Inspired by the 1992 – 1996 Seige of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, This War of Mine is a bleak and desolate game. The entire thing is rendered pretty much entirely in a monochrome pencil drawing style, with only the minimum level of highlighting in place to show off things that you can select.
It sounds bland, but that's far from the case as in spite of the limited colour palette, it has bags of character. Plus, it almost has to be this bleak. Was this a game taking place on the front lines, you'd expect it to glamourize war with technicolor gunfire and glorious explosions in the way that Call of Duty and Battlefield do. But This War of Mine is about the people those types of games forget. In focus here are those who remain in the towns and cities, not involved in the fighting and just doing their best to stay alive. Holed up in a makeshift shelter, it's your job to take your little band of people and do your best to help them survive until there's a ceasefire. You'll build equipment such as stoves to allow them to prepare food, craft workbenches so that they can create barricades to fend off other desperate raiders, build heaters to stop the winter chill from making them ill (or killing them off entirely), and generally try to make the place as comfortable as possible so that they remain safe and don't lose hope.
Despite your best efforts, you won't be able to survive without going out foraging. When the clock strikes 8pm, you set up your tactics to survive the night, choosing someone to go out raiding (if you wish) whilst dictating what the remaining members get up to. Some will need to sleep – tiredness causes illness and depression – but you'll usually need at least one to remain on guard to protect your precious resources. When we use the word "precious" here, we absolutely mean it. Resources in This War of Mine are not even close to plentiful. Therefore, when you're out raiding, the goal will be to find whatever your group needs before the morning comes. You select a location from the map - which also shows how dangerous the area is and what sorts of things you can expect to find there – and are instantly transported to it. Food, medicine, weapons, and materials are needed in order to keep your team alive, but you can only carry so much and only get one trip per night. This means that there are often some rough decisions to be made. If your team can survive one more day without food, you'd have enough space to carry the parts needed to build that last barricade. But what about the person that's sick? Will they hold up if they don't get something to eat to go along with the medicine that you've found?
It feels a lot like you're constantly trying to keep plates spinning and that's no bad thing, since you're always engaged. Despite the relatively slow pace of proceedings, there's very little chance that you'll get bored, as the forks in the road are always there to keep you on your toes. A poorly thought-out management decision could very well lead to a chain reaction of events that turns your well-oiled machine into a spluttering mess, losing you a character. Sure, you can ignore the fact that Pavle's mental grip is slipping away, but hoping that he'll keep his sanity for one more day so that the other three members of the group can sleep or work on building things could cause him to become mentally broken. When that happens, you'll lose a character for most of the following day as you'll need them to spend time trying to talk your broken character back to reality. That could mean that the person doing the talking becomes too tired to guard the house at night while you head out raiding, which means that you could be attacked, with the robbers stealing all of your medicine, which means that another character could succumb to illness. It's a complex path that you have to walk and is utterly compelling for it.
Your night-time raids are fraught with danger, also. Some locations won't have anybody anywhere near them, so you can wander in and take what you want. However, the decent caches of supplies are usually heavily-guarded. Should the guards be open to it, you can trade things that you find, but you'll need to bring some serious bargaining power in order to get what you need. You probably won't be flush with diamonds, so you'll either need to get in and out unnoticed, or find a way of defending yourself. The sharpest of shooters will be at risk even if they're packing heat, and damage is carried over. You might win a gunfight with the three bullets that you've managed to scavenge, but the wound you received from taking a shot to the leg will need bandages and a deal of rest so that you don't bleed out two days later. Again, there's a tightrope to walk, and This War of Mine does a great job of pushing you into decisions that you really should know better than to make. If the situation at home really is that desperate and you can see one of your group isn't far from walking into the light, you'll be more likely to head out to a riskier area with the firepower that you have to hand, rather than waiting a day or two for your crew to craft more weapons or a piece of body armour that will give you more of a chance. There are moral choices to be made, as well. An elderly couple with food, medicine, and no means of defending themselves may be holed up in their home and as you wander in, you'll need to make a decision as to whether or not you listen to the pleas of the poor old man, knowing that he and his wife are in the same situation as you and that nobody will come to just hand them more supplies when day breaks. Don't pay them any heed and you may feed your crew for another day, but knowing that you've effectively served the victims a death sentence just by stealing all their medicine and eats will cause the attitudes of your team members to change. As we say, the smallest decision can have a knock-on effect. It all feels very real, at times.
There are a couple of niggling bugs that can crop up, which is a real shame when the game is as otherwise solid as it is. Interrupting the upgrade of a workbench can cause it to become entirely unusable for the rest of the game for example, which is a real annoyance since the resources you've put into creating it in the first place weren't easy to come by. These kinds of rare issues are very minor, it has to be said, but they do need to be mentioned when they have such a major effect on the way things play out. The conversation system is also a little strange. You can tell one character to talk to another - in order to raise morale - and they will, with the conversation playing out as a series of speech bubbles above their heads. After a while, these bubbles stop, but the characters carry on staring at each other, suggesting that they're still talking, but you're never quite sure if they are or not. Interrupt them at the wrong time, and the entire exercise will have been pointless and no morale boost will be applied. This aspect isn't particularly clear, but it's far from a game breaker.
We should also mention the suffix on the title. "The Little Ones" refers to the fact that there are a number of scenarios in the game where children turn up to be a part of your settlement. They aren't much use in terms of helping you to survive, with the main goal obviously being to protect them. It's another welcome layer of difficulty in what is already a tricky game. When you first load things up though, you'll be confused that the only option for play is listed as "Survive" and that you're thrown right into a game as soon as you select it. Win or lose, you can rest assured that it's after this first play that you unlock different scenarios to take on, as well as the ability to create an entirely custom game where you can name your team members and give them backstories from a selection, change the duration of the war, change the available locations, and so on. There's something very personal about naming your team after a group of your friends and trying to ensure that they survive. Poor Tyler. He never stood a chance, bless him. Not that Dave or Emma fared much better.
The ability to customize your game in this manner only adds to the feeling that you aren't really just playing a game. You're writing a story. Whether the ending will be a happy or a sad one is entirely up to you of course, but there's potential enough here for you to craft a masterpiece that will stay with you for a long time.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones is a fantastically atmospheric, emotional, and compelling game that constantly makes you doubt what you're doing, in a way that feels entirely natural as part of the experience. You have to weigh up every decision in order to keep your crew safe from harm and that coupled with the strong desire to play through just one more raid to see how things turn out, means that you're more than likely to get your money's worth here. Great stuff.