IN WAR, NOT EVERYONE IS A SOLDIER
If the title ‘This War of Mine’ awakens a sense of deja vu within you, it’s most likely because you’ve heard of it before in the last few years. The bleak survival game – based on real-life Polish survival stories from World War II – has been made available on all of the major platforms since the original PC release in 2014 in one form or another, and received critical praise for offering a grounded, alternative and thought-provoking view of conflict that is deeply at odds with the slick bloodthirsty (and ultimately) disposable presentation normally associated with video games.
TWoM Stories: Father’s Promise offers up one of the DLC spin-offs as a (somewhat) more streamlined experience on mobile platforms but still manages to deliver the same affecting underdog survivor viewpoint of the horrors of war.
Players assume the role of Adam, a single-parent who was unable to evacuate his family from the nameless city that the war has devastated and must now must scramble to survive at even a basic level. As threadbare a plot as that seems, it’s more than enough emotional weight to draw the player in and worry at their decision-making as risk/reward quandaries quickly teeter one upon the other. Although sparsely characterised by monologues, dialogue with NPCs and in-game menus, you’re left in no doubt as to Adam’s physical and emotional well-being, these states further muddying your decisions.
The atmosphere of the game is established almost instantly, opening on the familiar Hemingway quote that has heralded the start of the other TWoM iterations before transitioning to a ‘cut-scene’ using the sombre monochromatic pencil-etched 2.5D in-engine graphics to set up the narrative crux of the game. Again, simple but elegant: giving the player more than enough room to decide how to navigate towards their goal. A mechanic that, as with the setting and story, will linger with the player.
Similarly to the name of the city, the game does not attribute a date or time frame during play and in-game technology doesn’t betray that ethos as it reduced to the most basic survival must-haves. An irony keenly acknowledged, however fleetingly, when you’re playing it on a mobile phone.
THE HORROR, THE HORROR
Like the other games in the series, Father’s Promise operates using a day/night cycle, where daytime is used for upkeep of the apartment block that Adam and Amelia call home (effectively a base of operations), as well as daily tasks such as feeding or the treating of wounds. Night time switches up the management gameplay for stealth/action gameplay as Adam has the option to investigate other locations to scavenge for supplies and materials.
The ‘base’ starts off with few resources and even fewer amenities as you might expect, but facilities can be built and upgraded (provided you can scavenge the appropriate materials) as each playthrough progresses. The decision to build what facility and in what order can meaningfully impact a game either immediately or much later down the line. Thankfully, poor choices that swiftly end the game (by killing Adam) can be rolled back as the auto-save system defaults to the previous day’s state to restart from but you might not see the spoiled fruit of a mistake until much later in your playthrough, by which point there is no recourse but to start from the beginning again.
Players familiar with the survival genre will quickly recognise the pillars of these games: hunger, exhaustion, physical and mental health will all affect Adam’s effectiveness during a playthrough. And so, a delicate game of plate-spinning forms the basis of the core loop as you upgrade and maintain the apartment block during the day to compliment and maximise Adam’s scavenging efforts at night.
For example, not having a proper bed means that Adam will sleep poorly and become exhausted. Exhaustion prevents him from running and that will slow down his exploration of a particular area (and subsequent resource gathering) before the night time clock runs out and that cycle ends. Mental needs cannot be ignored either, as depriving Adam of ‘addictions’ such as coffee or even engaging in ambiguous activity like stealing supplies from other survivors can negatively affect his attitude as well, slowing down building and scavenging as he stops to complain about the futility of a given action.
SURVIVAL, AT A PRICE
While gameplay during the day can become repetitive with busywork (even dull in the instances where Adam has to sleep to recuperate), it is easily balanced out by night time scavenging mechanics which are far more active.
Night time activities start off with Adam in ‘stealth’ mode as you investigate locations that are unlocked through the course of the story. In unoccupied locales, the player must prioritise what supplies/materials to take with them (or leave behind for future visits) in their limited inventory, which can be tough in its own right.
Visiting a site where there are other survivors (or worse) adds a whole other level of anxiety to the proceedings as Adam peers through doors to assess if the room on the other side is empty or not (people and vermin are indicated by stark red ripples in the cutaway diarama structures when they’re not in line-of-sight) before proceeding. Many of the NPCs Adam encounters are harmless and some can even be questioned to advance the story, but not all are approachable.
As an untrained civilian, stealth is the order of the day and there are areas in buildings where Adam can safely hide provided he isn’t spotted by a potential enemies. Should Adam be detected or if the player opts for a stealth takedown, there are (of course) consequences. If successful in stealthily dispatching an enemy, the sound of their body hitting the ground can alert nearby allies. If a fight ensues, the game switches to a clumsy combat system that can be improved in Adam’s favour using found or crafted weapons.
Clumsy may sound like a criticism but this is clearly by design. Like most systems in this game, fighting is not meant to be quick or clean.
Like the game’s presentation, the sound for Father’s Promise helps to set tone and build mood, successfully moving the game toward a more contemplative endeavour. The day cycle is punctuated with simple guitar riffs that enhance the desolate, desperate atmosphere, while threatening low soundscapes fill the night raids, descending into electronic growls as danger increases. Throughout all of this the distant sounds of gunfire and explosions are a relentless reminder of what Adam calls home.
Having never played the original or console version of This War of Mine, I was surprised by how clean the mobile port is. The UI is simple but responsive, feeling very much at home on a handheld platform (which explains the recent Switch version). While there will often be a cluster of different interactive bubbles around the one that you want to actually use (particularly in the base), I never experienced any issue with Adam performing the wrong action unless I had accidentally pressed the wrong one. There was the occasional instance of Adam racing to a random point on the screen when I was pinching to zoom in and out but that’s an issue with that type of interaction rather than the fault of the game.
My one real complaint with this game is that it is at odds with itself in terms of difficulty. And it is a difficult game that will not be completed on your first try (perhaps if you have played another version beforehand?). All of which is fine as difficulty is a staple of the survival genre (make no mistake, the simplest of goals soon become complex as you work out what exactly is required to reach them), trial and error are constant companions. However, Father’s Promise trips you up right out of the gate even before it gets to punishing you with the gameplay loop.
Although not perfect, the auto-save is welcome relief. As is additional information on the world map approximating what supplies/materials are left in each location. But both of these hint at a helping hand that is vitally missing from the game. There is almost no tutorialisation and while most, if not all, people won’t need to be told how to move Adam around the real estate of the screen, it would be less antagonistic to new players if the game explained little things like when rest will heal an injury rather than accidentally using meds or bandages that are scarce and hideously expensive to purchase through trade.
Over time, gameplay lessons will be learned, as is the tradition with these types of games, but punishing them though ignorance in the early stages of the play may discourage first time players from persevering to the meatier risk/reward decisions.
While I wouldn’t call This War of Mine Stories entertaining, it is certainly engaging and thought-provoking as it revels in the player agonising over simple yet critical choices and shines a light on the heroism of basic survival in a way that most games don’t. There’s an unusual role-playing aspect to Father’s Promise that isn’t present in most games: a very simple game of morality where the player justifies what they feel they need to do to survive. The game will remember those polarising choices and remind you of them, ensuring that they stay with you even after you’ve closed the app.
There is a lot of replay value to be had as a playthrough can last several hours and the process of problem-solving can prove satisfactory even in a failed attempt as it leads to different subsequent games. Even though the day/night cycle does present bite-sized portions of gameplay suitable for a commute game, it lends itself to a longer journey as you definitely need to be aware of your status, needs and inventory, rather than dipping in and out.
Overall, This War of Mine Stories is a more than capable port that offers value in excess of its £1.98 price tag. It’s definitely one of those ‘you need the thing to get the thing to get the thing’ games but if you are looking for something more challenging I would highly recommend it.