I sincerely hope no-one happens upon my review notes for This War of Mine: The Little Ones, because they don't make for pleasant reading. In particular, the words 'no more pills' and 'let Bruno die' could be somewhat misconstrued. However, This War of Mine is such a relentlessly bleak game, that I feel entirely justified in my use of such phrases. And, in all honesty, I enjoyed every misery-sodden minute of it.
This War of Mine attempts to convey the horrors of war but it does so in a relatively unique way. Instead of casting you as a morally conflicted soldier, the game puts you in charge of a group of non-combatants who have nary a day's worth of military experience between them. These survivors, who come from all walks of life, are trapped in a conflict-ravaged city and have sought shelter in an abandoned building. Their objective – and consequently yours – is simply to survive the war.
It quickly becomes apparent that this will not be an easy task. As soon as you launch the game you're greeted by the title's near monochrome visuals and mournful music which both serve to telegraph the unpleasantness to come. Whereas some games would have you blasting your way across the city's ruined terrain, mowing down foes till you reached safety, This War of Mine is firmly grounded in reality.
Your charges – whose identities vary between playthroughs – instead have to wait out the war in their shelter. Stepping outside during daylight hours would likely mean being on the receiving end of a sniper's bullet, so you instead have to send them out on night-time sorties to gather the supplies they need. During the day you can use the less vital survival-critical supplies such as machine parts and wood to create various crafting stations that can help make your shelter more self-sufficient.
All of which sounds relatively straightforward, but This War of Mine excels at luring you into a false sense of security. While your first few in-game days are unlikely to be particularly harrowing, things go downhill as the game progresses. Once you've pillaged the unoccupied buildings, you have to roam further afield, which risks bringing you into conflict with armed rebels. One marginally less painful option is to steal from those survivors who aren't so heavily armed. Yet while robbing that an elderly couple may put food in the mouths of your survivors, the guilt could lead them to leave the shelter or even take their own lives.
Having played the PC version of the game some time ago, I was expecting my experience of the PS4 version to be relatively painless. How wrong I was. My first playthrough resulted in the death of all the survivors, two of them dying when I was unable to keep the shelter warm enough to fend off the cold weather. Another was shot when he took on some armed soldiers – despite being armed himself. While the PS4 controller does make in-game gunplay a little more intuitive, you've still got a good chance of being gunned-down by other survivors.
My subsequent attempts were marginally more successful, but I still had to struggle to my shelter's residents alive. I became heavily invested in their continued survival, feeling a genuine sense of elation when they successfully made it through one more night. This was due in part to the back-stories that This War of Mine allocates to each survivor, stories which are slowly expended upon as they remain amongst the living. Though given that the length of the in-game war varies, there's no telling how long you have to sustain your survivors existence for before the conflict draws to a close.
But the real beauty of This War of Mine is that it forces you to make some very uncomfortable choices. The choices you have to make aren't scripted but are instead dictated by circumstance and are never back and white. It's not just a case of choosing whether not to steal from your neighbours, either. The decisions you have to make are sometimes even more brutal than that.
During one particular playthrough one of my characters, Bruno, became ill and needed medication. I didn't have any pills left, but I could have potentially traded some of my resources to purchase some. However, that would have potentially left the other survivors in a worse position. I had grown attached to all of the survivors – they each have developing personal bios and backstories – but I knew I had to make a choice – a brutal one.
In the end, I weighed up Bruno's skills against the skills of and survivability the other characters and made the inhuman decision to not purchase the pills, and let him die. This is a game where, mirroring the real life situations the game is emulating, there is no black and white, only shades of grey. As for Bruno's fate? His death demoralised the remaining survivors, one leaving the shelter, the other committing suicide a few days later. And I had no-one to blame but myself.
Luckily there weren't any children around to witness this grim spectacle because while the game's subtitle 'The Little Ones' does suggest the presence of younger survivors in the game, they don't appear in every playthrough. While the intent was presumably to highlight the effect war can have upon children, their presence also doesn't seem to add a great deal to the game. If a child becomes poorly, one of the survivors will escort them to safety, leaving the shelter. While I can understand the designers' skittishness in dealing with this issue, it diminishes the emotional impact that their presence might otherwise have had.
This slightly disturbing gripe aside, I had a fantastic time wading through the game's woe-filled world and found myself coming back to it again and again. Furthermore, every time a survivor died it still hit me as hard as it did the first time. Granted, you've already got the PC version of the game, the PS4 version doesn't add enough new content for it to be worth purchasing. But if you've never played the game before then you'll find This War of Mine: The Little Ones offers an emotionally engaging gaming experience, whether you care about the message it's trying to get across or not.