Bee Bonthuys examines the link between sleep deprivation and Thea 2: The Shattering
During Civilisation IV’s development, legendary game designer Sid Meier had a favourite tidbit about fans who’d write to Firaxis praising the franchise while also lambasting it for ending their marriages. Thea 2: The Shattering might be accused of the same; one more turn could transform your ailing village into Valhalla while real life crumbles around you.
MuHa Games’ sequel to Thea: The Awakening finds a sweet spot between the Civilisation series and King of Dragon Pass. This dually Kickstarted and Steam Early Access title wasn’t the first game I’d choose scrolling through my Steam library, but when I did, it led to nights of sleep deprivation and multiple save files optimistically titled “The Final Turn!”. Clearly not healthy, but I was seduced by its turn-based nature, it’s RPG and 4x mechanics and oodles of deceptive Choose Your Own Adventure-style events.
The Shattering returns the player, the chosen one of a god, and a few randomly generated allies to the world of Thea. The goal? Uncover the origin of a series of literally earth-shattering quakes, and the forces pulling the strings. As with the previous entry, the emphasis here is on mature storytelling; as the world expands your party will face heapings of well-written events ranging from the silly (demon poker) to the dangerous (‘Oh look, more Lightbringers’) to the downright bizarre (‘Why is that child riding a giant spider?’). The world overflows with these surprising nuggets, and some even branch off into new storylines, all bringing the static map to life.
Another element that vitalises the experience is permadeath, a la X-Com. Spewing out hordes of faceless fodder isn’t an option; new ‘units’ are acquired through random events and the rare birth. With the number of helping hands so low, you’ll soon form an almost paranoid attachment to your motley crew; after hours of carefully curating everyone’s skills, it’s a true kick to the gut when one shuffles off their mortal coil. It’s nail-biting, but also frustrating when a spate of bad luck lays waste to hours of planning and the occasional playthrough.
There’s no time to cry over spilled zerca blood, though, with two possible paths to embark on — either let your eclectic mix of warriors, changelings, ogres, witches (and whoever else you meet along the way) freely explore Thea’s themed islands as a wandering band, or settle down in a village. This early but important choice adds a refreshing twist to the 4X formula.
As a vagabond, there are early opportunities to stumble upon different factions, exotic resources and bands of roving enemies, but the dastardly powers of random generation can make feeding and warming a party difficult at times.
Eventually, the party will stumble across an encounter requiring a skill or combat check and your troop of misfits effectively becomes your hand of cards, and their abilities your attacks — each turn you’ll smack one or two down and pray it’s good enough to outwit your opponent’s next volley. There’s strategy involved, but it’s not very fulfilling, even with the new Gwent-esque melee and range battle lines. Most encounters boil down to spamming the same numbers, buffs and troop placement. A drop of variety would go a long way.
And this is where auto-resolve rears it convenient, ugly head. After a bit of research and party upgrades, choosing auto-resolve becomes an attractive option. Unlike in games like Age of Wonders 3, easier battles aren’t worth getting your hands dirty here; it’s more like a mini-game than an intrinsic part of the experience. Other card-based titles like Slay the Spire and the Hand of Fate series offer far better alternatives.
Aimlessly wandering isn’t the only option, however, and while settling is less romantic, the upside is that smaller groups can still explore and you’ll finally be able to invest in some quality crafting. Building a village adds buildings and more gathering slots, so it won’t be long before your stores are overflowing with rare ingredients.
Characters in the world are pretty squishy when it comes to combat, but that’s easily solved by mashing together some crystal wood and obsidian to create a suit of medium armour for a hunter. If morale is low (after, say, a pair of resulkas has ripped through the group), try spicing up the lunch menu with some galart using beetle jelly and funky mushrooms. Crafting is a process of trial and error to see what will deliver the most bang for your buck; items can either be bog standard, masterpieces or total duds.
Overall the sheer variety of items available is impressive, but the grinding involved doesn’t add to the experience. Arguably it’s worth the hours because this is where the true strategy comes in; early resource management and planning is key for later success, and this approach is what will hook Monster Hunter aficionados who want a more calming break from the severing of heads and chopping of tails.
You’ll spend hundreds of turns of crafting, looting and pillaging — with emphasis on hundreds, or more. Experienced players will gun for the optimum upgrade path, but with the threadbare tutorial and sometimes baffling iconography, those new to the MuHa Games series should pull up a comfy chair and a pair of reading glasses.
Reflecting the company’s multicultural UK and Polish roots, Slavic folklore is the solid backbone of Thea’s narrative, replete with leshy, vogniks and a whole lot of cmuch (because you can never have enough cmuch). These additions transform the stale fantasy mythos into something fresh, and travelling the world is reminiscent of exploring the forest in Quest for Glory I, especially the joy of discovering Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut.
Unlike that Sierra classic, though, Thea does offer a fair bit of re-playability. At the end of each playthrough, God Points are doled out, which can be spent to unlock new gods (each with their own quirks), more default party members, extra starting items and resources — all necessary boosts to humble the RNG gods. Multiplayer is worth a shot, too, but it feels like Thea was clearly created with the solo player in mind.
There is something else that bears mentioning. As I ploughed time into Thea 2, the link between time played and addiction nibbled away at me. Developers expect players to invest ludicrous hours into their products. EA insisted players sacrifice 40 hours of their lives just to access to Darth Vader in Battlefront 2, and Netherrealm Studios wandered into a similar quagmire with Mortal Kombat XI when a Reddit user at launch, calculated it could take years of screen time to unlock its numerous cosmetics. Gamers adore titles which promise of hours of gameplay, but a far better measuring stick may come from Civilization IV’s lead designer Soren Johnson: total fun equals meaningful decisions over time played.