I’m on my last can of food, my last bandage. Pavle, my trusty scavenger, is the only character I have left alive. Katia, a charismatic reporter, was shot to death trying to sneak through a thug guarded warehouse. Bruno, a brilliant cook that used to keep the groups spirits up, died last night in bed, ill and feverish. I get Pavle to eat the last of the food, and prepare for the night to come, bandaging the wound he gained during the last. He’s going to the warehouse Katia died in, my last ditch effort to get revenge. Pavle sneaks on through to the warehouse, knife in hand, and sneaks up behind the first thug, ending him as silently as the winter snow which falls around him. I take his shotgun, two bullets left, just as the thugs ally crashes through the door. It’s a close fight, but Pavle is the victor, free to take all their bandages and food. Another thug stumbles in as I loot, hunting my now badly wounded character. I panic and click to run, the thug fires blindly down the corridor, a miss. Pavle makes it back home with fresh bandages and several new cans of food, he lives to fight another day…
In a market flooded by games that glorify the horrors and violence of war comes This War of Mine, a unique and gritty take on the genre. Set in the war torn city of Pogoren, Graznavia, the player is put into the shoes of a group of relatively defenceless civilians, trapped in a city being ravaged by a bloody civil war. During the day – your characters craft, cook, build up your defences. At night, the same characters go out to scavenge, while some stay to defend the base or sleep.
You can choose from several locations to scavenge that slowly reveal themselves as the war drags on, some more dangerous than others. Several times I had to make tough decisions here, do I go and steal from the homeless down the street? Easy to do with a gun, but not exactly the nicest thing for my characters, and depending on who they are they might get depressed after doing it. Do I go for the heavily guarded thug warehouse? Difficult, but rewarding, and they deserve it, right? This War of Mine is full of these sorts of decisions, and as you progress through the game, with resources becoming more and more scarce, you’re forced to make them whether you want to or not.
As you upgrade your base, you can make more and more complex items with which to heal or defend yourself. You can make cigarettes or alcohol to trade, and trust me, trading is what you’re going to have to do if you want everyone to survive. The tough choices extend to what to bring with you on scavenging trips, do you need a shovel to get through rubble…a locking to open that cupboard you found earlier? Each character has very limited inventory space, taking that shovel and lockpick means you can bring back less useful materials, and Katia could really do with some more bandages, the wound is beginning to make her ill. It’s useful to plan what your group most needs next, metal for a cooking stove, wood to barricade the house more effectively, you can only bring back one or the other, and this is a large part of what helps create This War of Mine’s wonderfully tense atmosphere.
Each section of the game has it’s own tension build up, there’s no break, even when you get back from a night of scavenging, why? Well, that’s when you find out if you’ve been raided, and all of your food stolen. It’s this unending tension that really makes the game as good as it is, in the early stages of the game.
The major issue that I found was this tends not to continue throughout. Once the player has built up their base, has a steady flow of food and water, a good source of heat for the winter, much of this tension wears off. During my more successful playthroughs I found myself skipping entire days, I just didn’t need to get any more materials, I had no worries, my base was as well defended and supplied as it could possibly be. If there was still some kind of threat to deal with (that isn’t infuriatingly impossible if you’re struggling), the boredom I sometimes felt towards the end of the war would likely be a little less common. This, along with a lack of item variation I felt during replays, are the main flaws of This War of Mine.
A main portion of This War of Mine’s strength comes from the ambience it creates, the music a sonorous melody that drags the listener along and into the struggling city’s woes. It’s graphics have a wonderfully pencil-like feel (which can be turned off for those that don’t like it), really adding to the feeling of being in one of the characters stories. Each of these characters have a bio, a goal, and this updates as the war goes on and they experience it’s horrors and moments of joy. Help a kid by giving them a bandage? Your characters will remember that, and respond depending on what they’re like. Once the war is finished, if you survive, you’re given a timeline of events, and you’re told what each character ends up doing, a great way of wrapping up what you’ve just been through.
This War of Mine is a terrifically good simulation of what life would be like as a civilian trapped in a war. Its music and aesthetics really bring together the tense situations you get your characters into, and at every turn you’re left wondering if that was the best decision…or if you’ll pay for it tomorrow. War isn’t pretty, and This War of Mine is the best attempt at showing this I’ve seen in a long time. That said, the game suffers from replayability issues, and can start dragging if your characters end up too comfortable, to the point you start skipping days. In summary, This War of Mine is worth a pick up if you enjoy strategy or survival, just don’t expect to murder the homeless and take their beans without a healthy dose of karma.