Like a guilty schoolkid complaining that a dog ate their homework, we’ve taken an absolute age to write a review for Thea 2: The Shattering. There are a few reasons, all of them pertinent to a review, but that doesn’t mean I am proud of them.
To a newcomer, Thea 2: The Shattering is about as unfriendly and unwieldy as they come. Clearly optimised for PC and then ported to console as something of an afterthought, it’s an ugly compendium of interfaces with tiny text, awkward menu selections, and very little tutorialising of what each screen (of which there are many) does. For days, we plucked up the courage to break through its impenetrable armour but bounced off, making excuses and playing something else that was a bit more Xbox-centric.
Eventually, a key presented itself – bizarrely, in the form of another game: Curious Expedition 2. Somewhat similar to Thea 2: The Shattering (and many times better, we should add), it is an exploration-oriented game that’s complicated on the face of it, but becomes apparent the more you play it. It tutorialises as it goes, and it made us wonder if Thea 2: The Shattering did the same. To a degree it did, and the similarity of the two games helped. If you’re in for playing Thea 2, we’d encourage you to persist through the tough times.
Thea 2: The Shattering exists on multiple different levels. The first, and the one you will be grappling most often with, is the world map. A hex-based, board game viewpoint on top of a vast archipelago of land masses, it shows your team of adventurers as they use action points to make moves across a map. A fog-of-war encircles everything, so you’re making tentative steps to see what surprises await. Think of the opening moments of Civilization and you are halfway there. By taking these baby steps, you are uncovering events, resources, towns, combat and more.
Your first objective (not that it’s clearly presented to you) is to settle. Once you’ve chosen somewhere suitable, the story of Thea starts to ramp up, largely as it brings factions out of the woodwork. How you deal with these factions is largely down to you, as you determine whether to swallow the ultimatums they toss on your lap. Align with a faction and it might put you in misalignment with another, so there’s some strategic thinking to be done.
Which brings us to the second reason why it took us so long to write a review. Thea 2: The Shattering is designed to be played multiple times, with procedural maps spiralling off in new and wonderful directions. But these opening moments, as you’re exploring the archipelago, feel far too similar on each run. The first half-hour or so were the game’s worst, and – again – it led to us making excuses to play other games. Bad form for a reviewer, we know, but Thea 2 made it so easy to construct reasons.
Eventually, Thea 2: The Shattering reaches a point where its finest moments come into view. As you progress through the map, settlements behind you, quests appear. The writing here is uniformly top notch, with fantasy archetypes tossed onto a barbecue and thoroughly roasted. There’s a lovely subversion to the stories of Thea 2, and it’s great to watch narratives unfold, choosing dialogue options carefully to see where they diverge.
Presentationally, they are a bit ‘chef’s kiss’ too. The 2D art is far superior to the menus and game world, presenting a cheeky, puckish cast of characters that you want to interact with. And the music is great: full of real instruments, strong orchestration and ethnic notes.
The next level that Thea 2: The Shattering exists on is a kind of operational, organisational level. Your characters need to eat, be outfitted with gear, and have their levels massaged into a useful state. At the start of the game, you choose classes for each of the members of your posse, and that has an impact on their various stats. Thea 2 has a nice penchant for avoiding the usual wizards, warriors and archers: you’re getting farmers, miners and blacksmiths along with the usual archetypes.
There are oodles of stats in Thea 2: The Shattering, which brings us to reason number three for the tardy review. We just couldn’t face the number of dials and levers in front of us. We felt like Homer in the nuclear power station, desperately looking for the equivalent of a pecking bird to automate some of the simpler tasks. But this is subjective: if you are the type to lose yourself in loadout management, optimising teams for hours on end, then Thea 2 is your jam. Whether it was our mood or the accumulation of all the problems we already mentioned, we just couldn’t find the motivation.
Because there is some good stuff here. Crafting is genuinely good. You’re not just fulfilling recipes: there’s enough wiggle room in constructing an item that you can add reagents and give it special effects. Extra damage, poison, some AoE gubbins: all of these can be achieved if you chuck certain things into the pot. The other resource management doesn’t quite reach these highs, which is a source of our ennui.
Onto the next layer: the card game. Agree to an encounter and you will play a Magic: The Gathering-style card game to determine a victor. Not only are you preparing for these battles (although, not all of them are technically battles, as arguments and other non-combat conflicts can be represented by the cards) by improving your deck and upgrading it, but you are choosing whether to play cards at all, as gaps in the battlefield can allow for more positional play. It’s not a bad little card game, all told, but we’ve been thoroughly treated by the nuances of Roguebook, and this can’t quite match.
And, finally, there’s the roguelike ‘just one more go’ stuff. Thea 2: The Shattering takes the unusual approach of letting you determine the victory conditions, or at the very least, your objectives for the playthrough. This is done through the selection of a deity, with more deities unlocked as you are successful in runs, achieving additional ‘god points’. You can stack on difficulty handicaps to earn further god points, so the challenge is dictated by you. It’s a neat, agency-driven approach to the roguelike model. It just would have helped if it felt more varied and interesting at the start of each run.
Man, it feels so good to reach the end of the review. This game has been hanging like the Sword of Damascus over me for some time, as everything about it felt unwelcoming. The terrible, PC-port UI; the half-assed tutorialisation; the lack of clear objectives; the way each run takes a half-hour to warm up; the sheer number of things you can twiddle and optimise, which I rarely – if ever – was in the mood for.
But these might sound like recommendations to a certain kind of player. Thea 2: The Shattering is astonishing in how its many layers interweave. Optimising one of them helps you in another: do well in the quests and the card game might become easier; finetune your team and exploration will become smoother. If you have the time and inclination, there’s a loaded chest full of treats.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for that investment, however, or you are easily wound up by a poor welcoming experience, then Thea 2: The Shattering is best avoided. Thea 2: The Shattering is the equivalent of a TV series that only gets good in its third season, which is a lot to ask of a player.
You can buy Thea 2: The Shattering from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S