Thea: The Awakening [official site] is a turn-based game of survival and strategy set in a dark world of Slavic myths. As a group of humans, you have emerged from an era of bad times and must regrow your village into something resembling a society. In the first of this two-part diary, Brendan attempts just that.
I have 5 bones, 77 meats and 6 children. Those are my village's resources. There’s a lot of other things, of course, but those are the most important. The children will one day grow into fully-fledged villagers but for now, they are marked as a resource, possibly stored in the same warehouse as the coal and vegetables. But it is their potential that keeps the rest of us going – the thought of a brighter future that makes life worth living in the town of Bilge Finger. I wonder what happens when you drag the children to this box?
"You are about to destroy 3 x Child. Are you sure?"
Thea: The Awakening is a lot better than I expected. It's a not-quite-4X strategy survival game. The story begins by juggling all the fantasy tropes you can think of. There’s an omniscient evil imaginatively titled ‘the darkness’ and recognisable badness in the form of skeletons, goblins, demons, spiders and witches. But there’s also some Slavic twists on the genre – the Dziody are a crowd of old geezers who love to eat, and if you visit them bearing food they'll cure any curses you’ve got lingering about your person. I am also playing as Zorya, mad axe god of the Aurora.
It’s a game of two parts – you can send gangs of characters out into the hex-based land to explore and gather materials, while others remain in the village farming carrots, collecting firewood and crafting vests made out of snake leather. Pop-up events keep you on your toes, and you earn points to research new craftable items.
As I check this research screen I am offered the chance to invest in many possibilities – leather, cloth, amber. I have decided to invest all my research points into bones. I am absolutely certain this branch of knowledge will come in handy some day. There’s also combat in the form of a card game - more on that later. The important thing to know about Thea is that you can rename your town and villagers. This is absolutely the cornerstone of any decent videogame.
I start out as I always do, by making sure I have given my settlement a majestic and appropriate moniker. The game has suggested Ostoya, but Bilge Finger is much better. The expeditionary group can also be renamed. This posse are proving to be a group of great adventurers and have already murdered several small spiders. They are now called The Bone Crew. There’s only one trained craftsman present in Bilge Finger while the Bone Crew are traipsing around. He is the leader of the village. He is called Stab King.
There is no way to signify that he is the chieftain in-game, so I am recording it here for the sake of future historians. One day, as he and the other villagers are gathering veg and wood, a mole pops out of the ground and shouts "oi!" at one of the villagers. It is carrying a tiny shovel. The surprised villager says hello and the mole looks at him with contempt, then leaves. These are the kind of events you can expect in Thea.
As the Bone Crew is out picking up amber stones, I see a witch on the hexy landscape and decide to confront her. The combat is resolved in a rough card game of attack and defence numbers, with added ‘tactic cards’ that grant bonuses or rearrange your place in the attack queue (to give you a chance to kill enemy cards before they use an attack of their own). It is a weak and flimsy game of numbers and turn order.
But strangely, you also have to play this card-based minigame for ‘social’ encounters. So even talking your way out of a situation with bluster or charm requires you to go through the motions of the card game. I start to threaten the witch, telling her all about the exploits of the Bone Crew and their culture of heart-eating, a practice which is a complete falsehood. Three great warriors - Smellfiend, Plop the Whizzo and Mayle Gayze – step into the arena. They begin their assault by arguing with three giant rats.
Little speech bubbles appear over the enemy cards as the rats consider our fierce rhetoric. The game also has sound effects for this – incoherent mumbles that sound like a muttering dad from The Sims trying to flirt with the neighbours. “Mhhmn-mhm?” says Mayle Gayze, to a rat. “Mmmm-hm-hm,” answers the rodent, conceding to the hero’s superior talents at formal debating. The numbers stack in our favour and the witch is vanquished. She runs away and drops some seaweed. The Bone Crew have won the day.
They continue on their adventure, spiralling around the settlement, uncovering the shroud of darkness around the town and getting into more arguments with rats. At one point they are attacked by a demented bat, a raven and some annoyed bees. Bucket Girl, a gatherer armed with a giant hammer, suffers a wound. But it is OK. Setting up a camp and having enough food and firewood on your expedition will let any hurt warriors heal themselves over the course of a turn.
After everyone is back to strength, an encounter with the living dead suggests I could sneak up on them instead of attacking outright. I choose the sneaky option and I am again confronted by the card game. This time the Bone Crew will be fighting the abstract concept of stealth.
Luckily, my warriors are triumphant. I am told by the encounter text that they quickly assassinate the undead fighters without mercy. We collect their bones for research purposes.
Back in Bilge Finger, I only now realise that the villagers have been eating all the cherries. I was supposed to be saving those so I could discover some new buildings. You see, the crafting menu in the home village consists of several boxes that you have to click and drag different combinations of items into. For instance, combining certain types of leather will craft you a ‘reptile vest’, which offers some armour protection during card battles.
So far I have ordered Stab King, our best (only) craftsman, to smush together vegetables, iron and wood to build a pasture. A field like this will produce 1 meat every turn but also make it more likely that someone will come to our town and become part of our gang. Looking at the crafting menu, I suspect that the cherries would have possibly revealed a new type of building if I had only fed 25 of them into these boxes, along with some other mundane materials. But by the time I realised this, it was too late. The villagers had eaten all but 6 of the sweet fruits. I stomped furiously into the supply management menu and started fiddling with the food options. Eating cherries is now forbidden in Bilge Finger.
But those plucky villagers aren’t to be put down. Before long, I am told two of my subjects are going to get married. That’s right, Funky Frida and Bogart McTrout are having their ritualistic wedding tonight, complete with naked dancing, customary alcohol consumption and a fight to first blood between fiancées. As is becoming increasingly clear to me, Thea wants all of its events to be resolved in a uniform fashion. The wedding too must take the form of the numbers card game. This time the villagers of Bilge Finger are fighting against the potentiality of a hangover. I am not making this up.
As always, there is the option to auto-resolve this ethereal encounter. But I am not sure I trust the game to do the numbers correctly. In hindsight, I should have. Because the high number of alcohol units consumed (ie. the HP and attack strength of the hangover cards) walks all over the villagers and they are soundly defeated thanks to my jumbled attack ordering. All of the villagers become affected by the ‘sickness’ status which I am told “probably won’t kill you, but it can lead to bothersome complications.” The whole settlement now has a blinding headache.
Luckily, one of the 6 children locked in the storage cupboards of Bilge Finger has finally come of age. I decide that she looks like a warrior. The game tells me she is called is Yanina, which, no no no, sounds all wrong to me. She is called Facekicker Pat. She has a wooden shield. She murders people. I mentally dust down my hands and continue giving orders to my people, now seven-strong.
The tutorial imp comes back, out of nowhere, and starts blabbing about the darkness and the light, yada yada yada. I flick through the lengthy chatter of curses and demons and all the usual fantasy guff. It is important here to mention that all the quests and story events in Thea are narrated. The same man voices everything and reads out the dialogue of every character, which makes the whole game feel like its being read to you by an old man while you lie tucked up in bed. Except, you are not a child and you would like the old man to stop and please leave. Thankfully, you can do this in the settings by dragging the voiceover volume right down.
The tutorial imp offers me a map to the Cosmic Tree, which I take in a hurry to get rid of him, but also because I have no choice. The Cosmic Tree is now marked on my map, out there in the shroud. In the meantime, the Bone Crew returns home to rest and resupply while they prepare for the next expedition – a mission to gather some clay. I outfit a bunch of the crew with gathering tools and ready some stew and veg for them to take with them. I also decide to put one of the children in their inventory, effectively taking the child with us out into the dangerous hinterland of creatures and death. They have to learn some time. I briefly drag the other three children to the bin icon on the left of the inventory menu, just to see what happens.
I ponder this prompt for a moment and decide against destroying the children.
We leave next turn and make it to the clay pits. While gathering the clay, we are attacked by goblins. They are much fiercer than anything we’ve fought so far. Plop the Whizzo and Put-You-In-Stew are badly wounded. But the child we took along must have really learned from the trauma, because he immediately grows into a capable warrior, who the game thinks is called Valdek but who is actually called Whimsical Wally.
We celebrate his coming of age by hastily leaving Goblin territory, chased away by a particularly nasty looking goblin riding on the back of some horrible beast. Three skulls hover over this posse of baddies, signifying a sizeable threat. One skull is easy, two is more difficult and three very dangerous. Any more skulls and we will likely be wiped out. Characters killed in card battles are wounded and if you get wounded enough over multiple battles without resting or healing, the character can die.
Rather than taking on the goblin rider, we run away and start the quest to discover the whereabouts of the Cosmic Tree, if only to appease the tutorial imp.
Back in Bilge finger, there is another wedding. Being stuck in a village for long periods of time must be forging some strong, loving bonds between the gatherers and craftspeople who are too rubbish to go on the expeditions. Who will it be this time, I wonder. Why, it’s Bucket Girl and ... Frida!?
"But Frida," I implore the game, "you are already married to Bogart McTrout."
"No, I'm not," says the game. "I'm marrying Bucket Girl."
Well, if that's what you want. This time I auto-resolve the battle with alcohol and over half of my followers are given a blessing of attractiveness. What a roaring success. We should have more polygamous weddings.
The days and turns pass slowly as the Bone Crew go from hex to hex, talking to racist wizards and getting into arguments with magical trees. More children in the town come of age, growing the settlement and putting a strain on our equipment. There aren’t enough swords and shirts to go around.
Only then do I realise, 5 hours into the game, that there has been a research tree for construction hidden behind the research tree for gatherable resources. All this time I have been trying to combine resources in different ways to discover a different type of building – the same way the crafting works for tools, clothes and food. But no matter how I combined the items, I always seemed to be offered a pasture. Stone, veg, dark wood, straw? Pasture. Elf wood, branches, steel, wheat? Pasture.
That’s because, for some reason, the method for village constructions is different, despite looking identical. The way to unlock new buildings, like watchtowers and so on, is hidden in a tab behind the normal research menu. I have been pumping all my research points into bones. And these research points do not accumulate quickly. I am very upset with the tutorial imp.
On the bright side, I have built so many pastures that all the bonuses are adding up. My home town now looks so idyllic that lots of new characters are arriving – there’s Joe Stinkman the scavenger, and Murderbritches the armoured one, and there’s Pot Hulk, who is so good at crafting that I’ve made a golden hammer just for her.
Bilge Finger has become a bustling metropolis in this dark world. It has gone from 6 cowering serfs to 18 well-armed and able-bodied men and women. The Bone Crew slink back into town, having dealt with the Cosmic Tree. They met a werewolf on their way back, who attacked them with small talk.
In the end, the werewolf gave them some silver. Using this and more materials, the whole town starts preparing for our greatest expedition yet. Mushroom soups are brewed, veggie stews stewed (there are no beef dishes because the villagers keep eating the raw meat before I have a chance to cook it). All are now working toward the goal of our next expedition - enchanted bones.
There is a symbol in the south-east which glows with their power – the remnants of some dead magician or arcane giant lie there. But I am worried we will not be strong enough to camp there safely and gather them. It is deep in the territory of the Goblin Rider. Anyone who goes risks a brutal death.
Then she arrives. The chosen one. The woman who will lead us all to greatness.
ThE bOnE mOtHeR walks among us.
To be continued….