Thursday, July 14, 2016

This War of Mine: The Little Ones Review (XONE)

There are two types of indie games that really grind my gears.  The first being those games that rely entirely on good art or music for their appeal but have poor gameplay, and the second are those games that just want to be smart and mature and intellectual but fail entirely at being remotely fun.  This War of Mine: The Little Ones falls into the latter category and I kind of hate it no matter how fascinating the concept of seeing a different side of war – the civilians trying to survive – may be.  See our full review for details.

Game Details

  • Publisher: Deep Silver
  • Developer: 11 Bit Studios
  • ESRB Rating: “M” for Mature
  • Genre: Simulation
  • Pros: Fantastic concept; thought provoking
  • Cons: Clunky controls; teeny tiny text, not fun whatsoever
  • MSRP: $30

This War of Mine is a game about civilians trying to survive in the aftermath of a war.  The frontlines of the battle have moved on, but acquiring food and other supplies is still dangerous because you have to fight off other survivors to get it.  It is an absolutely fantastic concept that shows a side of war no other games, or other media for that matter, really bother with.  Too bad it is so poorly executed.

In order to “win” the game as many as possible in your group have to survive until fresh supplies are brought into your city.  To survive until then you have to scavenge supplies first from the house you start in, and then later by venturing out into neighboring houses and buildings to find more.  There are other people doing the same thing, though, and your encounters with other survivors lead to tough decisions.  Some people you meet are nice and willing to share, but more often than not you have to fight tooth and nail over every scrap.

The game plays like a 2D version of The Sims.  You have control of your group of survivors, and every person has unique skills and strengths and weaknesses.  The idea is that you assign the right people to do the right jobs so vital work gets done and everyone survives.  During the day everyone works.  At night you can send one person out to the surrounding village to scavenge.  Your scavenger can only carry so much, though, so you have to consider what you really need when you decide what to bring back.  Everyone in your group is starving.  Everyone is bored and restless.  Someone is always sick or injured.  What do you do?  And what are you willing to do to other people in order to get what you need?

The encounters with other survivors while out scavenging are really the driving force behind the story of your group during each playthrough (and things can and will go differently on multiple playthroughs).  Stealing from other people, killing people, or letting a weak member of your group die has a major impact on the overall morale of the group, sometimes even driving people to commit suicide when they can’t handle what you’ve done.  The subtitle for this version of the game, “The Little Ones”, refers to the addition of children into the mix as members of your group, which brings about a whole new set of moral dilemmas.

The problems with all of this are two fold.  First, the gameplay is actually quite clunky and just plain bad.  It is all 2D and slowly paced and plodding and just plain generally awful.  You build new items and tools and stuff through menus that aren’t intuitive at all, and all of the onscreen text in the game is absolutely teeny tiny and hard to read.  So, it kinda fails as a game right off.

The other problem is that it is all so heavy handed with any emotional moments and decisions you have to make.  Basically, no decision you make is every actually a “good” decision.  Someone always suffers.  Someone is always upset with how you handle things.  No one is ever happy or satisfied.  It all feels like work instead of fun.  I get it, war sucks and isn’t fun, but I don’t play games to get punched in the gut over and over and over.  Another huge flaw in the experience is that you don’t ever actually give a crap about the other characters because the game does nothing to make you want to care.  They all have pictures and profiles and backstories, but your only interaction with them is having them bitching at you every other second.  In real life if I had a bunch of strangers complaining at me while I was trying to help them, I’d probably leave them to survive on my own, but that isn’t an option here.  

I have felt for a long time that the videogame industry has a problem with mature storytelling, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.  The problem comes from critics and gamers alike being afraid to criticize things that are seen as “mature” and “intelligent” and “emotional” for fear they themselves don’t come across as sensitive or learn-ed enough.  The result of this is that we have absolute trash games like Beyond: Two Souls or Heavy Rain getting a free pass because they focus on “mature storytelling” when, in fact, they actually have terrible writing and bad stories (plus atrocious gameplay) and don’t deserve the praise.  I’m all for games with mature themes and good storytelling, but the game around it needs to be decent and the story itself had better damn well actually be decent (Telltale games come to mind).  That isn’t the case more often than not, however, yet those games still get put on a pedestal.  Not anymore.  Not on this site.

This War of Mine: The Little Ones desperately, desperately wants to elicit an emotional response, but ultimately fails.  You don’t care what happens to the other survivors, and there is no subtlety in any of the events or decisions you make.  It is a game that goes out of its way to make you feel like crap no matter what you do, and that just isn’t fun.  The gameplay itself is a clunky chore, too, which doesn’t help things.  This War of Mine is simply pretentious and overbearing.  Buy it if all you care about is showing people how artsy and smart you are.  If you play games for fun, skip it.
Disclosure: Review code was provided by publisher.