorced from its atmospheric illustrations. The game features a dialogue option that skips to the “good parts” of each text dump, which is a nice quality of life feature, though the story is actually good enough to keep reading. The voice acting for each scenario doesn’t have much variety, but it is still impressive to see the amount of effort put into each unique quest line.
In terms of aesthetics, Thea is a mixed bag. The terrain itself is detailed, peppered with bodies of water, forests, mountains, and different biomes. For a simulation game, these elements aren’t so detailed that they become unrecognizable, but they are a but cluttered. The portraits for each encounter – impressively made as they are – are also reused quite often. Although they accurately represent their subject material, they are often a bit too generically evil to imply any sort of other character. The music is nice, with some very mellow exploration music that lends itself to the origins of the narrative, and there is a bombastic battle theme meant to hype you up for card battles. Overall, it’s nothing too offensive, but also just fantastic enough to fit the bill.
Impressions and Conclusion
While some of Thea’s complexities take several tens of turns in order to fully grasp, the end result is a game unafraid to offer the player a hand just as much as it takes gleeful delight in setting them up for failure. The game’s gathering systems can only be exploited when an expedition has one or two good gatherers, which can then make combat more challenging. If you do not take advantage of gathering, however, you’ll be severely slowing your pace. While many random encounters can gift the players with materials they’ll need to improve their town, these can be few and far between. You’ll need to do a great deal of exploration if you want to solely rely on enemy drops, but this can also be cost-intensive on your resources, as expeditions must travel with their own resources in order to stay healthy and safe.
Because of the nature of some of the quest lines, completing their objectives too rapidly can lead a player into a high-level scenario, so understanding the flow of the quest lines is something you’ll need to grow accustomed towards. The two scenarios that I detailed in the introduction of this review are actual events that occurred during my playthroughs – the first ended up slaughtering an expedition I had sent to give relief to a group of warriors, while the second ended up in my favor. Still, when things go South and a villager dies, it is permanent – if they are wounded severely in battle, they can bleed out shortly. This is the sort of experience that Thea wishes to give the player: high risk, and passable reward.
There is an inherent sense of progression over each new game, and the thrill of messing around with the world generator becomes more entertaining as each patron god learns new skills. The patron gods must be unlocked over numerous level ups and games, so the opening deities are used as tutorials that help establish a sizable chunk of the game’s many systems. It’s because of this gradual progression and the ability to intensify and complicate the game’s difficulty that Thea actually feels like a blast to play continuously. Whether you’re looking to make some serious progress, watch your entire village turn to ash against a horde of monsters, or something in between, Thea has this versatility built into the game itself. It’s rare that a game is so transparent in how it allows the player to manipulate difficulty, but it benefits Thea immensely.
If you’re looking for an impressively varied strategy simulation title, there’s little else on the Switch that compares to Thea. Its mechanics take a solid amount of time to pick up, but once you have a good grasp on things, you can settle into a nice and comfortable gameplay loop. Your ultimate goal might be a large town, or a dedicated group of high-level warriors. Whatever it is, Thea gives you a great deal of freedom to do it, as long as you trust and prepare for the unexpected. For fans of simulation titles, Thea is an easy recommendation – for Role-playing enthusiasts, it might be a bit of a risk. If you’re willing to submit to the gods and take risks, you’ll find a game with satisfying depth, mixed presentation, and a lengthy and fun campaign loop.