‘This War of Mine’ (2015) review: A Pyrrhic victory

Prepare for small miracles and devastating tragedy in ‘This War of Mine’

It’s not enough for “This War of Mine” to drop you unceremoniously into a war-torn city. It’s not enough that you’re basically left to scrap out a meager existence, rummaging though disaster sites just so you have enough food to eat to prevent outright starvation. It’s not even enough that you can’t go alone in this nightmare-inducing world; there’s always others you’re responsible for, using your supplies and demanding your time and attention.

No, what hurts most is when you’ve finally established some semblance of normality after weeks in-game, when everyone in the group has a role and you’ve managed to keep everyone fed and generally healthy, only for your fragile little world to be crushed in a single night.

Such is the power of 11 bit studios’ devastating “This War of Mine.” What technically serves as a craft-and-survive simulator finds a new niche with its simple yet effective portrayal of the hell that is war. Shown through the eyes of civilian survivors rather than soldiers on the front lines, your goal is simple yet increasingly unlikely: survival by whatever means necessary. And yes, that’s meant to sound as depressing as it does.

“This War” is easy enough to start up (even if its opening Hemingway quote is enough to make you wonder what you’re in for). Once loaded, you’re given a set of characters from a roster; this list is chosen for you, and if you play the game multiple times, you’re likely not to have the same set twice. Each character comes with advantages, if you could call them that. For instance, one character may be a better cook than the rest; another may have knowledge of herbs and can make basic medicine and bandages. Bear in mind, the boost is marginal, but it does help to be aware of what task each character is better suited to completed.

During the day, you’re stuck in your ramshackle “home,” using the time to eat, rest, trade or craft items. During the night, someone is tasked with exploring the city, gathering materials without dying. (Who knew people didn’t like having their stuff stolen?) While you’re controlling your exploring character, there’s a chance the others will be robbed of precious materials, possibly creating game-ending scenarios such as starvation or crippling depression.

Procedurally created, dusk-tinged landscapes serve to boost the atmosphere while allowing you to scavenge through new areas each time you start over. The grim shades combine with a score that will have you on edge for the next disaster, which you assume is just one random night away. And it’s not like you can slowly work your way through the game through multiple restarts; each new game presents you with a different world. Your first playthrough may start you a few weeks before winter, giving you time with temperate weather to gather materials. Others will start you with the snow already falling, forcing you to use materials simply to keep warm rather than building new devices. In effect, it’s like playing a different game each time, requiring you to think differently if you’re going to survive.

To make matters worse, the surrounding environment also changes each time you start over (which will happen a lot). Certain homes and businesses (some in complete disarray) may be available the first time you play; the next time, they’re guarded by a lunatic with a gun (or maybe even an elderly homeowner who can’t stop you from ransacking their belongings). Some areas may even be cut off from exploration because of the war (which was inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo, 1992-96, during the Bosnian War).

By the way, while what you do matters in the grand scheme, how you accomplish your endeavors may matter even more. Robbing that elderly homeowner may by physically easy, but your psyche isn’t likely to handle your crime well. In fact, you’re likely to fall into depression, slowing down what you can accomplish and possibly bringing everyone else down with you. And if you don’t rectify the situation, if you don’t find a way to ease a guilty conscience, you risk leaving your characters broken, unable to get out of bed and completely useless to you as the game progresses. Heavy, right?

And don’t forget your characters are completely capable of just dying, especially the one you task with exploring the war-torn city. Chances increase every night of running into someone with a better weapon than you or who happens to have friends. Your options in the city are pretty basic: run away, try to hide, defend yourself or start the fight to begin with. But remember, this game rewards cautious play, which isn’t surprising considering your main goal is simply to survive until the game randomly says you win.

In the end, it doesn’t seem like anyone ever comes out a winner in “This War of Mine.” Yeah, you may survive the grueling nights and claustrophobic days; you may find enough food, material and weapons to keep your party healthy and protected; you may not even lose any party members to debilitating depression or wanton violence; but when all is said and done, you won’t feel like you’ve won anything. Because “This War” is just that: a tale of the horrors of war, and nobody wins in war.

Four “And now I’m depressed” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.

Editor’s note: This review of “This War of Mine” was done on PC; the game was provided courtesy of 11 bit studios.

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