I’ve been doing this gig for some time now, and I’ve reviewed all sorts of different games. So, while I don’t judge a book by its cover, I can generally guess what I’m getting into before I start. That was the case with This War of Mine. I knew this wasn’t going to be a happy story, and I knew that it was going to try to take me somewhere mentally that I’d otherwise be hesitant to go. What I didn’t know, though, is how well it would do it, and just how soul-crushingly desperate of a situation I was about to be forced to handle.
The game starts with a quote by Ernest Hemmingway that seems to perfectly set the stage for the rest of the experience: “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” Movies and video games have forever tinted war in the eyes of men, especially those lucky enough to have never seen it. It’s not heroics and cool guys not looking at explosions; in fact, it can be downright boring if you happen to be lucky enough. What we often forget are the people who are caught in the crossfire, and that’s where This War of Mine comes in.
The people you control in This War of Mine aren’t heroes in the traditional sense. They don’t have combat training, they won’t save the day, and they’re not going to take the enemy by storm and free their homelands. What they are is a collection of ordinary people who have seen their city turn to shit before their very eyes, and have been forced to hole up with each other with the faint hope of survival.
During the day, the area is besieged by snipers and enemy troops, so there’s nary a thought of leaving your shelter. You’ll spend these meager hours of relative peace and quiet attempting to build something that resembles a life. Cooking food you’ve found, building contraptions to collect rain water and piecing together beds so as to not sleep on the cold and unforgiving floor.
Every moment resembles some sort of choice. I could spend my raw materials to build a comfortable chair and roll a few cigarettes in some hope that maybe, just maybe, for five damn minutes I could forget the utter and complete hell my life had become. But, should a trader make his way past the snipers or I manage to find one at night…well, I could make pretty penny selling those cigarettes.
As the days go on, you’ll discover more locations you can attempt to salvage from, but they’re not all created equally. The apartment complex is filled with bandits, but holds a lot of food. The abandoned building is vacant, but doesn’t offer much in terms of materials. Then, there’s also the old couple sitting on a lot of medical supplies that the old woman needs in order to survive. They couldn’t fight back if I wanted to take them, but I’d be issuing them a death sentence.
There are no easy decisions in This War of Mine. They simply don’t exist. Eventually, I had to steal from that elderly couple in order to survive. That didn’t help me deal with the guilt of doing so as my character fell into a deep depression, unable to do much of anything before collapsing into an inconsolable mass. But the war had changed us all, to the point where I’m not sure what was worse: That he was obviously having a full blown mental breakdown, or that I had lost a capable pair of hands for chores.
Leaving for the night isn’t safe for anyone. Sure, whoever is out salvaging has to be careful not to be shot by bandits or soldiers, but the guys back home are vulnerable to looters. I was lucky enough to keep a team of four people healthy for a bit. That meant that two could sleep, while one would guard the shelter with our only weapon, leaving the salvager out with no real protection. It still wasn’t enough, though, as they managed to steal our last canned food and inflict deep wounds on one of the men in the house. We didn’t have any bandages to stop the bleeding, either, and he was dead by the next day.
If I haven’t driven the point home quite enough, allow me to be blunt. This is not a “fun” game in the traditional sense. You can “win” by surviving an arbitrary amount of days and outlast the war around you, but it’s hard to say you’ve won anything considering the sacrifices and torment you go through to get there. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t play This War Of Mine. In fact, this is one of the few “must play” games of the year, just for different reasons.
The tone is pitch perfect here. The only thing I can draw a comparison to is Papers, Please. The game shouldn’t feel fun with this atmosphere, and it’s hard to say it really is fun, but I keep going back. I feel more invested in my rag tag team of miscreants and their survival than I have in any hero in any AAA title I’ve played this year. I don’t just want them to make it, I need them to make it.
The actual gameplay is really well done, although it’s also the only place where I can find real complaints. During the day, you’re essentially playing a 2D version of The Sims. You’ll find yourself switching characters to point them at certain tasks, and trying to make the most out of their skills, your materials, and your limited time. Bruno was a choice chef, so he could make meals using less materials. Pavle is a fast runner, so if I sent him to scavenge, I could use his speed to help him escape if shit hit the fan. Katia is a great negotiator, so I’d have to send to her to the trading posts in hopes of getting more out of the materials I had either scavenged or built.
Resource management is a massive part of the game as well. You won’t have enough materials for everything, so you have prioritize. Moonshine still brings in a lot of trade-worthy stuff, but it doesn’t help you survive the night.
Managing status effects is the crux of the experience, really. Trying to make sure that everyone is fed and rested, and that all illnesses and wounds are in check is the key to any sort of success. Doug never got over the guilt of robbing that old couple, and combined with the death of Bruno, he eventually committed suicide.
This War of Mine has also perfected the art of moral choices, whereas BioShock has always stood out to me as an example of how to handle morality options poorly. Press X to save a child, Press A to murder one. Life doesn’t work that way. Here, you just deal with things. For instance, I found a soldier attempting to have his way with another scavenger. Without weapons, there was nothing I could do to help her that would have kept me alive as well. I got extra food that night because they were distracted, but it sat on the conscience of both my characters and myself behind the keyboard.
The only real flaws I can come up with here are that the text occasionally has a glaring typo in it — which is just enough to break some immersion — and that managing everyone can feel a bit tedious, especially as they start to slow down. During the day, if you’re out of materials and there’s not much else to do, or if you’re waiting for something to happen, there’s no way to speed up time. I can end the day early, but having the ability to double time would have been really helpful. I can’t say for sure that it wouldn’t have hurt the immersion, though.
The aesthetics of This War of Mine are perfect. The title’s somber soundtrack, mixed with its muted colors and pencil sketch marks, helps establish a negative mindset and creates a generally depressing atmosphere. It’s beautiful in how well it’s done.
I cannot recommend This War of Mine enough, quite honestly. It’s not a game you’re going to enjoy playing, but that’s not the point. The point is to be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, towards an ambiguous finish line. You know the second you start playing that things aren’t going to go to plan. You know it’s going to get ugly, but you have to see how ugly. Moreover, you have to see if you’re stronger than the war around you.
There’s a lone piece of graffiti right outside of your shelter, and in its simplicity it captures the perfect essence of the game: “Fuck the war!”
This review is based on a PC title, which was given to us for review purposes.
This War of Mine is a depressing look into how civilians caught in the midst of a war have to survive. It's hard, remorseless and soul-crushingly depressing, but it's also a must play game.