Good old German philosopher Fred Neitzsche got it right when he once spouted: “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” This War of Mine is like that. You see, this is a game all about survival set against the backdrop of civil war; the rub here though is that rather than playing as Soldier McShooty Face, you’re playing as a group of civilians who must scavenge for food and supplies all the while strengthening their home and protecting one another often at the expense of others who are trying to do the same.
Beginning with three survivors in a shelled out building, This War of Mine immediately disarms the player expecting to see something a little more militaristic. Played from a two-dimensional, side-scrolling perspective, the first thing you’ll want to be doing is gutting the building to find anything of use, ranging from wood and scraps of metal that can be fashioned into something more useful, such as a workbench, through to abandoned portions of food and, if you’re lucky, discarded medication and bandages for when illness and injury invariably kicks in.
Straight away this is marked and most welcome departure from the war game status quo; rather than looking for a new, shiny firearm with which to shred skulls with, or a cache of ammo to continue your murderous momentum unimpeded, you instead find yourself digging through the dirt for such basic considerations that, quite unlike ever before, are now absolutely crucial to your survival.
The previously mentioned workbench opens up a veritable smorgasbord of possibilities for aiding in your survival. Wood can be used to construct beds or armchairs to rest the weary and sick, metal and electrical parts can be combined to create a stove to cook properly filling meals, while makeshift fireplaces can be used to keep your group warm while the perpetually poor weather swirls around the building. In addition to such creature comforts, other such items that can be constructed include wood planks which can be used to barricade the holes in the building, thus making it more secure, or even a radio to keep you in-tune with the state of the war and where the fighting might spread to next.
While such fundamental concerns as hunger, thirst and warmth must be addressed, so too must the notion of morale since the happiness of your survivors can directly affect how they behave to each other as well as their day-to-day performance. Survivors who are depressed or sad will take longer to perform actions, while those who have been psychologically destroyed by the unfolding events will often sit in one place, broken, staring out into space and unable to perform even the simplest of tasks. Alleviating such potentially catastrophic emotional states proves to be easier said than done too. Since in the seemingly everlasting hell of war, while such things as books, tobacco and even alcohol exist to lighten the mood, you must be careful that these don’t negatively impinge on your attempts to survive overall.
Taking the use of alcohol as an example, after a scavenging run went tragically wrong (less so for my household than for someone else’s), morale took a quick, steep dive into the ground and so naturally I thought a nice bit of moonshine would go some way to making everyone loosen up a bit. Somewhat predictably then, the result was that everybody, though made temporarily happy, became a little too ‘loose’ (read massively inebriated) and not only failed to answer the door when somebody came around to potentially trade some life-changing supplies but also suffered from a hangover the following day, thus making them even more useless than they were previously.
Really, the fact that I essentially turned my shelter into an eastern European frat house, is just one of the many ways in which This War of Mine excels as it allows the player such a sizable amount of freedom in how they manage their survivors. Speaking of the survivors themselves, it’s important to note that these people aren’t just blank faces either; rather, they each possess unique personality traits, abilities and can cope with the hardships of war in vastly different ways. Some individuals might have certain skills that make them better in certain roles too – Bruno, for instance, used to be a television chef and so is proficient in cooking and thusly produces better meals with fewer raw materials, while former local football star Pavle can run much faster than the other survivors and is useful on scavenging runs as a result.
In case you’re wondering where The Little Ones suffix in the PS4 edition of the game comes into play, it predictably manifests itself in the orphaned children that crop up throughout the game’s duration. More so than the adults in This War of Mine, the children require special care and as such, one adult must be assigned to them as a guardian to both protect them and comfort them; this once again taps into the game’s superb behavioural systems as some kids will prefer some adults as guardians, even going so far as to totally ignore or freak out if another adult attempts to assume stewardship. Kids being kids, they also have to be entertained and this can be in the form of teddy bears scavenged from elsewhere, chalk to allow them to doodle on the walls, a constructed rope swing and many more things besides.
If just the charming innocence that the children bring to the table isn’t enough to warm your heart, there is also a real benefit to having the children around as certain characters will be relentlessly cheered when in the presence, thus improving their productivity and making the survivor unit more emotionally stable as a whole. While it’s all well and good to spend time playing with the children and keeping them happy, such activities take time out of your other responsibilities and so must be carefully balanced against the needs of the group as well as any other situations that might arise.
Away from the compelling management of day-to-day survival, This War of Mine switches up a gear when the scavenger raids kick off, thrusting its vaunted decision-making dynamic into the forefront of the experience in the process. Prior to these scavenger runs kicking off you have to nominate who you want to go on these runs (you can only choose one survivor) and who you want to stay behind, specifying guarding or sleeping roles for those who remain at home. Once you have a scavenger in mind, you must then choose from a variety of different locations in the war torn district, with each area boasting different amounts of food, tools and items which can be looted in addition to potential dangers and even other looters who might want to trade should you bump into one another mid-looting. Thusly, a bespoke risk/reward dynamic kicks in pretty much right away.
Once the scavenger phase begins at night (always starting from 20:00 hours onwards on each day), you have a limited amount of time to collect as much as you can before heading back. Again, subtle management elements creep in here as you’re forced to ration your desperately finite backpack space; do you leave a weapon at home to allow you to loot more essential materials such as wood and metal, or, do you bring some valuable along with you in the hope of finding someone who would be up for a trade? The breadth and scope for managing these runs is, much like the rest of the game, pleasingly sophisticated without ever feeling overly complex or overwrought.
Aside from the obvious resource benefits that these runs bring, they also keep the experience fresh by making you play the game differently. A raid on a building being picked apart by local militiamen for example turns the game into a more stealthy affair; forcing you to creep around slowly, peer through keyholes and hide in doorways in order to evade the much better equipped and more numerous hostile forces that wander the place. What really defines This War of Mine though, beyond its impressive menagerie of base building tools and sophisticated relationship dynamics, is the frankly staggering scope for non-binary decision making that it permits and it’s during the scavenger runs that it properly manifests itself.
Simply put, every decision you make will result in some degree of suffering and it falls to you to choose the lesser of each evil every time. Do you intervene when you see a heavily armed soldier assaulting a woman, knowing that the chance of success is slim and could potentially result in your death with your survivors paying both the emotional and physical cost? How about during desperate times when food and essential supplies are scarce, do you kill a son and his disabled father to get at their plentiful hoard? This is a game that sticks the emotional knife in and twists until the handle breaks off in your gut and it’s gloriously, ruthlessly entertaining.
Technically speaking, This War of Mine arrives on PS4 in fine form, boasting the same buttery smooth animation and sketchy visual style that made the original PC and mobile versions of the game stand out so well. Adding further longevity to the package too, is the scenario creator that permits players to alter the smallest parameters of the experience and thus forge a survival experience exactly to their liking. Make no mistake; This War of Mine has legs, substantial legs beyond an initial playthrough.
Where things have been changed though, is in the control system and while it’s still eminently playable, it’s not as intuitive as it used to be. You see, players must now select a character and move them using the analogue stick whereas in the PC and mobile versions respectively, mouse cursors and touch gestures allowed players to set multiple characters to task at one time rather than just a single individual. As such, it would have been nice to be able to alternate between the two systems but as it currently stands, such the lack of such flexibility stands as a minor, yet frustrating omission.
Taut, sophisticated and mature, This War of Mine: The Little Ones is not just a triumph of introspective exploration and overcoming Neitzschean dilemmas, it also happens to be the freshest take on war we’ve ever seen on PlayStation and a rip-roaring early Game of the Year contender that deserves to be a hot topic for years to come.