On the surface of it, Thea: The Awakening probably looks like a fantastical copy of Civilization 5, but you should really avoid that line of thinking. This is a strategy game, yes, but it’s less about expanding and exploring and more about… would you believe it, survival.
It’s based on Slavic mythology, undoubtedly an underutilised setting for videogames, but that alone isn’t what makes it so different. Some 4X elements are bundled in here - there is a tech tree, a city management screen and hex-based navigation - but the heavy focus is on item crafting, resource gathering and sending out carefully maintained groups of warriors to explore the world.
It might look a lot like Civilization 5, but the underlying systems and mechanics are completely different
In fact it’s this element that makes Thea play much more like a tactical RPG rather than a traditional strategy game since the focus is much more on the build of your expeditions. These parties are hand chosen, packs of units each equipped with their own weapons, armour and abilities of varying quality. These expeditions - as the name suggests - aim primarily to head out into the fog of war in search of resources. The map itself comes replete with such items - forests for wood, hills for stone to name just some of the early, basic options you’ll need to gather up.
But to further expand your tiny gathering and increase your unit’s strength, capabilities and options you’re going to need to also track down various different beasties - whether these are random units traversing the landscape or specific events for you to tackle. In doing so you’ll collect other forms of important resources, such as bones for crafting tools or food for, well… eating.
Your expeditions can tackle these situations in a number of ways, largely dependent on the different abilities you have access to. Combat is the most obvious method, but risks injuring - and perhaps killing - some of your units. These aren’t simple to replace, either, so you’ll need to be careful wherever possible. Maybe you’ll need to persuade a demon through speech, or maybe you’ll prefer hunting an animal rather than outright charging in and butchering it.
Highlighting the RPG elements, events often come with unique decisions or options - sometimes dependent on your party’s skillset
The problem is that whichever method you choose it’s always the same process, a simple but rich card game battle where you’ll play either an attacking card or a defensive card - the results of which are played out once all cards are placed. It’s incredibly uncomplicated, but still maintains a good sense of strategy and difficulty to it. Though a non-combat ‘battle’ will play out with access to different abilities, the resulting gameplay is much the same with little in the way of highlighting the difference.
Despite that, what it does mean is that you need to be very considerate of the make-up of your expedition - not only do you need to balance strong warriors with good weapons and armour, but you’ll also want to fit units in there with special abilities to open up greater opportunities when out hunting.
In truth Thea is quite a fiddly game. There’s a lot of micromanagement as you ensure both your habitats and your travelling expeditions have access to all the resources they need to survive, let alone regularly returning to restock a town, construct new items and switch around units and equipment. It’s complex, and though that deepness will ensure there’s something there for you to bite into it does mean it’ll take a lot of tinkering before you get to grips with it.
Combat is fairly rudimentary in terms of the process involved, but it’s got a surprising amount of depth and strategy, too.
Management of your town will play an important role in your success, but in truth there’s not all that much you can actually do with the town itself. Instead it’s more of a base for you to build items, gain new units and cultivate your survival. None of its systems are really explained all that well, and this particular area has the least explanation from the tutorials. Once you do understand it, however, you’ll spend a large portion of your time here, clicking through its menus, managing your gatherers and inventory and building a plan for what you’ll need to head out into the world and gather next.
That sense of survival is prevalent throughout the game, too. This is a challenging game, though admittedly sometimes it can feel a little unfair. This makes your desperation all the more apparent as a result, though, and as you scavenge for very particular resources you’ll get a sense of the likes of Don’t Starve as you head out in the search of very specific items to construct the upgrade you’re looking for.
This difficulty is perhaps the game’s saving grace, though. You’ll fail a number of times before you succeed, and continuing with that rogue-like reference you’ll find that your previous experience will help you make better decisions the next time around. It’s reliant on your failure, really, and once you have completed the game there may only be a couple more replays in it. Though there are different gods you can play as which affect how your followers work, there just isn’t the same distinction and variety between different playthroughs. There’s enough here to tempt you to try and beat the game’s challenge, but after that there’s little reason to return, sadly.
THEA: THE AWAKENING VERDICT
Thea: The Awakening is something of a surprise, really. From an unknown indie developer comes a game that blends RPG and strategy together very well, in a fashion that means one doesn’t dilute the strengths of the other. It is complex, sure, and perhaps that will be off-putting for as many as it will be endearing for, but there’s an original game here - one that ought to appeal to fans of both spectrum of genres.
TOP GAME MOMENT
On the third or fourth attempt - having finally got to grips with the systems - building up a practically invincible party of warriors that decimated almost anything.
Genuinely novel blend of genres, including elements of strategy, RPG, roguelike, 4X and card game without becoming a mess.
Deep and complex mechanics give players something to learn...
...but at the expense of accessibility. A steep learning curve to get past here.
Not the best looking game and the UI is a little confusing and fiddly.