Braving the sniper fire of Call of Duty-loving console players, anti-war-'em-up This War of Mine: The Little Ones brings the civilian side of conflict to the PlayStation 4. 11 Bit Studios has created a heart-wrenching experience of a game, one that puts you in charge of a group of adults and children stuck in a scarily believable situation. Trying to survive until the ceasefire is everything here, and, perhaps more importantly, you may find out just what lengths you are prepared to go to in order to do so.
The 18-rated gameplay is brought to life with an immersive 2.5D charcoal-stylised aesthetic; animated backgrounds are rich with the ongoing destruction that war brings and the motion captured characters are wonderfully brought to life on screen. Your quest for survival begins with nothing but a wrecked house for shelter, which operates as your base of operations. Everything you need has to be crafted, scavenged, bargained for, or looted, and there are two main phases of play: day and night.
By day you are confined to your house due to there being enemy snipers outside stopping you from leaving your refuge. The focus is on maintaining your hideout: crafting, trading, repairing the house, and taking care of the young. It can be tough right from the outset as you must juggle tasks such as gathering the pitiful resources from your randomised house and building essentials like a cooker, beds, heater, etc. The scarcity of the resources leads to immediate trade-offs between whether you can find an adequate way to feed your people, concentrate on trying to make your house secure, or focus on providing ways for them to rest up and heal.
By the cover of night, one of your people can venture out on a mission to scavenge through the city for items that will help you stay alive. This is a perilous endeavour and one that will force you make some very tough calls. When moving around you make noise and, at the start of the game, will most likely be unarmed, so you have two choices: do you go all Metal Gear and grab what you can, or do you boldly ransack the dwellings of others risking their potential violent response? Then there are the recriminations that come with having to hurt or even kill those whose only crime may be having some tinned food or component parts that you need. These are the sort of choices that you are forced to make, and everything takes a toll on your characters both emotionally as well as physically. During war, there are not necessarily any good or bad decisions: there is only survival.
The haunting visuals are backed up by an emotive, powerful score by Piotr Musiał which really adds to the immersion as it builds dramatic tension in a truly cinematic fashion. The gameplay itself utilises a simple control scheme that allows you to worry more about the desperate events unfolding around you rather than getting any button combinations right. The combat mechanics work well when needed, although opting for violence feels like a last resort and will leave your characters not just potentially injured but psychologically damaged, too.
The PlayStation 4 edition builds on the 2014 PC version which received a lot of praise for the way that it captured a believable war nightmare situation. The makers have based some of the scenarios tackled on authentic real-life events which adds pathos and is certainly enough to make you pause for thought when you realise that it might be impossible to protect everybody in your shelter. Having to decide whether or not to maybe sacrifice someone is tough. The addition of children to the struggle is an emotional gut punch that will really test your character, too. The moral dilemmas come thick and fast: are you prepared to let your adults go without food in order to keep the kids alive? Who will you give your limited medicine stocks to when the group gets ill? Then there is the constant danger from snipers and hostile scavengers which will keep you on edge throughout. This certainly isn't a game that you can chill out with.
It's hard to find adequate words to express quite how moving This War of Mine: The Little Ones can be. Coming back from a night mission with hard won supplies, only to find that a group have broken into your house, scared or hurt your children, and stolen your carefully crafted resources invokes real anger at the sheer injustice of it all, until you realise that is potentially exactly what you've just been doing to someone else. This is a rare game that could leave you changed, maybe even a better person in real-life as a result of having played it.
Reading the aftermath stories of what happened to your people after the war is a nice touch. When the game ends, either through all of your group dying or reaching a ceasefire point, the credits roll alongside a day-by-day recap of what happened, with some great artwork and captions – especially those from the children's points of view, showing how little they understood – that drive home the cost of your survival.
This War of Mine: The Little Ones throws you into a beautiful and compelling hell. Experiencing war as a group of civilians whose lives rest in your hands with only your conscience to guide you is a refreshing change of pace from pretty much any other game out there. This is a brilliant mix of harrowing survival interspersed with moments of joy. Having fun really isn't the point here: this is a game that will challenge anyone desensitised to the real sufferings of war – and that's a bold move.