Warsaw – a game about losing

The years is 1994. Poland yet remains under control of Nazi occupiers, but a red wave of (questionable) liberation is on its way. You take command of a band on insurrectionists and are tasked with liberating the Polish capital. A task that you are clearly expected to fail.

Games are no strangers to dire odds. The X-COM series has you fend of a technologically superior aliens, Dark Souls is notorious for its unyielding difficulty, Monster Hunter has you face off against creatures many times your size, the list goes on. However, all those games are fundamentally about you evening the odds, about slowly turning the tide of battle in your favor, seizing the upper hand, and claiming hard-earned victory. This is not the case in WARSAW.

This is a game where you are always losing.

Even starting the game is demoralizing. You have barely completed the tutorial and you’re already running a daily deficit on supplies, and momentum for the revolution is already slowing down. WARSAW makes it clear that this isn’t a game about building up a war as much as it is about trying to maintain one. Morale, momentum, and supplies are all pivotal to keeping people fighting, but those are all steadily declining as the days wears on. You can’t stop this downhill course, only slow it down to the best of your ability.

You can succeed at individual missions and walk away with valuable loot and experience, but the game’s grim writing makes it almost impossible to feel achieved. The victory screen is sober and unspectacular, after which you are shown a breakdown of how badly the situation declined in your absence. In a grim yet brilliant move, the game even counts down the number of living civilians on the loading screen between days. I have never played a game that felt this hopeless and insurmountable.

Its gameplay is no different. Whereas other games offer ironman modes as an option, WARSAW uses them by default. Every soldier lost is permanent, every tactical mistake is saved.

Particularly impressive is how WARSAW tells its grim story through gameplay, and not just in the aforementioned management of your dwindling resources. The game actually plays like a turn-based strategy game where you set out on missions, explore the increasingly-collapsed city, and battle with German patrols when they spot you.

WARSAW is very likely to appeal to the “games are art” crowd, but it does so while still offering satisfying gameplay that is engaging to interact with. Its combat mechanics are solid and offer enough tactical nuance as you attempt you deal out the most damage while spending the least amount of valuable ammo.

While it’s possible to win individual battles and ace your missions, here too it feels like the situation is gradually slipping from your control. You earn experience to upgrade your “soldiers” with and find useful equipment, but the German war machine is unstoppable. The simple patrols are soon joined by powerful specialists and heavy weapon teams; you may even come face-to-face with tanks and artillery. Meanwhile you don’t progress far at all.

Your characters become more skillful fighters, but nowhere near the rate at which the German troops reinforce. The Nazis also needn’t worry about casualties, whereas getting hit even once is often enough to put one of your few characters in the hospital for a few days. And how are you going to avoid damage when you’re up against flamethrowers, MG nests and heavy tanks? When your actual fighters are in the hospital, you need to fill up the gaps in your roster with poorly-trained civilians. And those weapons you find? They can do a little more damage compared to your starting equipment, but often feel more like side-grades. That is, if you don’t have to sell them off for supplies to buy the uprising a few more precious days.

I recommend WARSAW if you want to play something truly fascinating. It’s stressful to deal with and the depressing writing will certainly turn some away, but it’s a kind of game you don’t find often.

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