Notice: Trigger Warning: This review is of a game that depicts surviving in a warzone. There are a number of not-friendly topics ranging from murder, suicide, robbery, and rape.
While I am not a fan of giving trigger warnings, this game has a number of things that make friends of mine cringe, and I am relaying that to you before we begin with this review.
Disclosure: This review was written using a press copy of the game.
When This War of Mine popped up in my newsfeed last year, I was intrigued. This looked like it took that tired trope of playing a war game and turned it into a survival management sim in which you aren’t going to see a happy ending.
A part of me wanted to play it just to prove that I could make it work, but a twisted part of me wanted to play it and get a better understanding of what actually happens in these things, what people have done to survive, and what a few of my friends (a number of whom were in the former Soviet Bloc) may have had to live through.
The game is set during the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War (spanning from 1992 to 1996); I was in grade school at the time, and knew nothing about this outside of a “War in Bosnia” being referenced.
Between wanting a challenge and the curiosity that was stirring within me, I turned on This War of Mine and attempted to survive in a war torn area.
Note: This review is written for the PC version of the game. Playing other versions may yield different results.
This War of Mine was designed with the idea of showing a different side of a war game. While we see some “historic fiction” when it comes to wars (look at Medal of Honor, for example), we always see it through the eyes of some unknown, unnamed, white, male soldier, who is the only hope to win the war due to being an unstoppable killing machine.
Instead, we get a survival/management game that has you controlling a number of civilians who are trying to survive in a war-torn area, not unlike the urban zones you leave behind in an FPS.
In this game, you meet a number of survivors and help them do that: survive. Snipers hang out during the day, keeping you inside your hovel to rest and craft items, while you can sneak out at night for supplies.
The game is based off of a number of interviews, articles, and stories of those who survived the event, and the developers created the game to tell these stories in a way that would resonate with people.
So how does it stack up?
Normally, this is a “What You Get” when I write a review, but this isn’t a game you can quantify with a “What You Get.” You need to talk about the experience. You’ll be playing a game that will tear at your heartstrings at least once, possibly frustrate you on a few occasions, and surely leave you a bit shocked.
I started the game with three survivors, one of them sick. It’s the goal to keep them alive as long as possible to get to the end of the war (I’m hearing it’s 40~ish days from other reviews I read when the game first came out).
As you play, you’ll realize that the artistic aesthetic is fitting for the topic: charcoal greys with splashes of color. Like the topic within the title, this is not a happy game, but rather a dismal tale of desperation. This isn’t the same desperation you’d get in a game like Silent Hill where you hope you’ll find ammunition, but rather the desperation of living another day.
The game really show the depressing life that one would lead as a civilian in a warzone in a way that’s easier to digest and something that is relateable. You don’t have weapons or armor. In fact, you don’t even have food or water to start with. The things we take for granted in society, like running water or home security, are nonexistent in this.
In fact, you spend your days locked up in your house due to snipers outside, and your nights are spent scavenging, hoping you don’t get killed in the process.
You’ll get frustrated, but not because of the gameplay, but rather that you can’t do everything or save everyone. Your characters will go hungry, or go without sleep for long periods of time. They will get sick, robbed, witness rape, and have to deal with the horrors of war.
One wrong mistake, and your character is dead. There are no resurrections, no level-ups, and no do-overs. The game does an autosave and the start of each Day, so if you screwed up, you’ll have to live with it.
Playing this game is akin to taking the challenge of Dark Souls with permadeath, near-constant paranoia, and lots of holding your breath as your character hides, hoping to not be found.
As you progress, survivors will come to you asking for help, asking to barter, or even asking to join. I’m always torn when someone asks to join, because it means one more mouth to feed when supplies are already scarce and I’m barely keeping my own survivors fed.
You’ll also have to work hard to build things at home to keep everyone safe and healthy. This includes rainwater collection, making a woodburning heater (and hoping you have enough fuel), or even building a radio to learn of what’s happening and to raise spirits.
Simply put, it’s beautiful and frightening, and not necessarily easy to describe what you get when you buy this game. It’s everything it advertises and more. It’s not quite rogue-like, but rather a slightly random, progressive survival sim.
The game offers exactly what it advertises. That part alone is impressive, because the description felt like a bit of a tall order to fill.
One quick part I wanted to mention is the sheer number of languages that are available in this game. Normally we are lucky to see three languages, but there’s so many more here.
The writing is well done. Every character gets a short bio, often making them feel like real people.
As the game progresses, you’ll get expansions to the Bio, especially when a character dies or does something drastic.
The developers even added a deeper level of writing that doesn’t stop with the characters your find. In fact, you’ll find notes written for someone else, giving you hints about items you can find.
Everything has a purpose, and you can’t have it all. Like Fallout, almost every item can be used in some way, but unlike Fallout, you are severely limited in what you can carry. You can only carry 2-4 of an item in each item slot, and your first characters have 10-12 slots each. You need to weigh the value every item you bring home before you fill your pack.
Really, I think the greatest part of the game is the gritty realism. You not only have limits on what you can carry and a need for food, water, and sleep (so hardcore mode Fallout players will love this), but you’ll also have visibility restrictions.
On one night, I had a character break into a house for supplies. When there are residents, some areas are marked as “private property,” and stealing from these areas will leave your scavenger feeling depressed, which impacts their ability to do anything until they talk it out with a fellow survivor. . .which isn’t always going to work.
The game also has an immense amount of replay value. I’ve read that your starting survivors are random, and depending on the survivors depends on when events take place (or at least can begin). This adds a large number of replays available to this game, meaning if you can handle it, you can play it many times.
One thing that will turn some people off IS that gritty realism that makes this game so great. Characters die easily, and there will ALWAYS be a problem: you’ll always be low on food, low on water, someone will be injured, you can’t trade for what you need because you barely have enough, etc.
As the game has an autosave (and no other save option), there are no re-dos, so if you like to save before you continue, you’ll be at a loss here.
I did have an issue with that very situation, though. I was snapping screenshots during a scavenging run and the game crashed, making me lose the entire day’s progress (which was substantial due to trades and building). Nothing too major, but I lost some time and things didn’t pan out as well as I had hoped afterward.
I guess you can say: if you don’t want the challenge or the heartache, or have a number of triggers you can’t face (suicide, rape, assault, theft, etc), this game is a bad one to play.
Honestly, I think everyone should play this game, even if only to grasp the idea of what some people have gone through (and what some people are going through as your are reading this). It’s an important history lesson, an important lesson on sociology, and an even more important lesson on the extremes of human nature.
If you enjoy management sims, strategy, stealth, and a game with massive layers of challenge, this game is perfect for you.
If you can’t handle the subject matter, like the idea of “winning” easily, and hate the above game genres, give this a pass, but consider it for what it is projecting anyway. You’ll be surprised at what you learn about yourself and about life.
This War of Mine was made by 11bit Studios and can be purchased on your computer via Steam (Windows, Mac, and Linux), on your Android or Apple smartphone/tablet, and has a projected release on the XBox One and the PS4 in January 2016.
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