If you read my initial preview of 11 Bit Studios’ This War of Mine a few months back, you’ll know I was highly impressed with the game’s washed out, horrifying take on war, and the ways in which it managed to tell touching, yet understated stories simply through gameplay. If you, didn’t read it, then go do that, because we’ll be covering a lot of the same bases here. This War of Mine is almost exactly as good as it was then, there’s just more of it to love.
A dark, dreary simulation game set in a fictional (albeit highly topical) Eastern European warzone, This War of Mine puts you in the rather grubby and tattered shoes of said conflict’s survivors – namely, the innocent civilians whose stories one rarely hears. Already, the game sets itself a loft yet intriguing goal: to force players to consider that there is more to war, and videogames, than shooty shooty bang bang. Thanks to some very clever design, and a persistent propensity to make you feel absolutely God-awful about everything, This War of Mine of mine not only succeeds, but it does so with flying colours (ranging from Codex Grey to Fortress Grey).
Players are left to care for a handful of randomly picked survivors, all of whom range in their usefulness. Some are good cooks (a moderately useful skill), others are fantastic scavengers (a highly useful skill), and certain elderly survivors posses little or no practical skills whatsoever. Very quickly, This War of Mine teaches you that in the harsh climate of war, survival of the fittest is all that matters. Marko the scavenger needs to eat to be able to look for supplies tonight? He gets the last scrap of food, and anyone who can’t pull their weight goes hungry.
The game is split into two contrasting parts: daytime and night time. Daytime is fairly similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown‘s ant-farm style management sections, only with more of a Sims-esque twist. Players must look after their survivors by monitoring their temperature, illnesses, sleep levels, happiness, wounds and hunger. Essential items like cooking equipment and furniture can be built using wood and “materials”, all of which can be found via scavenging hunts or by bartering with occasional door-to-door tradesman. Rather like in XCOM, these parts of the game are the least intense, but by no means are they uninteresting. Every decision one makes is crucial, down to the last bandage or stack of pills. Neighbours will visit and either offer assistance or ask for it, and never can you be sure of their intentions before opening the front door. Such is the unpredictability of This War of Mine, a single moment can make or break an entire playthrough. Everything is unbalanced, sure, but only by design.
Night time sections convert the game into a stealth game, though still set out in 2.5D. After assigning scavenging duties to a single member of your “family”, said character must then pack a bag and choose an are to loot, ransack and/or pillage. These sections vary greatly in tone and content, but never in quality – they’re probably some of the most intense and rewarding missions you’ll play all year. Some areas are home to patrolling guards, others to harmless pensioners. The trouble is, one of these options presents a physical problem, and the other a moral one. Taking supplies from sick old people is like… taking candy from sick old people, but it comes at the cost of being followed around by one of the poor decrepit souls as they plead for mercy. Stealing from armed bandits and rapists is much easier on the old conscience, but AK-47’s are far less forgiving than pensioners.
Tough decisions and morally questionable act are the backbone of This War of Mine, but these moments are never half-baked or easy to decipher. Even trying to trick the game by starting again and revisiting “familiar” areas is difficult, because each area can change drastically between playthroughs, to the point where a once guard infested hell-hole could be more or less deserted the second time around. Ultimately, This War of Mine is the sort of game you don’t expect to win. Things can get so brutally tough that if your characters don’t die from hunger, lead or the cold, they’re almost just as likely to hang themselves out of depression and desperation.
All of this is only enhanced by the game’s dreary but effective washed-out colour pallet and the consistency of its quiet, understated tone. Animations have improved a ton since I played the press demo too – characters now move more smoothly against their jagged, almost charcoal backdrops. This isn’t to say This War of Mine is all sombre all the time, one of the ways in which the full game differs from the demo is in its surprising ability to make you feel somewhat hopeful and positive about things. Bring back a great haul of supplies, and characters will come across as more cheerful in their dialogue balloons and diary entries (entries which give us interesting looks into character’s lives and backgrounds), and the game’s soundtrack shifts from solemn, brooding piano and acoustic guitar grumbling to a more light-hearted, forward thinking guitar piece.
This War of Mine does slip up in a few minor, if noticeable places. Speech balloons and diary entries are occasionally misspelt to the point of hilarity, and some of the game’s more scripted moment border on cringeworthy in their attempts to be dark and gritty, but more than anything this highlights how much more effective the game is at telling a story systemically, rather than through heavily scripted scenes and conversations. That being said, some more interaction between characters in the house wouldn’t go a miss, since it often seems like they each only exist in their own individual bubble. A fast forward time option would do wonders to daytime sections as well, since there can often be decent stretches of time wherein tenants are only tasked with sleeping or performing lengthy building tasks.
This being said, This War of Mine‘s pros heavily outweigh its cons. The game manages to achieve something few can: it makes you think, it makes you sad, and it makes you work, but somehow it keeps making you want more. It’s hard, it’s brutal and it’s depressing as hell, but like any good work of art it manages to remain compelling in the dreary tales it weaves. It may not make you smile, but you’ll find it impossible to look away.