Strategy games hold a special nostalgic tie to me and my upbringing. From playing chess with my father to my introduction to the Command and Conquer series, I’ve always had a hard time turning away from 4x/RTS style games. It’s something about the satisfaction you receive from executing a brilliant strategy, mixed with the sheer awesomeness of playing a form of deity that stares down upon the battlefield that gets my blood pumping to a point where 3PM seems to blend together seamlessly with 3AM.

That being said, when I first received my review copy of Thea: The Awakening, I didn’t have high hopes for it. Not being a fan of Slavic mythology or card based mini games inside non tcg style games, I figured I was in for an indie game that would try to do too much. To say I was wrong would be an outstanding understatement.

Thea: The Awakening is a dark yet fantastic strategy and resource management game developed by MuHa Studios. Following the events of a small village after the world ends due to the mysterious death of the Mystic Tree, and the world being taken over by a force known only as “The Darkness” for one hundred years, you play as one of many unlockable Gods and Goddesses. Your goal as this all powerful protector of the Human race, is to guide your small group of bumbling and squishy humans through the rigors of day to day life in the monster infested hole Thea has become; all while guiding them into discovering why the tree died as well as eradicating the lingering bits of Darkness.

At the outset of the game, you only have two gods unlocked. Unlocking more gods as you go by completing special quests in game to boost your current deity’s power, you start out with two very beginner friendly gods. A sun god that gives you bonus XP on all your tasks, and a nature goddess that increases the efficacy of your gatherer units. Additionally, when you start a new game you can choose a villager type to focus on. While you can only choose from three basic units (Craftsmen, Gatherers, and Warriors), the amount of variation in your startup can be astronomical.

Unfortunately, while choosing a god and village focus do give you some form of agency over the start of your game, a lot of the starting factors to your file will be decided by sheer luck. Each village of Ostoya, while having a set number of starting units, will have randomly decided stats and resources associated with it. Need veggies to make a new stable? Well I hope you (potentially) like trekking past five spider nests to get them. I will concede that out of the five different games I started over the course of my time with Thea, the spider situation only happened once to me. It still rubs me the wrong way, but at least the game seems to always spawn you next to a source of food and wood; so world generation seems to be built decently. If not always a little bit dangerous from time to time

Of course, what’s the point of a large and randomly generated fantasy map to explore if you don’t do any exploration? Using a movement system similar to the Sid Meyer’s series of Civilization games, in which groups of units travel along a hex grid using a certain number of movement points, you can create expedition parties full of your villagers and explore the map. Once again, here the game presents you with plenty of choices for structuring and equipping your party members for when they set out into the world of Thea.

Sure, you could have a party comprised entirely of fierce warriors and hunters. But why do that when you can have a ragtag band of politicians, healers, and wise men going around solving problems that aren’t monster related through the magic of nonviolent conflict resolution skills? Better yet, have a group of mixed individuals wandering the map until a serious problem requires a more specialized skill set. Earning your villagers experience and tech points while fostering the ones at home. No matter what build you end up using in the end though, you’ll probably look for any reason to rally the masses in order to explore Thea to it’s fullest.

First looking into Thea: The Awakening, I fully expected a dark and oppressive environment. The kind of game where each step forward would be shortly followed by two back, and no real gains could ever be made outside of surviving; and maybe banishing The Darkness at the cost of some great sacrifice. These presumptions were due in part to the game’s About page on Steam, where the creator states:

“There are Strigas and Baba Yaga’s aplenty, but there are no heroes, no monster slayers, and no great armies capable to banish them. Just a few hopeless and starving survivors who are desperately trying to stay alive.”

The environment I played through though was almost the exact opposite of my expectations however. The mist covered moors of Thea, coupled with the rampant number of monster nests everywhere and roaming packs of undead, do create a certain air of gloom and doom in the land of Thea. Never knowing exactly what’s beyond the next patch of fog, or what random event might occur next, lends an impressive sense of dread as well whenever you’re about to hit the Next Turn button. No matter what happens though, the player always has something to give them plenty of hope. Whether it’s finding a sweet stash of treasure without having to slay any number of twisted wildlife, finding a caravan that acts friendly towards you, or even simply winning a challenging battle; Thea has plenty of things that inject just as much hope and determination into a play session. There are no monster slayers or heroes, but you can make them, and the feeling you’ve finished crafting a group of legendary saviours will be beyond compare.

Of course, you can’t just get a feeling like that anytime you want. Thea: The Awakening makes you work for it, and it’ll make you work hard. Starting out on Normal mode, I had to keep restarting my game due roving squads of deadly enemies seeking me out and injuring key villagers to the point where they’d die the next turn; regardless of whatever action I’d taken to prevent it. Lowering the difficulty to easy definitely made the game a lot more manageable, but most players will still find themselves being faced with a fair amount of challenge from the games many events and skill challenges.

Speaking of skill challenges, these events which take place any time you need to get something done in the world of Thea. Taking the form of a card game, your villagers are separated randomly into offensive and support hands. With attack and defense numbers based on your stats and equipment, you need to carefully consider your strengths and weaknesses when dealing with enemies and quests.

Unfortunately, the gameplay in challenges becomes repetitive quickly. Fortunately, however, you do have the option to either run or let the game auto-resolve the battle for you. An option which, in all honesty, you’ll probably want to take it over manual combat any time you can. Being one of the most merciful auto-fight options I’ve seen in any game, you’re far less likely to sustain damage, and receive the same rewards regardless.

Sadly, despite being similar to numerous games that have flourished with the help of such a mechanic, you won’t be able to card fight with or against your buddies. It’s a bit of a shame too, considering this style of game would’ve benefitted greatly from some form of Co-op play. Even though it wouldn’t exactly fit with the game’s thematics, I still feel that it would’ve benefitted infinitely from some form of multiplayer.

Even if you can’t play with your friends though, you won’t feel too alone in Thea. The game is full of brilliant and entertaining writing. Whether it’s finding a werewolf trying to make himself immune to silver by hanging around the stuff, or a cursed princess straight out of a storybook, the writing in Thea is outstandingly good. To a point where even if something negative happened, I wouldn’t care because I was at least going to enjoy reading about whatever calamity had befell my poor peasants. Plus, most of the dialog is narrated with a significant degree of competence.

While not the best RTS game ever, this is an impressive first offering from MuHa Games. Challenging, yet never too discouraging; full of adventure and epic questing, and amazingly well put together for being made in Unity Personal Edition, I’ll probably still be playing Thea for a good while after this review has been published. If you’re a fan of fantasy games, strategy games, or well made indie games in general; then I wholeheartedly recommend grabbing a copy for yourself.