"...it's clear that a passionate team of gamers can bring everything they love together swimmingly."
Upon picking up Thea: The Awakening for review, I had immediate regrets: I came far too late to this brilliant game and was about to lose far too much sleep. You may not have heard of MuHa Games until now. Until their work on Thea, the small indie developer had only put out a few browser/Flash-based games, but the studio seems to have played it smart. Using these games to create a core team and solid work ethic has paid off in this delightful strategy roguelike RPG mashup that has me hooked.
You wouldn't think that Thea's myriad gameplay elements would gel so cohesively, but it's clear that a passionate team of gamers can bring everything they love together swimmingly. At first glance, Thea seems like a turn-by-turn hex-based strategy game where you manage the growth of a village, its peoples, and resources. Like management games of this sort, Thea tasks you with accruing resources for various tasks and research points that unlock new options for growth. Alone, this all works well, but it's the added elements that stir up the formula and create the title's unique mechanics.
Players select a deity to embody, with only two available from the outset and six more to unlock as each are leveled up. Different deities come with certain benefits for their people, and more abilities unlock with each level they gain. Experience for these deities is earned from your score in each playthrough, whether you win or not, and your chosen difficulty applies a percentile modifier to boost experience rewards by game's end.
While much of Thea's beat by beat gameplay and world-building comes from the random encounters, it is built upon a greater thread steeped in high fantasy and Slavic folklore. After a great calamity befell the Cosmic Tree, an evil force called the Darkness claimed the world called Thea. Many eons later, humans have begun to rebuild despite the lingering evils of the Darkness. Initially, it seems like survival is key, but eventually the option to undertake the quest of reviving the Cosmic Tree presents itself. Additionally, you can pursue the Return of the Giants, a free expansion that introduces an alternate victory quest to Thea: The Awakening. The giants, whose dreams built the world, have returned but have been corrupted by the Darkness. Now an evil giant known as the Umbrage Lord seeks to aid the Darkness in its return to consume all things. Both stories delve deeper into Thea's lore and offer a variety of options and outcomes, as saving the world doesn't seem as straightforward as it could be.
Along the way, many an encounter or sidequest will allow for further party and village growth, but ultimately players have a choice in how quickly and in what manner they wish to finish this rich epic. Players can finish either one of the storylines, or for more points at game's end, both. Disregarding the story, a third path is also available: one can instead raise a successful, thriving village upon completing specific milestones. Thankfully, no matter which route you choose, once a victory condition is met, you are offered the chance to continue playing. Doing so allows you to pursue a higher score through further questing and development, ensuring your pantheon of playable gods grows more powerful with each playthrough.
Now, imagine that you are a dungeon master (DM) in Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) who is led by another DM in D&D. Yeah, you read that correctly. As your deity, you control a village and its citizens, and choose who to assign to which tasks, like crafting, gathering, or going on expeditions that ultimately lead to world-saving adventures. As your expedition parties journey across Thea, each turn may trigger an encounter. Often it is an obvious enemy party roving the land from its lair, but others are fun and unique encounters that offer a variety of choices to alter their outcomes. That's the part that feels like an even larger DM is at play here, giving you story development at random to shape your people's journey. Depending on the characters in your party, only certain options will be available, encouraging diversity in your expedition assignments.
Every character you birth, recruit, or obtain through some other encounter-based means comes with a multitude of skills. Familiar basics like strength, dexterity, and health are straightforward, but expanding upon that with many other skills (like distraction, medic, sturdiness, or attractiveness) can be a lot to comprehend at first. Every character also has multiple equipment slots, allowing for flexible customization of their skills and strengths. As buildings and crafting recipes are unlocked through research, these too benefit citizen growth and skill bolstering. It will likely take many turns or playthroughs to fully grasp the importance of all these skills, but their mastery will prove invaluable when an encounter results in a "Challenge."
Whether it's a straight up fight, sneaking into an enemy camp, or breaking a terrible curse on your party, every challenge takes place in a turn-based card combat minigame with your party members as the playing cards. The combat field is split into five parts: you and your foe have active character cards that can be put directly into play, each with a defense and attack stat. On the right is a field for support character cards, and all the different skills a character has will determine what sort of support they can offer in a given challenge. Examples include eliminating cards before they can be played, delaying them for a round, or manipulating initiative. Once all cards are played or your turn is skipped, two "fight" rounds begin, where numbers are whittled down until a victor is determined or another round ensues. Every challenge rewards you with character experience points, research points, and often loot or a blessing (a temporary bonus) on your team members. These rewards are key to your characters' growth, so getting a handle on this surprisingly deep card game is a must. Rather brilliantly, MuHa also included an option for challenges to be auto-resolved, allowing players to breeze through simpler encounters with a high-powered party. There are still some risks, as the AI may not manage things as well as you do, but it's a welcome time-saver, which you may want by time you're rounding turn 500.
Regardless of the characters used in a challenge, experience is collected globally, ensuring that villagers holding down the fort at home will still level up as well. What's neat is that the skills they develop are often different from those of the expedition party, which may get you thinking about rotating your cast of adventurers. Alternatively, building one powerhouse team to take on the challenges Thea throws your way is also an effective strategy. However, encounters also often happen at the village, so players should consider who to send out and when to send them. Enemies encroaching on your defenses and other random events affect the day to day life of your homesteading villagers. While players will see their party and village grow faster by sending expeditions out into the world, Thea still rewards you for keeping everyone relatively safe at home by bringing the action to you one way or the other. The flexibility to experience gameplay more like a strategy game or an adventure RPG on a whim will likely appeal to fans of both genres.
The entire storytelling method is presented almost like a visual novel where you choose your own adventure, with each event elevated by Simon Alison's fantastic narration. Whether detailing gruesome sights of bleak horror or playing up certain moments of levity, his way with language brings the wondrous world of Thea to life and paints vibrant pictures for the mind. It all serves to evoke a sense of comfort, lulling you into each moment as if you're telling tales around a campfire, or having an adventure at the table with your D&D party. Outside of Alison's words, the rest of the soundscape is pretty standard, though the effects in the card minigame are oddly effective at making the simple animations seem more visceral with each strike. Musically, Murmur Sound Workshop created a lively soundtrack full of folk fantasy atmosphere, perfectly complimenting Thea's simple aesthetic, even if only a track or two stands out from the whole.
Visually, Thea shows its small budget roots, but does not suffer for it. While it may not be as striking as many of today's AAA or AA titles, MuHa's art direction is incredibly effective. The line work in the character designs is fantastic, while the full colour art of the random encounters mingles storybook quality with loose inspiration from illuminated manuscripts of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. The overworld map and its characters aren't as richly detailed as, say, those of the latest Civilization, but everything on it is clear, with designs inventive in bringing Thea to life. Possibly the biggest visual issue is the small text when playing in handheld mode. Squinting to discern who has what attack or defense power can become a strain in the combat minigame. It is not all together unplayable, but the experience suffers if playing in low-light with the brightness way down.
Thea's different aspects are brought together incredibly well, as gameplay mechanics are clear from one to the next. It is also clear that this title started out on the PC, with the UI and the navigation on the Switch being clunky and occasionally awkward, as you fight with which button switches between different menus. Resource management becomes a cumbersome process as you allocate larger quantities of items to your expeditions. While none of this renders the Switch version unplayable in any way, I found myself wanting for a mouse pointer as I navigated the game's myriad systems.
This fledgling world of Thea crafted by MuHa games took me by surprise. With its mystical mythos and comforting storytelling lain over a complex set of gameplay systems, it was reminiscent of many games I adore. Though it may not have the most up-to-date artistic execution, there is still a beauty inherent in this title. I want more of what MuHa is offering here, so much so that I cannot wait to see what Thea 2 has in store for us. Thea: The Awakening immediately spoke to me on a biblical level that commanded my every waking moment, as I sought just one more turn. One. More. TURN.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.