Thea 2: The Shattering Early Access Preview
Many of the most popular games ever made, electronic and otherwise, share a few common fundamental traits that may not be obvious at first glance but become more clear with a bit of pondering. So, what might it be that Magic the Gathering, Sid Meier’s Civilization, and Dungeons and Dragons have in common on a base level? They all have a singular, clear play format with a large number of viable play-styles to choose from. This makes it clear to a new player what they can expect to be doing, even before they know how they might do it. This is good not only for a player but also for a designer, as it saves them from having to design mechanics for a variety of sub-games. It allows them to focus wholly on a single method of play, even if different styles exist within that singular method. This usually means a clearer vision, a more polished final product, and a greater ability to focus on the fun of the game’s core systems. This week, I got to spend some time with the Early Access release of Thea 2: The Shattering, which demonstrates the consequences of trying to break a single game into a variety of small sub-games.
To be fair, Thea 2 is in Early Access, so I will bar any discussion of bugs and similar technical glitches, assuming that they will be well-remedied prior to the game’s full release. That said, let’s dive in.
Thea 2 might be one of the only games I’ve seen that makes several first impressions. There’s the first impression that says, “Oh, another card-based combat game.” You have the second impression, which says, “Oh, but it’s like Civ?” Then you have the third, which says, “But with role-play elements?” Each of these impressions steadily improved my hopes for the game. There are a dreadfully large number of card-based combat games, and I was not excited to sit through a new one. Then I saw the UI resembling a Civilization game (albeit less polished) and thought that maybe the exploration component would help the game a bit. Finally, seeing the introduction of RPG elements really set my mind a bit wild with the possibilities. Images of a more accessible Crusader Kings came to mind. They were quickly dashed, however, as the game showed that the first impression really was almost all I needed.
You spend most of your time in Thea 2 taking part in its least enjoyable and most repetitive element: the card-based combat. This technically takes a number of forms, including mental, spiritual, and physical combat — these are used to represent different approaches the player takes in dealing with the problems posed by the role-play segments — but they function nearly identically. In short, there are various flavors of combat, but they’re practically the same, and they all make the game take ages. This is especially true during the nighttime, wherein the frequency of encounters with beasts and other such dangers increases dramatically. Combat makes each nighttime turn take ages, and since you otherwise can’t do very much on each turn (especially in the beginning), you feel like you’re accomplishing almost nothing. Then, when daytime finally does roll around, it seems to pass incredibly quickly due to the relatively small number of combat encounters, so you see the sunset and groan that it’s already nighttime again. If you’re not in combat, you’re trying to manage your little group of misfits.
Managing your small group of allies involves making a choice to either settle and start a village or to continue exploring as a group of wanderers. Spoilers (but not really): you want to continue exploring. Creating a village isn’t worth the trouble. Regardless of whether or not you choose to build a village, you’ll be tasked with collecting, managing, and crafting resources. You do this by assigning tasks to your various group members, who then take several turns to complete their assigned tasks. Remember, though, that turns can take a long time because of combat, so even simple tasks can feel like they take a long time. The pace of the game is slowed dramatically on all fronts by the combat system. Not only does this harm player engagement, but so do the extremely limited choices and impersonal nature of the role-play.
The role-play basically allows a few choices that usually lead to one of the aforementioned identical combat types and never allows for the development of a character personality. Every encounter seems to result in the same disappointing lack of varying consequences and the reminder that you’re playing a static character. It misses the point of role-playing entirely. Sometimes a character dies, but there’s nothing to attach you to the character, so why would you care?
Thea 2: The Shattering offers players a number of individually promising gameplay elements, but it delivers each of them with troublesome mediocrity and cripples itself thoroughly with its slow and repetitive combat. Whether the game will stand more strongly on its full release (projected to be six months from now) remains to be seen, but I wouldn’t recommend even that fans of the first Thea pick it up in Early Access yet.