Video games and war are like chocolate cookies and milk. Ever since their original mix the combination has earned millions of faithful fans who enjoy the many different versions of that trope. Gamers have been offered a great variety of perspectives and capabilities. Do you want to be a super soldier? Check out FPS, the mass-produced genre of our times, and you’ll find yourself to be a more capable mass murderer than a whole army. Do you want to be a general? Well, there are a thousand titles that let you lead your troops, use diplomacy and manage every aspect of your (military) state. Even RPGs and action games often use war as their main theme or at least a plot device. There was, however, one point of view that was always mysteriously missing from the big picture. That gap is what This War of Mine wishes to fill; the war experience of a regular human being trapped amidst the chaos of conflict.
From Premise to Addiction
This War of Mine starts with a plus from the get-go; its main idea is quite original, a rare gift in today’s market. You start off as a character of your choice alongside two companions who are randomly selected from a pool of 12 characters. Your city lies is the epicenter of a civil war. Your group must survive in a broken down building until the declaration of ceasefire. During the day you try to build (or upgrade) workshops that will allow to create tools or improve your refuge’s defenses and living conditions, cook and rest. When the night falls a member of your team will go out to a location of your choice to gather necessary resources, while the others stay in and will either guard the house or sleep. Not only do you have to make sure that everyone has enough to eat, is healthy and rested but you also must try to keep them mentally stable.
The main objective of your day time is to balance the various factors that contribute to the group’s well-being. If it’s snowing then you’ll have to maintain the characters warm so that they won’t get sick but you can’t burn too much material because winter may be long. At the same time you have to see what workshops and tools are worthy of your investment, which can be trickier than it sounds. Is building that Herbal Garden you had your eyes on really a good idea considering how expensive it is? After all carrots take considerable time until they’ve grown. Perhaps you should invest in creating more weapons to improve your defense? After all, as time passes the nights become increasingly dangerous and your guards will need all the help you can give them.
Scavenging on the other hand focuses on patience and the player’s ability to make swift decisions. You must take your time and make sure you get familiar with the setting you’re into. Don’t try to rush your search and don’t give up when things when you face difficulty, which you most certainly will. One bad moment can ruin even the most productive run and then you’ll find yourself in quite a peril. After all, the future of a group who just lost a valuable member and is one day behind in resources doesn’t feel bright. This War of Mine‘s night part makes it an unforgiving game and I doubt you’ll be able to complete your first 2-3 tries without at least one death each time. Especially if you want to follow the “moral” route (no murder and stealing) things are going to be quite difficult. Everytime a new game begins the location and shape of each level changes, further complicating things.
The combination of strategy, stealth and exploration make value of this game extremely high, especially when one considers it’s quite reasonable price. To be honest I didn’t expect to get stuck for as many hours as I did (I’ve currently reached 17) and I have yet to get bored with this procedure.
No matter how well made the gameplay is, I believe This War of Mine‘s biggest virtue lies with its characters. There are 12 of them,  each one with their own personality, virtue and addiction . The right mix is essential to success. Unfortunately there’s an imbalance between each character. A good example is Arica’s skill to sneak quietly which didn’t turn out to be very useful due to her small inventory size while Zlata’s ability to boost up the group’s mentality or Marin’s craftmanship felt like gifts from God). However I never felt like complaining about this flaw. Why is that? Because the game strikes gold when it comes to creating a connection between the player and the characters. Reading each person’s back story, their thoughts on important events and having to listen to them when they are depressed made me care for them. Isn’t that how real life is after all? We’re not all equally skilled on everything but that doesn’t stop us from being human, from trying our best. And in our own way we’re valuable and contribute what we can. The fact that I did try as desperately as possible to prevent even the least valuable member from getting hurt goes to show on how well thought out and effective the game is.
But when it comes to emotional impact This War of Mine goes way beyond that. Be warned, there’s gonna be some spoilers here. After I beat the game once without killing any NPCs I decide to act bad, just to test the combat aspect of the game. I went to a bombed school that was filled with homeless weaponless people, except one who held a knife and acted as guard. I decided to leave the others alone but kill him so that he wouldn’t cause me trouble. However, once the murder was done, I realized that the rest of them fell down on the dead man’s body and started crying. I could see them say things like “Why? Why would you do that?”, “Oh my God, he is dead”, “That’s so cruel”. etc. I have “killed” endless amounts of pixellated characters and I never felt the least bit of sympathy for 99,9% of them. There’s nothing wrong with that, we’re talking about video games, pure fantasy. But the feeling of sorrow and guilt that took over me as I watched them cry over their friend’s corpse was real. I realized they were not all that different from my characters. Both groups were desperate to survive but, after their friend’s death and with their most valuable supplies stolen, these homeless people would probably not make it through the war. For the sake of my survival, I doomed them.
This War of Mine is full of similar situations including abuse, murder, rape and theft. That’s the main reason why I haven’t managed to play more than 17 hours even though it’s such a fantastic game. It acts as an emotional vampire. It’s depressing, just as it should be. This is the one title that I can’t call “just a game”. Do games make you reconsider decisions that were beneficial to your characters? Do they make you question your world view? Definitely not most of them. Playing This War of Mine makes me think of how much I take for granted, makes me question my own morality, to think how I’d act if I were ever to experience the sort of horror those people live in. I am certain most fans have similar thoughts, especially now with the war in Syria and the refugee crisis.
One Small Trash Among Diamonds
Visually the game is well done. It’s not up to triple A standards since we’re talking about an independent production but the environments are pretty detailed, even though at times they look blurry. This however works well with the game’s concept. After all, war is full of dirt and uncertainty. My biggest issue was with certain location where I was uncertain of whether I could access them or be seen by others -which can be quite a big deal at dangerous levels. The character’s movements look realistic and the locations are well organised. The music is minimalistic and fits the atmosphere perfectly. People who loved the soundtrack from The Last of Us will definitely find this to be another must have.
If there’s one obvious flaw in the game that’s the controls. Though at most times they work fine there are moments that your character doesn’t respond immediately to an order which, depending on the situation, can be from frustrating to downright fatal. Even worse, the battle system is clumsy. Even though it’s mostly made up of stealth kills (it’s not in your best interest to just go and start acting like Rambo) you’ll often find yourself exposed because you aimed for a different action than what you character performed. In such a polished product this is a flaw that could and should be fixed by now.
Unexplored Factors and Future Prospects
Are additions that I’d like to see in a sequel? Yes. Even though the game is already difficult it’d be interesting if there were bombings during some of the nights that would perhaps damage some of the house’s equipment, demolished part of its structure and wound or kill one or more of the members of the house. I think that’d give the player extra motivation to consider more carefully where they’d built each thing, especially the beds. Also, I believe it’d be interesting to mess even further with the characters’ chemistry. I.e. you may have a deeply religious person and someone who belongs in the LGBT community, or perhaps a racist and a person of color. Perhaps these would be characters that at first wouldn’t go well together, but depending on your actions they could reach an understanding and form tighter bonds. I am not sure how workable the concept would be but the idea felt interesting enough to share.
As I am writing this review 11bit studios, the creative team behind This War of Mine, are developing a new title called This War of Mine: The Little Ones. The basic premise is the same but this time around you’ll be controlling children instead of adults. I find the idea to be brilliant and I cannot wait to see the result.
This War of Mine is an amazing title that definitely deserves to be in the list of every gamer. Even though it has some annoying flaws they are easy to ignore for the most part because of other unique qualities. More so, it’s a title that has no competitor, being the only game that deals with such a difficult concept that way. I can only hope that 11bit studio understands what a gem they have created and further invest in it. The same goes for you, dear reader. If you love video games and are looking for something thought-provoking and challenging, this is the title for you. Just make sure you have some tissues nearby because you’re going to need them.
1 Some of them are hidden characters and can only be unlocked when you win the game, one at a time.
2 Things like smoking, coffee, etc.