I’ve always had a tough time getting some of my close friends to play more serious, sometimes depressing games, though I can’t say I blame them personally. After all, a good chunk of people who play games play them for entertainment, or to unwind, or to socialize with friends. As much as I personally enjoy and praise ‘shitty job simulators’ (yes, that’s a term that I just coined) like Cart Life and Papers, Please, I can’t really fault anyone for not taking the time to play through them. On their best days, I would describe these games as cathartic, thought-provoking, and masterful. On their worst, I would probably shy away from playing them, as games in this genre tend to be as stressful as they are eye-opening.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones might just seem like another depressing simulation game, but it’s much more than that. With the conflicts in the Middle East and the mass influx of refugees around the world, it’s hard to go about your day without acknowledging the global impact that armed conflicts can have. Sure, it would be easier to simply change the channel, or flip to a different section of the newspaper (and I’m sure many do), but we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by paying no attention to the things that happen around us. This War of Mine, thankfully, is here to remind us of the reality of war.
If you happened to have already played the original This War of Mine, you won’t be surprised to hear that the core gameplay and setting hasn’t changed much this time around. Rather than taking control of a squad of gung-ho soldiers, you instead find yourself in the shoes of regular, largely untrained civilians, as they attempt to wait out and survive an unnamed East European conflict. It’s a refreshing change of pace to say the least; most war games have you playing as just another (male) military soldier, whose sole job is to mow down, well, other soldiers. This War of Mine instead has you interacting with different folks from all walks of life, who have all seen the same city crumble around them, and who are all forced into a rather dreary, not to mention unstable life.
You’ll spend most of your days holed up inside a makeshift shelter (due to enemy snipers and troops, you can’t venture outside safely during the day). This is where the simulation aspects of the game shine, as you have to decide how you’ll spend your day. You could take the time (and resources) to build furniture for example, or you could take stock of what resources and materials you have on hand, deciding whether you need to scrounge around for something in particular.
You also have to monitor the needs of all the shelter’s inhabitants. The war does take its tolls, so apart from food and rest, your comrades could fall ill, or become depressed and essentially ‘broken.’ There are plenty of decisions to be made, but like any good game, This War of Mine doesn’t paint each decision in a black or white sort of way. After a while, you’ll stop thinking of decisions as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and more along the lines of ‘least damaging’ or ‘necessary.’
Nighttime doesn’t fare any better, as you’ll have to send out civilians to other nearby buildings, in an effort to salvage food, medicine and other valuable resources. This might sound simple enough, but there’s a careful balance to strike when it comes to both sending out scavengers and keeping some behind to stand guard over your own shelter.
Empty and vacated buildings might be safer, but often contain few resources, while occupied areas tend to contain more valuable materials, with citizens and potentially violent soldiers guarding them. If need be, you can always fight back against potential threats. You aren’t controlling trained soldiers though, but rather everyday civilians, so don’t expect to easily take out everybody with ease.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones might be similar in content to its PC counterpart, though it makes the transition to consoles quite well, even if the game handles better with a mouse or touch screen. Of course, the biggest addition comes in the form of the titular ‘little ones.’ Rather than solely taking control of adults, children are now thrown into the mix; an addition that I didn’t seem to notice during my playthrough of the PC version years ago, though one I wouldn’t want to play without now.
Unlike the adults that inhabit the shelter, children take on a different role during the day to day events. First and foremost, they are unable to go on scavenging missions at night, which I personally find an odd decision, seeing as how kids would have some distinct advantages (such as their small size and nimbleness) when it comes to sneaking around.
Seeing as how they are essentially cooped up in the same shelter day in and day out, they are mostly affected by events that transpire within the shelter, as opposed to things that occur on scouting missions at night. As one would expect, kids are more susceptible to hunger and illness than adults, which means you’ll have to keep a close eye on them to make sure they are physically and mentally healthy.
For the most part, the children can essentially operate on their own, with the game taking over their AI, allowing them to keep themselves occupied during the day. This frees up time for you to build a relationship with them, as each child has an appointed protector of sorts. These can range from a direct relative, to someone you appoint yourself should a child show up on the shelter on their own. A happy child can have a positive impact on the well-being of the shelter’s adults, and you can teach children to craft simple items and help out with the upkeep of the shelter.
Needless to say, the addition of children to the game not only adds more depth to the simulation and management aspects, but it helps in creating a more believable world, one that you actually have a vested interest in. My only complaint, though it’s a somewhat glaring one, is that children cannot die in-game.
Now, I understand that the death of children is a pretty touchy subject, and many developers might not feel comfortable tackling it head-on, but for a game that is solely based in wartime, it is a little disappointing to see the developers not fully embrace all the negative aspects of war, even if it might make for some uncomfortable moments. For those wondering, rather than having children die should they grow too hungry or too ill, they will simply abandon your shelter if their immediate needs aren’t being met. It’s not a complete cop-out, but it does ruin some of the emotional investment that the game does such a great job to cultivate.
Still, if you’re at all interested in games that are more eye-opening than entertaining, or you simply want to step outside of your comfort zone, than you shouldn’t hesitate to delve into This War of Mine: The Little Ones. Not unlike its contemporaries, This War of Mine is not about getting to the next level, or slaying a final boss. It’s a game that’s sole focus is about getting through one day, in the hopes of staying alive long enough to see the next one.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
It's depressing and filled with tough decisions to make, but This War of Mine: The Little Ones is one of those games that you simply have to play.