Thea: The Awakening
Non-linear survival strategy steeped in Slavic mythology
If your first reaction to “roguelike city-builder” is “what?” then we’re in the same boat.
The devs of Thea: The Awakening recently made us a free Linux version because they’re not (yet) willing to officially support it. I asked them whether there’s going to be an official Linux release at any point and they were understandably (they’re upfront about their lack of Linux experience) non-committal but they did intimate that they intend to keep updating the Linux version:
until it works as I want it to I cannot promise anything, but for sure there will be updated version for linux reasonably soon if unity 5.3 does proper job.
So let’s think of it as an expanded demo for now.
The devs don’t describe the game as a roguelike city-builder but, unless you’re the kind of person who objects to such loose use of ‘roguelike’, it’s the impression you get when looking at it, the easiest way to grapple with an unusual game. And it is somewhat accurate - it’s certainly like a roguelike and it’s undeniably reminiscent of 4X games - but it’s not quite right.
Thea reminds me most of King of Dragon Pass, an ancient indie game from the days before the term ‘indie game’ existed and one I’ve lost many late-nights-that-became-early-mornings to over the decades. Thea shares the same sense of wonder, the randomised narrative encounters, the attachment you develop to your villagers, the sense of real exploration and, of course, the strategy.
If you think about exploration in a 4X game it is somewhat like a roguelike. From the point of view of an individual unit exploring the map they are going into the unknown, uncovering (usually) randomly-generated terrain and potentially facing encounters they may not survive. Thea takes that and makes it the central experience. The numerical abstraction is removed, a band of five explorers is five individual people and you’ll come to care about each of them deeply since they have individual stats and abilities (and lovely portrait images). As you stumble your way from encounter to encounter, the game will help you imbue them each with a personality.
You have one city in Thea. It starts as a village of course and mine’s never got beyond what you’d generously describe as a very small town, but I imagine it can become a city eventually. My current ‘city’ (of seven people) is called Ostoya, so let’s go with that. Ostoya serves as a base for exploration - it’s a place to which my bands of explorers (the game calls them ‘expeditions’) can return to pick up food and resources and also drop off anything interesting they’ve picked up during their adventures. It’s also where new people are born (cabbage fields have a chance of producing children, which is adorable) and when they come of age I can decide what their profession should be; warrior, worker, crafter and so on - this choice doesn’t limit them, they can take on any role - it just influences that character’s starting stats.
Ostoya is also where crafting and building take place. I can build things in my city, just as in a 4X game (only I’m assigning actual people to the task rather than percentages) and with similar benefits. I can also craft things (weapons, food, clothing and armour etc.) which I can give to villagers or expedition members. Each crafted object is individual, if I make a sword and give it to a particular expedition member (who’d have to come back to Ostoya to pick it up) that sword is then carried by that character. A crafted weapon is an individual item not an upgrade, my units don’t all get ‘iron sword’ once I’ve crafted ‘iron sword’.
The tech tree (it’s more of a web, which I prefer) works as you’d expect, allowing you to craft more objects and build more buildings. On a third tab it also allows you to unlock resources for use which adds an interesting strategic dimension to tech and can make replays feel very different.
Resources are gathered (if I assign workers to gather them) from resource nodes near Ostoya, currently I’m just gathering the basic resources of food and wood. More exotic resources are collected by my expeditions during encounters and then delivered to Ostoya where they can be used. Encounters vary from dialogue based narrative choices to combat against a wandering party of spiders. Combat is where an already deeply interesting game gets even more interesting.
Characters have a lot of stats and they each matter for different sorts of encounters. Normal combat uses their attack and defence stats. A stealth encounter uses different stats, but plays out similarly to combat. A ‘sickness’ encounter uses yet different stats. There are many types of encounters and thus all stats can matter. Do you make a specialist party, good for only one type of encounter, or do you keep it mixed and try to cover everything? Strategy ensues!
Whatever the type of combat it plays out as a card game with each member of your expedition (or city) represented by a card. You and your opponent, as you might expect, take turns laying down your cards. What I’ve gleaned so far is that, aside from just having the right stats, choosing when and how to play each card is key. I shan’t go into too much detail about the mechanics of combat, it’d read like a manual and the (optional) tutorial does a good job of getting you started, what matters is that it completely hooked me. The combat card game would stand up as an addictive little game in its own right, but in Thea it’s more than that, it’s where you develop an affection for and attachment to your party members. It’s where you learn their strengths and weaknesses. They each end up with distinct personalities and when they die (and they will die), you’ll be devastated.
Here’s Dobrochna. She’s my favourite. She always seems to be the one who gets me out of difficult situations. The one who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. When she dies I’ll probably cry.
And that’s the real joy of Thea. That’s where the seemingly disparate elements that comprise “roguelike city-builder” come together - that sense of attachment and investment in the individuals you’ve helped raise and with whom you’ve shared adventures, narrowly survived tough scrapes and won victories both triumphant and pyrrhic. And the people back in Ostoya, the workers who supplied them with food and firewood, the crafters who made their weapons and the soldiers who defended the city. They all matter individually, they all have personalities, and they’re all working together to survive in a hostile environment. It’s a roguelike with a base of operations and it’s amazing how well that works, how seamlessly it all fits and not only makes sense but amplifies all the things we love about such games.
The game draws heavily from Slavic mythology and folklore so expect to meet Rusalki, Leshy and maybe even Baba Yaga. It’s a rich mythology to draw on and the game’s writing and artwork do a great job of bringing it all to life, providing a suitably deep narrative context for such a mechanically intricate game. It’s one of those games where “a quick go” becomes “how is it 6am?”.
The devs seem to be doing early access right, the game certainly feels mechanically complete and they’re filling in artwork (some looks like placeholder, currently), rebalancing mechanics, refining the UI and so on. The Linux port is unsupported and it does have a few bugs. Keyboard inputs sometimes get stuck for me which is solved by tabbing out and back in which, unfortunately, renders most UI content blank. It’s certainly playable though and I’ve seen worse in official ports.
Giving the game away for free until they’re satisfied with the Linux port is a novel approach and one I think the devs should be applauded for. I’m going to buy the game on Steam since I’ve already gotten enough out of it to more than justify the cost (especially as it’s currently on sale) and I want to thank the devs for both making the game available on Linux and being upfront about their intentions. Others might want to wait for an official port and that’s understandable too.