Late 2014, a game was released that tugged at my emotions like few others have. Not because of a particularly sad script or moving cinematics, but because it provided a realistic look at the challenges that everyday citizens face when trying to survive a military occupation. It didn’t shy away from the psychological or physical hardships that people confront, and wasn’t afraid to show the consequences for actions taken when trying to survive. Unfortunately, This War of Mine was initially a PC exclusive; however, as of January this year, you are able to purchase This War of Mine: The Little Ones – an enhanced version for Xbox One and PlayStation 4.
Expanding on the original idea, this version offers the same core experience with a swathe of refinements and additions. As the core gameplay hasn’t changed, I will refer you to my review of the core game for the main experience, and simply review the changes/additions in this article.
A major change to This War of Mine: The Little Ones was, not surprisingly, the introduction of children. In the original game, you faced difficult choices as you balanced survival with moral beliefs. The addition of children promised to make this significantly more interesting, as their reactions and decisions would be decidedly different from adults. If you stole food from someone the children didn’t know, would they care? How would your actions affect their moral growth, or the way they behave/interact with others?
Unfortunately, I may have been a little ambitious with my expectations, as the children in The Little Ones felt like little more than a resource to be managed. With cliché dialogue and limited range, I felt they were a missed opportunity to enforce the underlying tone of the game. In my original review, I compared the feeling I got from this game to J.G. Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun. Over the course of this novel, we witness a change in Jimmy as he grows from a spoilt little boy into a child of war – learning what he needs to survive and the harsh nature of reality. This is the sort of thing I had expected to see in The Little Ones.
In a game where the emotional state of characters can lead to drastic results, I don’t feel this was a lofty expectation. When I first played This War of Mine, my survivors had to steal a bandage from an old couple in order to heal themselves after a raid. Some of my survivors were very pragmatic and saw it as a necessary evil – Pavle was a much more empathetic survivor, who took the theft hard. When we revisited them a few days later to find they had died, Pavle went from “depressed” to “broken”, and ended up committing suicide. While the pragmatic survivors were saddened by this, there was one whose diary read “on the plus side, that’s one less mouth to feed”. This made me feel terrible – a feeling that was never quite equalled with the addition of children in The Little Ones. I think this was primarily because I never found the dialogue to be believable. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, as despite the game being set in Europe, their dialogue felt heavily stylized on American children.
I was also quite surprised to find that children can’t die in The Little Ones. If a child becomes too depressed, injured, or sick, they just leave the shelter never to be seen again. Now I’m not saying I want children to see children die in a video game, but the lack of serious consequence for inaction does detract from the impact of the experience. Sure, they get angry or depressed, and you can eventually cheer them up with enough toys, food, sleep, and games, but the lack of consequence was a jarring reminder that you were playing a game, and that “the kids would be alright”.
Children are cleverly implemented in that they provide no direct benefit to the survivors. Unable to perform simple tasks like setting a water filter or tuning the radio, they are truly dependant on the adults. Emotionally high strung, they do occasionally provide amusing dialogue, making for moments of levity that feel out of place in a war setting – but true to what I’d imagine would be the case in real life. A laughing child positively affects all survivors in the shelter, whereas a distraught one causes their demeanour to deteriorate.
As This War of Mine was designed for keyboard & mouse, I was eager to see how it would translate to console. Rather than trying to emulate the mouse, The Little Ones provides an entirely new control system. Survivors are individually controlled using the left thumbstick and face buttons. The LB and RB buttons are used to change which survivor you are currently controlling, and the d-pad is used to navigate between possible actions in your immediate area. This control method works extremely well, but it does change the way you play to some extent.
When playing on PC, I would select a survivor, click a task, then select and assign another survivor while the first travelled to and completed their task. With the controller method, I ended up spending more time micro managing my individual survivors, rather than adopting an overall view. This proved a little frustrating at first, as I was used to controlling multiple survivors at once. The days are lengthy though, so there’s plenty of time to complete all the tasks you want, so the experience didn’t feel overly unfavourable. In fact, the direct control of survivors allowed for a more enhanced immersion in the world. I found myself noticing small details, like loose banisters on stairs, or the leaky roof underneath the kitchen – details I would normally miss if I were adopting a higher level management style.
Another new feature introduced in The Little Ones is the ability to customise your own game. In the original, you were offered a single, randomised game mode. The “Write Your Own Story” mode allows you to customise almost every aspect of the experience – from the survivors you start with, to the locations you can visit, or the time until ceasefire and the impact of winter – every important game element can be tweaked.
This had the strange side effect of lessening the impact of the game for me. By taking away the random element, you eliminate certain survivalist strategies. Why stockpile kindling and water if you know winter’s not coming? If the conflict is only going to last 20 days, then you may as well gorge yourself on food from day 18 to keep people happy. A large part of the experience in This War of Mine are the decisions you must make in the face of uncertainty – not knowing how long the war will last, how harsh winter will be, or what resources will be available greatly affects both your practical and moral decisions.
One advantage of this mode is that it allowed me to actually play games with child survivors. I’m not sure if it was by design or if I was just unlucky, but after 5 normal games, I hadn’t played a single game with kids. Another good feature of this mode is that you can create a custom survivor. This really just boils down to selecting a name, look, and pre-built story/skill template, but it’s a nice addition to personalise the experience.
Each day is divided into two timed phases – day and night. During the day, sniper fire forces you to remain indoors resting, crafting, relaxing, and eating. Once night falls, you are able to sneak around the city, scavenging for supplies, food, or medication.
The Little Ones features new locations for both these time periods… at least I think it does – it can be hard to tell with a game that’s randomly generated each time. There is definitely at least one new shelter, which becomes available once you commence a game with a child. With a cool looking tree house out the back and games to keep the children entertained indoors, its structure and layout are still designed to require forethought when discerning where to place new items or structures. The developer also announced an exclusive additional shelter for PlayStation 4 owners; however, as I played on Xbox One, I cannot comment on that.
I also felt there were some new locations for scavenging, but as This War of Mine on PC didn’t offer the option to create your own game world, it’s hard to ascertain what was actually available compared with what I actually saw in my randomly generated instances.
In summary, I felt that the new additions to This War of Mine were good, but in some cases actually detracted from the atmosphere. Courtesy of an even mix of negative and positive enhancements, I wouldn’t consider The Little Ones to be better or worse than the original – just different. If you own a console and a PC, then personally I’d recommend you purchase the PC version. This is primarily due to the inability to control the flow of the game, which makes for a far more tense and rewarding experience. That said, this port is exceptionally good. The controls are well implemented and, aside from the font feeling a little too small for TV, it looks graphically comparable.
This War of Mine is still an amazing game. I found it just as rewarding playing this version a year later as I did the first. Depicting the often unsung heroism and bravery of regular people trying to survive a besieged city, it provides solid gameplay and a balanced experience. The in-game economy and trade variations are second-to-none and the entire experience is incredibly emotional and thought provoking. If you enjoy immersive, challenging, and strategic experiences, I can’t recommend this game enough.