It was my first time encountering a mortar battery. It was huge compared to the Nazi opposition I had met with so far, but I figured my units were strong enough to handle it.
Anna and Krzysztof were on the left flank. Ernest and Jadwiga on the right.
They took a couple of potshots to chip away at the artillery’s health, then it fired. Two critical hits. With one blast, it wiped out the offensive half of my squad. I should have retreated immediately—lived to fight another day. Too bad I was shellshocked and too stunned to think of anything but to struggle on. Within the next turn, Ernest and Jadwiga were dead, the mission failed, and, mere days later, lacking for resources, units, and ammunition, the Warsaw Uprising was crushed.
WARSAW is tough. That much should come as no surprise considering the game is based on the historical Warsaw Uprising, a two-month-long resistance campaign waged in World War II Poland against the Nazis. In its combination of a resource management strategy layer and turn-based tactics combat, WARSAW bears some resemblance to the XCOM series, but its map system and 2D battle screen call back to the venerable JRPGs of yore. The result of this peculiar mish-mash of ideas and inspiration is a war game that feels like war—a battle of attrition to see who can last the longest—and that gives it a rare power.
The narrative frame of WARSAW barely tries to invest the player in the personal stories of the rebels, so anyone looking for a meaningful experience to follow This War of Mine may want to look elsewhere. World War II rages. The oppressed fight back. Nevertheless, emergence beats as the heart of the tale, as players forge a unique struggle for survival. Players start with three soldiers, and the ranks swell over time, bolstered by those who join of their own volition or are recruited at the expense of valuable supplies. A codex provides histories of those who come to the cause, but it is tucked away in a corner, unlikely to be read except by true enthusiasts.
More pertinent are the events that the squad stumbles across while in the field: bodies caught on barbed wire, dissenters buried alive, tanks rolling down desolate streets. These snippets are sometimes harrowing, and they challenge the player to balance their moral compass against potential gameplay bonuses (and deficits).
However, while interesting, those segments are ancillary. Central to the player’s concerns is the city of Warsaw, which is divided into six districts. At any given time, three of those areas will have missions available. Ignoring a mission means that the attrition level will rise. As attrition goes up, morale drops—and when that hits zero (as it almost inevitably will), the district surrenders. Each surrender means fewer supplies, meaning survival gets harder. While all-important resources can be found in the field (or after defeating enemies), everything in the Uprising headquarters costs supplies, and the best way to earn more is by selling resources that might later prove essential in the field. The balancing act required is frighteningly delicate. Simply put: do not expect to succeed on the first attempt at WARSAW, especially given the absence of difficulty options.
The mission types vary. As might be expected, some are based around combat (take down a set number of enemy squads, eliminate a particularly pesky foe), but others are as simple as finding an event on the map and clicking through the story to complete it. Careful players will likely take the latter kind as frequently as possible. Although battles are sometimes unavoidable, as the record at the top of the page suggests, a single loss can have far-reaching ramifications for the fortunes of the Uprising.
Only four characters can enter a mission, and their starting positions on the two lines of the battlefield are set during the mission selection process. That positioning is vital, as some abilities can only be used from particular spots. Moreover, movement uses precious stamina and activations, the former of which affects accuracy and defence while the latter act as command points. As such, the battle screen is deceptively simple. Thanks to the interaction of abilities, buffs, debuffs, activations, accuracy, critical hits, positioning, cover, stamina, and good old-fashioned hit points, the sheer number of moving parts can be difficult to come to terms with. However, the tutorial, though short, provides a firm grounding of the rules, and the slow-paced, turn-based combat is something of a godsend. In contrast, the RNG can be damning, but strategy fans should be well aware of the frustrations of such systems.
Aiding significantly in the overall readability of the battle and management screens alike is the visual design. Developer Pixelated Milk has opted for a gritty cartoon aesthetic, vaguely reminiscent of Valkyria Chronicles absent the anime styling. As a result, the important characters are all distinct, and enemy units can easily be identified by their type. The backdrops may be gritty and war-torn, but the GUI is clean and uncluttered. WARSAW may want for a bit of verve and excitement, but, as the adage goes, ‘less is more’. The same rule applies for the audio. The compositions feel lighter than one might expect, but they bear an insistent, martial tone that helps time pass.
Five hours into a session, the player could be forgiven for thinking that only half that time has gone by. WARSAW has an addictive quality that comes from sublime gameplay and a pervasive feeling of desperation. ‘Just one more mission,’ goes the refrain. ‘Just one more’ until the final mission is complete, and the game comes to its shattering end. WARSAW may be short, but as an engaging history lesson and an engrossing game, it warrants any number of replays.
Reviewed on PC.