We went into This War of Mine knowing only that it’s a survival game putting children at its forefront. This ignorance was partly our own doing, as we didn’t pay a great deal of attention to it prior to release. We aren’t entirely to blame though, as publisher Deep Silver hasn’t exactly been shouting about it from the rooftops either.
Turns out we should have known what we were in for all along – it’s a very similar experience to Team17’s current early access survival game Sheltered, only set during a raging Eastern European war instead of after a global apocalypse. The tone is a lot darker too, with some very heavy themes present including suicide and violence against children. These two subjects in particular are handled in a very sensitive and careful manner, intended to educate on the lesser reported consequences of war. The result is something of an emotional rollercoaster – those who find themselves becoming attached to their characters in The Sims need not apply.
Initially, This War of Mine presents you with a pre-scripted campaign with an increasingly challenging difficulty level. You’re bestowed control over a group of war survivors who have settled in one of the few houses still standing. An orphan child then joins the group shortly after the basics have been mastered, making the promise that they won’t eat much or cause too much trouble. Fail to keep them safe and content and only the former will prove to be true; it only takes one unfortunate event turn a child’s tears of laughter to tears of sadness.
Resource management is at the game’s core, with a focus on making sure there are enough supplies – food, weapons, medicine, and crafting materials – to make it through to a proposed ceasefire. Each member of the household can be given one task at a time, and their needs have to be kept an eye on such as hunger, tiredness and any signs of potential illness. Generally, the person who went out scavenging the night before should rest up during the day while the others gather rainwater, cook food and make improvements to the house. Daytimes can drag once the daily chores have been carried out. Fortunately, the option is there to skip ahead to nightfall.
It’s only under the cover of darkness that it’s safe to venture outside. Only one survivor can leave the house at night, and only a single location can be explored. The remaining survivors meanwhile can either sleep or stay on guard. Protecting the house at night is vital, or else it’ll become an easy target for raiders. This is especially the case if you’re lacking weapons. Kitchen knives will only keep the group safe for so long, and so it’s wise to invest in firearms sooner rather than later. Some raiders will only take a few items; others will maim and hurt members of the group, children included. As resources become scarcer, raider attacks become more frequent. Prevention is better than cure.
Over time more scavenging locations open up, varying from a small church to a multi-floored hospital. The map screen provides a brief yet informative description of each, reporting of any potential danger or the need to take a shovel or saw blade along.
Certain locations are eerily quiet, save for scurrying rats, and have plenty of crafting materials. Too many to carry in one trip, no less – you’ll find yourself returning to some scavenging sites several times until they’re entirely cleared out. Other locations however are occupied by fellow survivors, looters or the army. Not all are in a hospitable mood, with the looters in particular intolerant to your presence. Make too much noise when rummaging around and they’ll learn of your location, either giving chase or opening fire. It’s possible to attack – either maliciously or in defense – but this of course puts your survivor at risk. Stealing supplies is also an option and likewise bares moral consequences.
Trading plays another big part. If short on food or medical supplies, you may be able to exchange surplus supplies with folk encountered while scavenging or with neighbours. Neighbours stop by at the house randomly, looking to trade or occasionally proposing a one-off scavenging run. The bartering system is a little unrefined (it was clearly made with mouse controls in mind) but is sufficient enough, allowing you sneak in an extra cigarette (or such) on top of the items you’ve already requested to trade.
It’s a good idea to set-up a moonshine crafting table as soon as possible, as homemade hooch has decent bartering value. Once enough resources have been gathered and the crafting stations have been upgraded it’s possible to become a little more self-sufficient by growing vegetables and catching small animals. Children can be taught to use crafting stations too, allowing the adults to rest up or focus attention elsewhere.
This brings us onto the learning curve. Mistakes will be made during the first playthrough, and lots of them. Some oversights may even lead to a survivor’s demise, impacting the whole of the group. In fact, chances of making it out alive on your first attempt are incredibly slim – one shot at survival is all you get. Once enduring the pre-scripted campaign though, it’s possible to create your own story. Here, you’re able to select which survivors to start off with, choose levels of difficulty – including the likelihood of falling ill – and also pre-determine the scavenging locations and their amount of resources. The amount of days to survive can also be reduced from 50 to 20. One day lasts around 10 minutes, incidentally – it all depends how much time is spent scavenging and bartering for better trades.
Reducing the difficulty level makes for a much more forgiving experience – we managed to survive for 20 days without any major concerns, save for temporarily running out firewood when winter arrived.
We’d argue though that playing the game on its easiest difficulty setting isn’t how it’s meant to be experienced. The developers intended This War of Mine to show the hardships that war survivors must go through, such as hunger, illness and even death. Due to subject matter alone, this isn’t a game for everybody. There will be times when you’re forced to choose who eats or goes hungry, or have no choice to put an already tired housemate on guard duty.
Then there’s the small matter of the children. They don’t fully understand what’s going on around them, and as such can become easily traumatised. Returning home from a scavenging run to be presented with a child’s drawing, depicting raiders attacking at night, was a genuinely harrowing experience. Indeed, this is one of those rare experiences you’ll find yourself thinking about long after you’ve put down the joypad. When the epilogue rolled, we too felt we’d just survived something horrific.
Some may also find it a little slow, or wish that combat played a slightly bigger part. For the record, we were perfectly content playing without resorting to violence, safe in the knowledge that we could have tried to storm the city’s army outpost or raider hideouts if we really wanted. For the dumb and brave, the opportunity is at least there.