This War of Mine (Video Game Review)



A rare game about war that aims to focus on the forgotten civilian element – the starving huddles of people left hiding in the rubble-strewn streets, struggling to survive – This War of Mine takes the now ubiquitous craft-and-survival gameplay so popular in the indie genre and adds in a sobering human element. Bringing the the desperation of survival to the fore, it’s a game that constantly tests the limits of what you’re willing to do to keep yourself and your people alive.

You start out with a small group of random civilians holed up in a run-down building as war wages on in the wider cities. It’s shabby and not the safest of hideouts, but you’re given enough raw resources to loot in the house to give you a fighting chance on your first night – clicking on a survivor and then on a pile of rubble or cupboard will set them to work sorting the useful materials from the junk. Once you’ve built a bed and stove and boarded up a window or two, you’re going to have to venture outdoors for more supplies if you want to make it more than another day or two. Like most craft-centric survival games, This War of Mine operates on a day/night cycle: Soldiers patrol by day, leaving the bright streets off-limits, so you’ll use that time to reinforce your hideout in any way you can and getting your survivors fed and rested for the harsh night to come.
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In a vague mash-up of Cart Life, The Sims and craft-’n'-survive games like Don’t Starve, the members of your group all have various meters to keep topped up. Your survivors can easily get tired, hungry, cold, sick, injured and depressed, leaving you to juggle your skimpy supply of resources to make sure everyone keeps ticking over from day to day. But there’ll never usually be enough beds, food and medicine to go around, especially early in the game, so you’ll have to work out who’s most useful to you and start to prioritise.

There’s a lot to juggle, and you’ll need to monitor your group’s physical and mental well-being while planning your supply runs to keep everyone alive and fed while bringing back enough materials to reinforce your shabby crib. Everyone needs sleep and food, while any wounds picked up while scavenging will need treating with bandages. You’ll need to keep your best scavenger fed and rested during the day, which might deprive others of food and sleep, especially those on guard at night. If things get cold, you’ll need to set side extra kindling to keep a heater going. If the temperature dwindles for too long, people can start getting sick, which means more medication runs and a survivor waylaid with bed rest. Those mechanics and management juggling quickly start to force you into making simple trade-offs that quickly snowball into harsh decisions.
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At night, you’ll pick just one of your group to gear up and venture out to hunt for supplies while the rest hang back to either guard your camp from intruders or get a good night’s sleep. Too few people on guard and your scavenger will return to find the camp looted, precious supplies stolen and other survivors injured in the process. As you prep for your scavenging runs, you’ll be given a map with a list of locations, the supplies you’ll find there (whether it’s food, raw materials to upgrade and reinforce your home, weapons or valuable medical supplies) and the dangers involved (a place with valuable supplies will likely be well guarded by deadly thugs.) Some folks might be happy to share whatever’s around, some strike up uneasy trade with you, but others might be all too willing to kill and loot those they bump into.

When you get to another area, the game adopts a couple of extra genre layers as the Deadlight/Mark of the Ninja-esque 2.5D side-scrolling presentation places more emphasis on stealth-based gameplay and – if necessary – combat. Sneaking up to doors gives you the option to peek through, lighting up a cone of vision as what you can see in the next room is revealed. Shadowy alcoves in rooms give you a spot to hide in, but they’re few and far between. The footsteps of other people echo in other rooms to give away their position, but it’s a two-way street as digging through rubble or prying open doors will bring everyone right to you. Night-time scavenging runs are a tense, thrilling, but often uncomfortably violent affair depending on what unfolds.
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Despite the marketing focus and the sombre opening quote from Hemingway, the wartime setup for This War of Mine doesn’t really go much deeper than that. Swap out a sentence or two in the very scant character bios and it’s a game could easily take place in any apocalyptic survivor scenario, but it does commendably focus on the harsh moral decisions that come with desperate situations. When your people are sick and starving to death, breaking into the house of a defenseless old couple to steal food and medicine is a scarily tempting alternative to trying to loot a well-armed camp of trained soldiers. And when the militia comes a-knocking to get you to rat out the people who stole an aid supply drop (raided rations that the neighbours were kind enough to share with your needy group), the precious cans of food being offered as a reward are all too hard to turn down, despite knowing that the people you’re selling out will meet a horrible fate.

11 Bit Games leave the murky, uncomfortable decisions up to you and it’s when it starts forcing those choices on you that This War is Mine excels. It’s scary how stealthy supply runs can quickly go horribly wrong and the already tense stealth sections become even more effective when those split-second, fight-or-flight choices come into play. Stumble into a room, knowing you’re about to be spotted creeping around in someone’s home, the choice whether to run away empty-handed to a group of survivors with no food or medicine or attack and kill the innocent civilian before they alert the rest of the family and loot whatever you can is a decision you’ll only have a few heart-pounding seconds to ponder. Your unpleasant actions won’t just leave you with an uncomfortable icky feeling as a player, they’ll reverberate through your camp, too. Save a girl from being raped by militia or help a wounded man rescue his baby and your survivors will feel content, knowing they helped do the right thing in a horrifying situation. Steal from the innocent or kill someone while scavenging and it’ll weigh on the group’s morale, eventually leading to them committing suicide if the blood on their hands starts to build up.
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It’s the same hideout every time, but how tough a lot you’re given is dependent entirely on that first metaphorical dice roll as you’re given random characters and conditions. You could be facing winter blizzards instead of comfortable temperatures, meaning much more of your raw materials will be spent on stoking the fires to keep everyone from getting sick. You might have four survivors instead of three – great for keeping a safer guard at night, but that extra mouth to feed won’t make things easy if food gets scarce. Each character has a unique personality trait which makes them either a godsend or a burden on the group and while everyone can perform the same tasks, those with skills do so much quicker and more efficiently. Having a skilled cook to get more mileage out of simple ingredients, a skilled scavenger with a big backpack or a talented handyman will see you in better stead when raiding for supplies and surviving harsh conditions than having a relatively useless lawyer or a teacher in the group.

The random nature of your group and their circumstances makes for plenty of replay value, which is handy since This War of Mine is one of the most addictive and engrossing survival-based games out there. It’d be great if there were more variety in terms of locations or at least what you’ll encounter there, though. Once you’ve played through a couple of times, you’ll know how every tense vignette plays out, while there’s never any danger from the shifty folks who knock at your door asking for supplies or to borrow a member of your group for the night to help them defend their camp – you’ll always be rewarded for it, it’s just whether you’re willing to cope with short term loss for eventual gain. Having possible danger inherent in those encounters or being able to the option to take the home court advantage and rob traders who come to your door would add an extra wrinkle or two and further drive home the inevitible potential for desperate, morally murky player choice felt elsewhere in the game.
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The extent of the game’s dice-rolling randomisation proves slightly irksome when it comes to saving your progress. There are no hard save files – once you’re finished playing, you can jump out and your progress will be recorded for next time, but once you pick the game up again, that save is wiped and a new one will be made if you quit, and so on. That idea alone is a fair balance between allowing you to safely walk away from what can be a lengthy game while still enforcing the serious ‘for keeps’ survival stakes. Unfortunately, it only logs your progress up until the morning of your current day rather than recording everything. If you have a new survivor join your group who’s a skilled scavenger or has some similarly priceless ability, picking up after a save sees the day reset and a different, randomised survivor knock at your door who will likely have a much more useless core skill.

The game introduces you to its mechanics and ideas in a ‘throw you in at the deep end’ fashion, with no tutorials or handy explanations. For the most part, you’ll be able to pick it all up rather quickly, especially if you’ve spent time with any other craft-’n'-survive-’em-up game. Still, there are some elements that aren’t as transparent as they could be. The benefits of some characters’ unique traits are either overtly stated or self-explanatory (skilled sneakers fare better during stealth sections, fast runners can haul ass through a building quicker if things hit the fan) but others aren’t clear. Obviously a mathematician or lawyer obviously won’t be nearly as useful as your trained weapons expert, but it’s not clear if they do have some advantage in certain situations. And for all the lip service paid to the importance of the human, civilian element in war, the game does very little to flesh out or really delineate its stable of characters out beyond brief bios. As a result, you’ll see everyone less as a person and more as a commodity depending on the value of their skill-set.

Still, even with the small room for improvement, I found myself coming back to This War of Mine more than almost any other craft-’n'-survive game out there. The uncomfortable moral quandaries that quickly amass do wonders to give the engrossing, strategic gameplay that much more weight. A game this bleak shouldn’t be this addictive, yet This War of Mine is exactly that, giving players a rewarding, incredibly replayable game that you won’t soon forget.

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This War of Mine is available now on PC.