Review: This War of Mine

The gameplay mechanics aren't anything to write home about, but the way the game uses tried-and-tested tools to tell your own gripping survival story is quite unique to This War of Mine.  It takes those well-proven and simplistic tools and elevates them with what it accomplishes with them.  It's probably not going to be your jive if you're more mechanics-focussed in your gaming preferences, but if you can enjoy a compelling survival story, This War of Mine delivers.  In spades.
Review: This War of Mine
Date published: Jan 26, 2015
2 / 3 stars

This War of Mine is a survival simulation game with a focus on narrative developed and published by 11-Bit Studios. Yeah, I can already see in my mind's eye the image of you reaching to exit out of that browser tab for some other review, given how many terrible games have relied on "narrative" to carry an absolute mess of a game or something very insipid and uninspired, but that is not the case with This War of Mine, dear reader.  It has it's flaws, and it isn't reinventing the world, but it does what it does very well, and what it is does is the despair-filled gritty tale of civilian survivors in a warzone.

The game has a few quite notable technical shortcomings

Probably the first thing I noticed getting into the game was one of its biggest lacking points from a technical standpoint, actually, and that is that it has a lot of difficulty with multiple monitor setups.  This actually isn't all that uncommon with full-screen games on such a setup, however, this is oft fixed quite readily by simply changing the game to a windowed or borderless window mode, however the game entirely lacks options for such.  It does work in full-screen, but you better hope nothing ever takes focus from the window while you're in game.  It had been a while since I had a genuine bluescreen with windows, but that did it for me once playing.  The options in general are very sparse, and while the gameplay could have excused it to some degree, there's a few things that are nonetheless absent.

Also absent is a proper save system.  You get one continual checkpointed save and that's it.  While I enjoy playing a single game as that continuous "hardcore" or "ironman" setting, the lack of a save system also means you cant, for example, have multiple playthroughs going.  It also means if you need to leave the game during a day or night section, you'll have to restart that section.  That can be a good chunk of playtime you're losing, and though while it hardly is as long as some games with poor checkpoints, its nonetheless frustrating.  It is especially odd, since it is also on mobile platforms, and those are generally meant to be picked up and played in short sessions.  Indeed you coult easily just make the save up to when you left off, if you were absolutely dedicated to an ironman sort of save system, but its not just a preference having that standard save system there, really, it's an accessibility option, especially since the game requires you to restart if you have to quit midway through.  I'm reminded as my own condition worsens that not everyone is able to play long sessions of a game at a time.  At the very least, the game needs to save up to the present play if you leave, but it doesn't.

Mechanically, This War of Mine is fairly simple,
but those game mechanics are nonetheless well-implemented if not well-explained

The game's interface is kept more or less point-and-click, doubtless a result of it's sharing a platform on mobile.  It is a sort of dual-mode game: by day, you are improving the bombed house you take shelter in, managing your needs (food and rest), building upgrades, and chatting with the occasional neighbor who may pass by asking for items, help, or offering to trade.  By night, you are going out to procedurally-unlocked other locations to scavenge for the resources you need to keep going by day: food, materials, trading goods, and the individual parts to build finished goods.

Scavenging at night has three core components, essentially: you have the straight scavenging, you have dealing with hostile survivors or army soldiers, and you have the possibility of trade. You go out to one of a handful of locations that slowly grow as the game goes on (and become more complex and difficult to deal with as well), and your survivors try to get the stuff they need to survive the next day, or two if you're lucky.  It starts off fairly basic with just rummaging, and occasionally requiring a special tool to get past something, such as a crowbar to pry open a locked cabinet, and gets more complex with later locations, including hostile looters whom you have to fight, and more complex problems to solve, such as one area where you have to transverse between cover locations without getting shot by a sniper you cant neutralise.

The combat is, perhaps oddly, one of the areas of the game where it really shines
Clunky, ad hoc, and desperate.  That is the feeling that the combat evokes, and that’s a feeling that certainly makes sense for the theme of the game.  These are civilian survivors of a war, not soldiers or supermen, and it feels that way.  At the same time, it rewards being tactically aware, using your surroundings to your advantage and the like.
Perhaps the more affecting part of that combat though comes afterwards.  Killing isn’t something done easily even by soldiers, as problems like PTSD attest to, and when you’re dealing with civilians, all the more so.   When they get back to the shelter by day, they’ll be left with the thoughts of what they had to do to survive, and managing morale is one of the more involving tasks once the game starts to get to full speed.
It also gives you a greater drive to not just get by, but excel, as well, because having things going well for your survivors makes them much more resilient to such problems, whereas if they’re already suffering, it will make them much more susceptible.

Morale and the production of complex goods become your main concerns as the game progresses, and the morale aspect certainly does a good job of keeping the game from becoming an exponentially-increasing chase after resources. While the top-tier crafted stuff is kept fairly well-designed and doesn't require a great amount of chasing around, more upgrading existing facilities, it would be fairly dry without something to keep it fresh, and the morale aspect does just that. It becomes more and more important to learn your survivors' various personalities, to know what they are okay with, what will leave them distraught, and so forth - which gives the system both depth and ties into the stories the game tells.

During the day, the focus becomes on production and managing needs.  Crafting and construction within your survivor's shelter is fairly simple and intuitive in that fashion, with the construction mostly kept to a grid layout within one of a handful of possible bombed-out houses the game gives you.  They all have equal space in the long run, but different layouts, forcing you to think a little differently for each house to be optimal, which gives the game a decent amount of variety without falling into the usual procedural generation trap of having some starts simply untenable to the point you may as well start over again.  I never really got that with This War of Mine, and it kept the early game experimentation and the crash and burn inevitable in the first couple of tries much easier to stomach, no doubt.

Much of the complexity of the game is in the crafting system, which probably comes as no surprise as the game carries with it the label "survival sim" - but it's not unduly complex.  This isn't a game where the wiki is required reading like many other survival sim games; the game gives you plenty of opportunity to experiment and find out what everything does without punishing you too harshly for failure (at least when it comes to crafting) - at worst, you will need to use a second tier hatchet tool to break down the item you just build needlessly and you'll recover most but not all the resources used for it, or if its a tool or other finished good, trade it.

That's the biggest strength of This War of Mine -
it organically tells a story of your chosen group of survivors

As the games go on you can choose a group of survivors, but even at the start you get quite an interesting three, each with a special ability that emphasises their story.  Its a very natural story-telling as well - this isn't a linear walking sim that just leads you by the nose through ham-fisted story points - rather, This War of Mine tells their stories through how those survivors react to the various events and things that happen in the world around them.  It makes it much more involving, given that it comes as a natural result of your play through the game, and it makes the consequences of failures or difficult choices all the more evident.  Killing or stealing become not undesirable not through arbitrary plot contrivance, but through the effect it has on your characters.

I found that much more personally-affecting than the concerted drawn-out exposition of other games, because it came as a result of an actual choice I had, that I made.  That agency to avoid it makes it much, much more deeply touching than anything.  It feels GOOD when you help out that neighbour that got shot by a sniper, or you bring one of your survivors back from the very brink of breaking; likewise it feels TERRIBLE when you miscalculate in a fight and kill someone you didn't mean to, or push something too far and one of your survivors gets stranded - or shot.  Its a natural drama, created by those choices, and the story writes itself.  If ever there's a way to do story in games, I would say that's pretty much it.

It all comes together well with great sound and art design

A cherry on top of the whole thing is the beautiful art direction of the game, which looks and feels quite stellar.  The whole game is rendered in a way that has a sort of conte crayon or pencil crayon effect that looks quite artistic, and the environments are all just the bleakness you would expect. A beautifully composed soundtrack by Piotr Musial is moody and effective, a subtle undertone to the already emotional story.  Whether this game catches you or not will largely depend on whether that story it tells captivates you, but this is a project that puts an obvious heart into doing just that.

The Final Word: Recommended - Simple gameplay mechanics don’t detract from the compelling and emotional story-telling that This War of Mine evokes.  It’s a case of well-established tools being used to deliver something well-made and compelling to me, and I for one find myself returning to the game again and again.  'Just one more go.' The technical shortcomings exist, but could easily be fixed to make This War of Mine one of the best games of the previous year.