This War of Mine: The Little Ones Review
Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4
Games glorify war. With but a few exceptions, it is a statement that stays true throughout the medium’s entire history. Usually the hero, sometimes the villain, always tasked with defeating the opposing force to win. These games empower us (we can all name the usual suspects), make us feel mighty, greater than the player behind the avatar and allow us a visit a perspective that one will otherwise never reach. Yet one perspective that we perhaps never choose to see is that of the victim. Those caught up in a war that explodes around them, neither the hero or the villain, just those trying to survive. This is the perspective This War Of Mine presents and it is bleak and uncertain.
Much of what can be said about This War Of Mine: The Little Ones has already been mentioned in our review of the original PC release. On your first test of survival (later attempts you can choose your team) you must guide three civilians through a civil war in the fictional city of Pogoren. By day turning an abandoned shelled-out house into a home, staving off hunger and staying healthy. By night scavenging from the local surroundings in desperate hope of finding abandoned goods that will keep you alive just a little longer.
What is immediately surprising about This War Of Mine and one of the reasons that it has been so successful is that, despite its bleak and troubling subject matter, underneath there is a very well-designed, superbly balanced and enjoyable game (as much as one can enjoy watching fictional characters barely survive). The core crafting system which drives you to scavenge for a wood and scrap, allowing you to upgrade your workbench or build new tools or simply heat your home constantly puts you on a knife edge. There are so many excruciatingly hard decisions to be made. Do you sell your dwindling supplies of medicine in exchange for enough scrap to build defences in your home? What will happen if someone then gets ill? Do you burn wood in cooking food instead of heating your home? Do you burn books instead? Burning invaluable books to live, have you reached that desperation yet?
Those decisions spread into the night. In the darkness a single survivor can head out into the war torn city, scavenging a location such as abandoned houses or building sites for whatever they need. However their backpack is limited. Do you grab the valuable coffee beans and leave behind that pile of cigarettes while one survivor has been going through nicotine withdrawal? The decisions only get worse as your situation gets more desperate. Most areas are not unoccupied. Other families, other survivors, are living in this city. Do you steal from them to keep yourself alive? Maybe you risk your own life by breaking into a military base instead? Death of course, just as in real life, means death. No one is coming back from a bullet to the skull.
Every action has a consequence. Even if you personally do not feel anything for the pixelated characters that flicker on screen for but a moment before you strip them of their belongings (you dark soulless person), your own survivors do. Returning home after a disspiriting night of thieving, sometimes they will collapse in sorrow. They mutter to themselves, wondering how they could leave those people with nothing. Sometimes they will simply break and stop responding to orders, sometimes they will do something even worse. Just as you have to juggle their food supply and health, you must balance their mental state as well. What is the point in going on if you have to harm others in the process?
While This War Of Mine is certainly a recommended purchase on PC, its move to console has been rather less successful. Primarily designed as a 2D mouse-controlled game where the player points and clicks to control the survivors, the developers have unfortunately struggled in the transition to a controller. Now movement is performed with the left stick and the view adjusted with the right, while selecting different actions requires the D-pad. This setup feels clumsy and very often results in mistakes. Walking up, down and past stairs for example becomes an exercise in frustration as too often they will inadvertently move in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, since you now must directly control each survivor’s movement, you can no longer set tasks for multiple characters to undertake at the same time. As a result this PS4 version is more time consuming and lethargic than the PC version.
Things only get worse when night falls. Where at home accidentally climbing a set of stairs simply meant wasting time, now it can be the difference between life and death. Stealth is more problematic too. Running is performed simply by pushing the stick slightly further and all too often do you find yourself sprinting accidentally, alerting everyone nearby to your presence and most likely eventual death. Perhaps the most ridiculous illustration of the dubious control scheme occurred during one of the darkest moments of the game. While scavenging you overhear an armed soldier forcibly raping a girl at gunpoint. You do not have to act, doing so would most likely result in your own death, but perhaps your moral compass will guide you instead. In my case I charged in, armed only with a shovel constructed from scrap earlier, and smashed the girl to the ground. Shocked at why the game had decided the defenceless woman was the target instead of the soldier, I stood still for a moment. A moment too long as a bullet ended this scavenging trip.
There is some new content that comes with the console release. The titular little ones (strangely missing in the original, given that the game was in part made to raise money for War Child) make an appearance, although not in the first run through. Looking after children during a war adds a whole new challenge. Still mirroring reality, controlling these rascals is problematic. They refuse to do work, instead scribbling with crayons all over the walls, are more demanding and act as a drain on your resources. Perhaps they help keep the adults sane, but only while the children remain happy… if they start screaming or worse are taken by the hospital (they cannot actually die, one of the few but necessary breaks from reality) then the rest will certainly start to fall.
While it is not being released as a full priced game, it does not feel like the expanded content justifies another purchase if you already own the game on PC, and if you do not then you should. It would seem like a much better option to purchase it for much cheaper there than on console, given the issues here. However if you prefer gaming on consoles and are intrigued by the dark and heavy subject matter and how it translates into a very well produced survival game, This War Of Mine: The Little Ones may well be the best war game to date, at least where you do not play the hero.