Imagine you find yourself in the middle of a small war in a nation you’ve grown up in. You make your way to an abandoned building and become friends with people you’ve never met. You have no idea how long the war will rage on and you all have to survive.
How will you do it: will you try to remain good throughout it all, or will you turn to darkness and attack the unarmed, doing what you can to survive?
How will you survive, and could you live with yourself after it?
These are questions that haunt you — the gamer — and the characters you control in a rather unusual title “This War of Mine”, a game that throws complex individuals into a powder-keg of a situation and asks you to keep them alive.
That powder-keg is an armed conflict where supplied are running thin, where you will have to control the characters and get them to survive however they can.
Dig through rubble and open cabinets and storage containers to find food, wood, and parts that could be used to make weapons. Sneak into buildings and pick through people’s private stashes, taking medicine, bandages, cigarettes, books, and diamonds. Make things like beds that make sleeping tolerable or chairs that make a broken home feel more like a complete one, while gadgets can be used to harvest water from the rain or make alcohol to survive the times.
“This War of Mine” is about survival, full stop, and consists of two phases: day and night.
When you start the game, it is day, and you’ll be asked to scour this home that you have arrived in with a few colleagues. You can switch to each player by selecting them, and each is good at something or another. It might be running speed, stealthy footsteps, or being able to carry a lot of gear.
In the beginning, you’ll need to see what the house has for you, and then make things.
It might be a bed, and it might be a metal workbench so you can build a shovel to make digging faster and easier, while a crowbar could let you in places.
Daytime is about the things you can do at home, turning your shabby abandoned shelled out building into some place you’d like your digital citizens to live, and telling them when to eat, when to sleep, and when to negotiate with others for more goods.
Then there’s night.
At night, it’s time to see what you can take, scavenge, steal, and possibly even kill for, picking a destination and sending one player into the thick of it, searching through more rubble, more rooms, and more places while the people living in these spots may not look too favourably on what you’re doing.
Abandoned places will be easy, and may take two or three trips, while buildings with people already in them may require cunning and stealth, or possibly just some killer bartering and bargaining skills to get what you want.
Escaping before morning is important, too, because if it’s daylight, it’s hard for your character to get back in one piece, or even at all, so night time becomes a task of working as quickly as you can in order to get what you need for back home.
This could be materials to improve the home, boarding it up and keeping it warm during the colder months, or food and medicine, and you may even encounter people you can hurt or kill to get more things, perhaps a weapon to help you survive even more encounters.
By the time you get back, it’s time for a nap, while the rest of your colleagues work around the house, making food or preparing for another night on the town where survival is key.
You even have neighbours that will pop by for item trades and for help — because they have problems of their own — or just to be friendly, and you can choose to help or be friendly if you want, because this game is about choices.
What will you do? How will you survive? Can your characters feel like life is worth living throughout all that you do?
These constant questions can make this game more unique than your standard mobile strategy game, and in many ways, that is what this title is.
That said, it is hard to describe “This War of Mine” as fun, because it feels like a gruelling gut wrenching edition of “The Sims”, and is a game where you’re watching over the life of people inside of a war torn situation, keeping them alive to the best of your ability.
In fact, it’s like that EA game (The Sims), except with more stealing and more potential for depression, as your players do what they can to survive harsh temperatures and a conflict whereby everyone is protecting themselves and doing what they can to survive.
A part of you might decide “well, it’s just a game” and go out on a killing spree, inflicting whatever pain you can to the digital lives in the houses you explore, and that is totally your choice, but your characters may not feel the same.
While we haven’t yet seen a suicide in the game, get a character feeling so down and suicidal that it becomes a possibility and it will happen, so if you make a regularly lovely character — complete with a regularly lovely backstory — kill enough people in order to feed his or her house, you may just end up killing that character through depression, as they question why they needed to resort to those matters.
And again, you may argue “well, it’s just a game”, but if that character is important, so too go your chances, disappearing down the gutter in streets ravaged by a digital war you cannot see but can feel the impact of, at least digitally.
When that player dies, your chance of winning, of surviving this war goes down with it, and so the game is almost like looking after on-screen family and friends who you need to survive with.
Do your best and the game can be completed, but become too heartless, and too merciless, and you’ll just need to start again, trudging your way through the murky depths that is a game with this much soul busting.
This reliance on emotion and this insistence that you feel something and connect with the characters helps to make “This War of Mine” a very compelling title that is definitely worth playing, but it is also dented by how repetitive the game can come across.
If something happens that you don’t like — say a character saves someone and gets lethally wounded, bleeding out (you can’t see it, but text on the screen informs you of this) — you may want to start again, digging through more rubble and searching for parts.
You’ve done this before, though. You’ve done all of this before, time and time again, and possibly only moments ago when you decided to start from scratch one more time.
It is this constant repetition that can make “This War of Mine” drag on, almost like the war inside the game was real and you’re fighting it by going through the same motions, translating into repetitive strain injury — RSI — except an addictive equivalent: you want to see what happens next, but to do so, you’ll need to get through weeks of on-screen survival, robberies, object building, and the possibility that members of your team might starve.
In essence, it’s “The Walking Dead”, but without the zombies. Like the living dead TV show, though, “This War of Mine” centres on the fragility of humans amidst struggles for power, and it is heart breaking, even if it is very repetitive.
The repetition can be a little compounded by how limited scavenging can feel, taking you back into the realms of RSI by only letting one person go on one scavenging trip at a time.
That means even if you have four or five people living in that home, only one of those characters can go looking for food, materials, weapons, or medicine at any one time. Even though it would make more sense to be able to send two, while the others guard the homestead, only one can go, meaning trips out in the open are about how much one can carry and planning for that.
This process can make the time feel stretched, and your patience stretched with it, because you’re back to that issue of doing the same thing over and over again, when it could be better organised in one hit if you wanted to.
On a more economic note, the price can be a little problematic for some, because this is one of those expensive mobile games, chiming in at around $20 locally.
That’s not only not cheap, that makes “This War of Mine” one of the more expensive mobile games you can buy on Android and iOS, though the price on computers is at least more in line with what owners and users of those systems are used to.
Playing on Android and again on Windows, what you get on the mobile doesn’t appear to be vastly different, with a fairly bug-free environment with decent controls, slick graphics, and an art style that will bring up the thoughts of comics and sadness, with dark heavy lines while the backgrounds have been scribbled in.
That makes it highly polished and very different from the majority of titles you’ll play on the mobile, and the fact that it can be played offline is super important too, with not one iota of in-app purchases here.
Rather, this is a “buy it once” title, like how games used to be, and how we prefer them.
For us, that makes this title worth it, because even if it can be very repetitive, it’s addictive enough that you’ll want to keep playing if only so you can see how far you can push people to their breaking point, or how far you’ll go to keep them surviving another day.
This War of Mine is available now for Android, iOS (iPhone and iPad), Windows, and Mac with the price sitting at roughly $20 depending on the online gaming stores available for your platform.