Whilst foraging in an abandoned supermarket for supplies (food, meds, materials…..anything that wasn’t nailed down that could help), Marko could hear voices in the next room. A man was offering goods to a young woman in exchange for sex. She politely declined, and the response was violent. Just as he got up to strike her, Marko leapt into the room and distracted the solider, allowing the woman to escape. Marko was then promptly shot dead.
Bruno decided to head to the same house that Pavle, the other survivor that they’d been sharing a house with had returned from without any goods a few days previously. Pavle had stumbled across an old married couple when he went on a scavenging run, and the husband begged him not to hurt his ill wife. Pavle left them unhurt. Bruno, though, had no choice; food supplies were low, Pavle had fallen ill and other nearby locations carried significantly heavier risk, so he beat the old man, and raided the house. The wife escaped, but God knows where she went.
Most days, Bruno and Pavle have a conversation about persevering, despite their decaying spirits. The house gets raided by bandits every few days, they haven’t been able to get any defences together to protect themselves and food is scarce.
These moments are scattered throughout the first few hours of This War of Mine, and even now, several days later, typing this review up without my console switched on, these events dominate all thinking on the game itself. It’s unlike any I’ve played before; a sidescroller that’s equal parts construction and stealth set in a war-torn city in a deliberately unspecified country. During the day, your characters are confined to the house due to local snipers. They need to eat, build beds and make their rubble-strewn accommodations as suitable for habitation as possible, then at night, you have to send one of your party out to scavenge and let the others either rest or stand guard over your resources.
It’s a bleak, unfriendly and frequently brutal experience. Each night, you’re allowed to raid one location of your choosing from your world map, with information offered on available resources and probable danger offered at each site in order to help you decide who’d be best suited to that evening’s raid. Do you raid that hospital and steal precious medicine from patients that desperately need it? Do you risk sneaking into that army base for the weapons or do you take the path of less resistance and continue to pick the carcass of the library you raided a few days ago?
The consequences for an unsuccessful night’s work can be dire; your characters need food, medical supplies, sleep and weapons to defend themselves should any opportunistic locals come knocking. If they don’t get them, then they can become sick and depressed very quickly, with no amount of tough-love conversations enough to fully disperse the understandably bleak fog enveloping your environment if things don’t go to plan.
More than any game I’ve played with war as its central theme, This War of Mine does an excellent job of focussing on those displaced by war, and the consequences it has along with the horrific toll it takes on the people caught in the middle. There is no great focus on the why of it all; there is simply a war going on, and your task is to survive it.
It presents morality or this sense of ‘doing the right thing’ in stark, brutal terms, perhaps in a more affecting fashion than most games that feature a moral choice mechanic at their core. Take Marko’s death, for instance; if I didn’t have him charge in on that scene, it’s likely that the young woman I mentioned would’ve been raped, but if Marko had stayed back, then he would’ve survived, perhaps have been able to scrounge a few vital materials and helped his friends. What sort of choice is that to make? You have to weigh up morally reprehensible and despicable acts up in your mind constantly, figure out what you can gain from certain situations and make the choice yourself if your own survival is really worth it in the face of someone else’s potential suffering.
The addition of children into the mix for this PS4 version adds another layer of stress onto an already uber-stressful situation, but it’s not without merit. There are pangs that come with leaving any little one behind when night rolls around, and when supplies are stretched, they’re another mouth to feed but interacting with them makes the events of this experience hit home even harder. Not only that, but it imbibes the characters with a greater sense of purpose, which, given the circumstances, is hugely welcome.
Be left under no illusion as to what you’re getting here; This War of Mine is a dark and powerful experience that doesn’t pull a single punch in its depiction of what the brutality of war can do to the people who aren’t fighting it. Its gameplay loop is established early on and it doesn’t add much or stray too far from it, but it’s still a deeply moving, powerful and absorbing experience.
Midlife Gamer Rating: 8/10 Format: PlayStation 4 / Xbox One / PC Release Date: Out Now
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided with a copy of This War of Mine: The Little Ones for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.