Developer Pixelated Milk doesn’t want to tell you which of those sides you should be on, but it would like you to have an opinion by the time you’re done with its game. Preferably it’ll be a nuanced opinion, learned from actively engaging with the minutiae of a very real tragedy.
But Pixelated Milk also doesn’t insist you go in wanting to engage on that level. The developer wants Warsaw to be, first and foremost, a compelling game (if not a traditionally ‘fun’ one). It draws most heavily on Darkest Dungeon, nabbing that game’s micro-scale battles, near-constant challenge, lingering ill effects after battle, permadeath and Damocles’ Sword sense of doom. It has its own ideas sprinkled in, too – there’s some interesting thinking around changeable squad formations and cover mechanics, for instance. It is, unsurprisingly and appropriately, impassively difficult.
It also throws in small moments of risk-reward exploration (across maps drawn directly from 1944 Warsaw, right down to some of the stores in its shopping districts) and choose-your-own-adventure decision making. The overall structure feels close to something like XCOM 2 or The Yawhg – you have 63 days with which to build your resistance, scavenge what you can, and beat back the Nazis as much as possible. You’re constantly making choices knowing that you’ll simultaneously be expending other opportunities, always knowing something terrible is coming. It’s a modern tactics game, not an interactive history book.
But it’s a modern tactics game built into a historical context. Warsaw is thick with facts: the locations are correct; the timescale (and the events along it) correspond to real life; weaponry and clothing choices are accurate. The only concession to game-iness is in its fictional characters – created to spare any pain for descendants of the real-life freedom fighters – but even they’ve been formed out of diary entries and accounts from the time in order to feel authentic. By simply paying attention to the game you’re learning, little by little.
And if you become truly engaged, you’ll even be able to follow historical threads by choosing to engage with side-quests. For instance, I’m hugely interested in how the game engages with the fact that the Soviet army refused to aid the fight against the Nazis, choosing to let Warsaw burn rather than help it become a western-controlled city in victory. It’s close to what some of my own relatives dealt with not too far away, and Warsaw includes an optional plotline that explores that idea, letting me choose to learn more while playing more. It’s a history lesson built onto the foundations of a game mechanic.
For some, all of this will be too much – too grim, too challenging, too grounded, even. I don’t get the sense that Pixelated Milk minds all that much. Warsaw is a story that should be told, but told in the right way – this feels right to me.
Joe Skrebels is IGN’s UK Deputy Editor. Follow him on Twitter.