Making the case to bring back strategy guides.
The video game industry is always evolving, and one of the trends that has left many collectors full of sorrow is the replacement of instruction manuals with in-game tutorials. For games with simple controls and easily understood concepts like most platformers, the adjustment has been rather painless. But if you talk to an RPG fan, they are bound to have a horror story of some tutorial that left them so confused on what to do or where to go that they just moved on to another game. That’s the way I felt for a brief moment the first time I started up the latest strategy-RPG to hit the Switch eShop, Thea: The Awakening. The tutorial did a fine job of explaining how to do certain tasks, but it just wasn’t conveying to me any of the core W-questions. Why did I need to gather wood? What was I supposed to do with it? Where am I supposed to go when I’ve collected a bunch of it? As a general rule of thumb, I don’t like giving up without experiencing the intended gameplay, and in this case I’m glad I stuck with it because once I understood what I was supposed to do, I just couldn’t stop playing.
Even with all of the hours I’ve put in so far, I’m still a little hazy on the fine details of the story, but from what I’ve gathered so far Thea is the land in which you find yourself fighting for survival. A number of gods who used to watch over the people were displaced and defeated by a mysterious darkness that continues to envelop the world. Initially, you have the choice between two gods as to which will lead and protect the final human settlement. Each provides a different benefit to the people: one increases the rate of experience gained, while the other provides a boost to the speed at which resources are gathered. The next choice is what skill the village will be proficient at: combat, resource gathering, or crafting.
With your god chosen and the villagers awaiting orders, it’s time to work towards victory by either completing the story quest or developing the village to a set threshold of metrics. The main style of play to achieve one of these goals is very reminiscent of Civilization VI. Your lone village is placed on a hexagonal tile world map full of resources, enemies, and locations of interest. Gatherers can be sent to tiles containing resources necessary for growth and development, such as vegetables, wood, and minerals. Villagers strong enough to withstand battle can be sent to places of interest such as old forts or castles to search for equipment and supplies. In the wilderness, behind countless enemies such as wolves, spiders, and the undead lies the answer to the the origins of the darkness that has left humans on the brink of extinction. All of the actions are turn-based, so there’s a limited number of actions available based on what can be done each turn. Proper strategy is required to ensure that movement and actions are efficiently utilized each turn in order to facilitate quick growth. Unfortunately, the strategy needed is not provided by the tutorial. It may teach you how to move characters or assign a task, but the menu system is so complex that it was very difficult to understand what I should actually be doing. It wasn’t until I found a very detailed video on YouTube that why and what I should be doing really clicked. Once I got past that initial bewilderment, it didn’t take long for the knowledge to flow like a waterfall as everything started falling into place.
When a confrontation presents itself, such as fighting enemies or outwitting a rival, the outcome is decided by a trading card game. Each member of your current party is represented by a card that contains numbers based on their attributes and equipment. The hit points are based on the current health of the individual, attack value is established by the weapon they hold, and additional health is added to the base value of the character based on the armor they wear. The first player to begin the match is randomly chosen, and both you and your rival take turns placing cards down in one horizontal line. Once the cards have all been placed, from the beginning, each card will attack it’s closest enemy in two waves. After two waves if both competitors have any remaining cards available another round begins until the one side has run out of cards to play and is defeated. A tutorial is available that sort of explains the rules but doesn't go far enough in explaining the strategy. Again, as was the case in the overworld, I needed to watch someone explain what was going on so that I could understand the structure and develop my own strategies for success.
With multiple ways to achieve victory and countless strategies to employ, Thea: The Awakening is designed to occupy your time for countless hours. A single playthrough can last hundreds of turns but once you’ve earned a victory, it will simply unlock new quests and options. The complexity leads to all sorts of different ways you can enjoy your time but also creates a gigantic barrier to entry. Without watching a YouTube video of a playthrough being completed and explained on the fly I may have just given up, which would have been a shame because Thea is a fantastic title worth spending the time to figure out.