Review: This War of Mine: The Little Ones (PS4)

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Title: This War of Mine: The Little Ones
Format: PlayStation Network Download (1.3 GB)
Release Date: January 29, 2016
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 11 bit studios
Original MSRP: $29.99
ESRB Rating: M
This War of Mine: The Little Ones is also available on Xbox One.
The PlayStation 4 download version was used for this review.
A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
You begin the game playing three characters, one at a time. You are in a structure in a war-torn and currently under-siege area of a city. The game explains the character’s relationships and their current status of health and specialties.

There is a clock which ticks away the time from day to night. There are certain objectives which are best accomplished under cover of darkness but never forget that your group isn’t the only group under this duress and you may have to come in conflict with them for supplies and necessities at various times of the day/night cycle.

The characters, like people, can only do one thing at a time. You cannot fight someone AND scavenge for supplies. The D-pad is used to make that switch which adds another level of control and complexity.

Unfortunately there is no option to invert the movement controls which are non-traditional. To go back INTO THE ENVIRONMENT BEHIND YOU you move the right stick TOWARD YOU. That is to say DOWN when normally, unless you play your other games INVERTED, you would push UP on the right stick. I had no idea this was happening and I could easily become stuck running in a circle until I finally figured it out.

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Figuring it out doesn’t help much. You still have to constantly correct yourself. An unnecessary encumbrance. One could make the excuse that you’re SUPPOSED to feel out of sorts as the character and this control scheme heightens that effect. But that is not a good reason. Because when I know the stairs are behind me I usually don’t have any trouble at all TURNING AROUND.

The R3 and L3 controls are for zooming in and out respectively. The longer you hold the button, the further in or out your zoom. Which again is a bit unusual because normally those are one-click controls. Further exacerbating the zoom-not-a-click issue is that in most situations it just isn’t necessary or advantageous to choose a “Yes-this-is-the-perfect-amount-of-zoom” zoom.

Stay zoomed-out in general or zoom in for combat. That’s all one needs. BUT making it necessary to hold the zoom button for precious seconds in order to see combat better is counterintuitive and disadvantageous.

… cut-off from the usual flow of commerce …
In large part This War of Mine: The Little Ones is a game about item management. Item management is a large part of survival for everyone. All of the time. Whether you realize it or not, that item management is what we all do regardless of our station in life. We awaken every morning and need to have soap in the shower, toothpaste and toothbrush, breakfast and coffee… and on and on.

When you live in a stable area like most of us reading this review that’s not much of a problem. When you live in an area under constant threat of military bombardment cut-off from the usual flow of commerce it is a huge problem.

Imagine if your city or town was suddenly cut-off from the outside world. Everyone in your area would be fighting for the same pound of hamburger and foraging for the same medicines and supplies. Now add enemy combatants who also want those supplies and want to kill you and your family.

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I haven’t played any of The Sims games in about fifteen years. I remember how they work and the stories of putting your Sims character in a doorless room to watch them die or maybe make them set the house on fire. This game harkens back to those games. The characters get sad, they get sick, they have jobs like scavenging at night. They need sleep, preferably in a bed. Reading makes them happier. If you do not pay attention to their needs they can die.

The Sims-ilarity with this game reminded me of Space Mountain at Disney World when I rode it in the 80s only to discover that it was an indoor version of another roller coaster I’d ridden many, many times at King’s Island near Cincinnati, The Bayern Beetle. They look very different from the outside but when you get in there all the twists and turns are identifiable.

When you go out to scavenge at night you can choose where to go for loot from a map. More places open-up as you play. The map describes if there are people there, if it’s a building, house, store, among other factors. You can go back to a place more than once.

… Slaughterhouse: Veal is tasty! …
You may have assembled a gun or have other weapons to take with you to defend yourself. Otherwise it’s bare-knuckle boxing time and you’re not going to be very good at it. Particularly against someone with a knife determined to protect their family.

I went to the point where one guy was Very Hungry, Severely Ill, Broken, and Tired. I could no longer control him at all to even move. The SIMS version of walled-in. He was alone. His friends had died or been killed. He gave up.

I had the feeling this first failure was part of the “tutorial” section of the game. It was DAY EIGHT and I had yet to see any kids.

You can go to the opening menu to “Try Again”? NO! You cannot! The menu has offered this option during the time someone in the house was alive. I assumed when these guys died another family with children would move into this shelter and we would start another story. That is untrue. So be careful how you play.

PRO TIP
Death is permanent. There is a GAME OVER. If your playthrough is going poorly, as it’s meant to, you can “TRY AGAIN?” from the main menu. Do that because not to is just wasting your time. Think Bloodborne but a lot less elegant. If one member of your party dies you’re screwed.

To the point of the new title of the game. This War of Mine: The Little Ones. It means exactly that! You have to choose the option of making this war yours and you choose whether to put children into your gameplay.

It’s barbaric. It’s not fun. What’s next? “Slaughterhouse: Veal is tasty!” Where you play as a farmer in an abattoir and forcefully remove male calves from their mothers and feed them cream while they live to six months old in tiny cages at which point you slit their throats?! HOORAY! PLATINUM TROPHY!

Or maybe Mother Goose makes Foie Gras?

It was at this point I needed to break for a bit because the thought of playing this in this “reality” made by the devs was just too much. Thankfully the game allows one to save their war at the end of creating it. What is surprising is that upon saving this war sim, you can name it. So you can apparently have many children and families dying all over the place at once. Gaming.

GAMEPLAY WITH A CHILD CHARACTER
I chose Emilia, Pavle, Arica, and Sergei. Two women, one man, and a boy of what appears to be about 10 or 11. There are younger children, pairings of one adult and one child, and various adult men and women from which to choose. You must choose between three and four characters only one of which may be a child.

Depending on how you set your conflict intensity and days until ceasefire you will have a minimum of scavenge locations from which to choose on the city map. You will also need to set three options for how bad the Winter is going to be.

Having already played the default Winter and ceasefire settings I chose to make my first experience with a child as easy as possible to see just how “easy” that would actually be. In a game of such brutality and despair I needed a break, not a breakdown.

With four characters instead of three, the demand for more rations is greater of course. But with the Winter turned-down the folks seem a bit less stressed. I picked-up a teddy bear for the kid and couldn’t figure out how to give it to him! I come home with a toy and can’t hand it over to help him be less sad. He wanted a pet. No luck, Sergei. The game won’t allow it yet, apparently. Which seems like a cheat. Additionally, it seems as though trying to make the game easier with better weather and the like speeds up the day/night cycle making it more difficult to tend to everyone’s needs.

… the rat of emotional manipulation …
If you can play the game with lower stressors BUT the game refuses to allow you to maintain a higher level of emotional comfort… I am beginning to smell a rat. It’s becoming more and more clear that the purpose of this game is not too far removed from some psychological experiment. A DAS EXPERIMENT, in fact. (HEY EDITOR: Please link the DVD of the German film Das Experiment starring my favorite German actor Moritz Bleibtreu and also, as a parent yourself, maybe don’t play this game!) (HEY REVIEWER: Yeah it’s been on my list for a long time but after reading this far into the review, not sure if I’m gonna make the jump)

The rat I am beginning to smell is the rat of emotional manipulation. 11 bit Studios isn’t really very interested in whether or not you can imagine a happy end for these people. They seem determined to teach you a lesson by ensuring there will not be a truly happy ending. You simply can not get there from here.

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Which begs the question, and by begs I mean “Forces the idea down your throat with a funnel and a plunger”, that no matter what: War Is Bad.

We know that already. WAR IS BAAAAAAAD!!!! However, what this game leaves out is any and ALL context for this war action. We have no idea who we are playing as in the scheme of this war. Is it a civil war? I think it MIGHT be. And ANY collateral damage in war is abominable. As in an abomination! But flowers still bloom between the cracks of the earth which were made by war. Except in this game.

… bubbles overlap making them impossible to read …
Visuals:
A bleak but striking and detailed art style sets the mood perfectly. In a nod to the work of Brecht in his Theatre of Alienation, the game takes place in what appear to be ramshackle dollhouses. You have the visual option of making the game appear more or less “sketchy” which seems unnecessary but knock yourself out.

There are occasional problems with the thought bubbles the characters use to communicate. If two are standing too close their bubbles overlap making them impossible to read. A real problem at times when you’re desperately trying to keep one alive and you can’t see what they’re saying or thinking.

Additionally the bubbles can be clipped if you’re focusing on someone upstairs and the one in the basement is communicating something. Finally about the bubbles, sometimes the writing appears too small and can be difficult to read. This last could be down to eye fatigue after playing a while with 52 year-old eyes.

Audio:
The audio contains realistic ambient sounds and appropriate interpersonal noises are made by the characters. Most of the latter is down to sounds of frustration and weeping.

The musical score is well done but sometimes misleading. You may be in a strange house ransacking calmly when “danger music” plays which you soon find is not cued by any danger. It’s as if the game makers thought, “Eh! The gamer is likely to be getting comfortable as they decide how much medicine to steal so we need to remind them how uncomfortable we expect them to be”.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game is singleplayer only with no online component.

… rubs the player’s face in it …
Conclusion:
When I first heard about This War of Mine: The Little Ones I was enraptured. I thought, “This game is going to inform the world about war!” As I played, my cynicism began to grow.

I would never mean to indicate that this seeming exploitation was undertaken by the devs in any manner which could be termed nefarious. But combining for-profit consumerism in the gaming space with the suffering of others to make a profit is a very loosely-strung tight-rope to walk.

I’m not sure they haven’t teetered off.

A hardened gamer could play this game emotionally removed from the story and just manage items and coldly eliminate characters as the need arises. Apart from the fact that killing others gives that character a guilty conscience and may kill them as surely as a bullet.

Some video games have been challenging gamers to become more involved in the emotional experiences the medium offers. Journey, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, Life Is Strange, and Gone Home are games amidst the latest salvo exploding into the gaming space which include challenging and sometimes transformative narratives. This War of Mine: The Little Ones takes this trend to a dark and sad place and then rubs the player’s face in it.

The devs claim this game is “Inspired by actual events” but beware any and all media which uses the term “inspired by”. I am often “inspired by” a need for chocolate. So I go to the bodega and return with Fritos Corn Chips.

Score:
4.5

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

Written by Keith Dunn-Fernández

Keith Dunn-Fernández

An actor/director and more lucratively an Administrative Assistant at a small paper company in NYC, Keith loves his games. And he loves to write. And he is a bit of a sarcasmo.

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