America - Front
America - Back
By Evan Norris 28th Nov 2018 | 2,450 views
Some games are easy to review—to characterize, label, dissect, and, ultimately, score. This War of Mine: Complete Edition, developed exclusively for Nintendo Switch and featuring all past and future content, is not one of those games. At its core, it's a resource and people management sim, infused with some stealth action, but thematically it represents an anti-war dissertation that thrusts the civilian cost of war front and center.
Judged solely as a work of art and an open dialogue on the debilitating, dehumanizing physical, emotional, and societal effects of military conflict—particularly urban sieges—This War of Mine: Complete Edition is extraordinary, unflinching, and, arguably, worth experiencing solely for its insight into the indignities of modern warfare. Evaluated only on its mechanics, technical merits, and gameplay loops, however, it's merely adequate.
Inspired by the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo, This War of Mine: Complete Edition follows several civilian survivors pulled from a pool of 21 playable characters (12 from the base game and nine more introduced in The Little Ones DLC). Stranded in a city under lockdown and facing persistent danger from disease, starvation, and physical violence, the survivors must make many difficult life-or-death decisions to stay alive long enough to witness a ceasefire.
The story in This War of Mine: Complete Edition is yours to write. Yes, the developers at 11 bit studios introduce a besieged city, a ramshackle house, and a group of characters—each with his or her own backstory, skill set, and disposition—but what's done with these pieces is completely up to you. Will you invite a beleagured traveler to stay with you, adding a new mouth to feed but at the same time another warm body to keep watch against looters, or turn him away? Do you travel to a warehouse, rich in food and medicine but patrolled by armed bandits, or choose the path of less resistance (and less materials)? Do you spend rare resources to build a heater to keep your group warm during the winter or upgrade your work bench to gain access to new, useful tools? In a way, This War of Mine is a brilliant choose-your-own adventure game, which, along with permadeath, grants the game a roguish replayability.
You'll probably be replaying This War of Mine a lot—if you can bear the gloomy graphics, relentlessly dour mood, and tedious micro-management—in part because the game is so difficult and in part because of its wealth of playable characters, locations, moral choices, and accidental encounters. In fact, after your first randomized playthrough, the game allows you to choose from several starting sets of characters: the father-daughter duo of Christo and Iskra, the threesome of Bruno, Roman, and Arica, etc. Alternatively you can choose a random group or, in one of the best features of the game, create a specific, tailor-made adventure in "My Story." Here you can choose up to four characters with whom to start, select the number of days until ceasefire, adjust the intensity of the conflict—"low" means neighbors often stick together, among other things, and "high" signals a much more dire situation—pick specific locations on the city map, and even modify the length and harshness of the winter.
Whether you'll return to the game again and again to witness every possible outcome and ending hinges on your response to its aggressively bleak atmosphere, fussy console controls, and monotonous simulation gameplay. Basically, This War of Mine is divided into two main spheres, each conducted in 2.5D side-scrolling segments: 1) the day, a Sims-like maintenance period during which players swap among survivors, reinforce their defenses, grow and cook food, treat wounds, and in general see to the long-term survival of the group; and 2) the night, a stealth action phase where a designated survivor will scavenge for resources, sneak past soldiers, thugs, and other civilians, and sometimes engage in melee or gun-based combat. Each sphere has its own strengths and weaknesses.
The day sequences represent the weaker half of This War of Mine. Here, during daylight hours, players will manage their human and material resources. Sick survivors must be medicated, tired survivors must sleep, depressed children (included in The Little Ones DLC, and bundled here in the Complete Edition) must receive attention and love. For a while, this time-based micro-management works. Raising little Iskra's spirits with a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors or nursing a half-dead Cveta back to life is a meaningful, rewarding experience. Soon, however, everything devolves into busy work. By the end of your first fortnight in Pogoren—your characters' fictional, vaguely-Eastern European city—you'll have grown tired of herding survivors, watching meters fill, and grappling with the game's plodding pace.
Things are far more dynamic once night falls on Pogoren. From an overhead map of the city, players choose a particular destination, labeled with the kinds of resources (and resistance) expected. Then it's off to scavenge, trade, sneak, and, if you're unscrupulous or desperate enough, rob, steal, and kill. While these midnight missions are more engaging and less languid than daytime episodes, they suffer from some fussy console controls. Players enter stealth simply by pressing gently on the left stick, but angle the stick ever so slightly and a slow-moving character breaks into a full sprint, alerting anyone within earshot. Maneuvering between levels, up and down stairs, and through doorways is equally finicky.
While these control issues are also present in daylight—you can't assign a character to a job without moving him or her next to a specific station and then using the d-pad to select the desired task, thus making multi-tasking more difficult—at night, with survival decided in an instant, they're especially noticeable. Essentially, this is a game that demands the precision of keyboard and mouse, stuck with imperfect analog controls.
This is the unfortunate reality of This War of Mine: while it's thought-provoking, powerful, and subversive—don't expect the kinds of binary moral decisions and war heroics typical of the medium—it's simply not always fun to play.
Since this is the Complete Edition, you can expect all of the add-on content released over the past four years. That includes the aforementioned The Little Ones; War Child, which includes unique street art pieces found in different areas within Pogoren; and Father's Promise, a DLC campaign. The first of three story-driven campaigns (the second and third will be added for free), Father's Promise is an interesting but ineffective departure from the standard This War of Mine formula. More scripted and linear, it undermines the choose-your-own-adventure elements that make the game unpredictable and replayable.
Graphically, This War of Mine: Complete Edition is grayish and somber-looking, which is fitting for a game with such bleak subject matter. Although mostly monochromatic, the game does feature an enjoyable graphical flourish: gentle pencil stroke animation in empty background areas. Sound design, like art direction, is more utilitarian than anything, although some strategically placed noises—a distant gunshot or a child softly crying—trigger an emotional reaction. Finally, 11 bit studios' wartime simulation performs well, minus the odd glitch, like when a pill-popping animation loops without end (shut down and restart the game to fix the problem).
This War of Mine: Complete Edition is a challenging game to approach. As an anti-war treatise it's provocative, edifying, and demanding. It will force you into uncomfortable, unwinnable situations and make you carry the weight of your actions—good, bad, and ugly. As a game, though, it's only intermittently fun and rewarding. There are dozens of hours of content in this package, but much of it is depressing, dark, tedious, and clunky. In the end, This War of Mine is an important game, but not necessarily a good one.