After hearing about This War of Mine after its release in November, I finally cleared out some time after the holidays to play it, and was not disappointed: It's easily one of the most memorable and profoundly impactful games I've played over the past couple of years, and one that I strongly recommend you check out.

Most games that use war as the premise for the action put you in the role of the soldier or someone else close to frontline action. This War of Mine turns that on its head by making you a civilian caught in the crossfire, doing what it takes to survive.

11bit Studios, the game's creator, is also behind one of my favorite tower defense strategy games: The Anomaly series, which started out by also putting that genre on its head by making you control the troops who have to make their way through a maze of powerful and destructive towers, instead of placing the towers themselves.

While the setting of This War of Mine is a fictional eastern European city, the game itself was inspired by the real-life events of the four-year long Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war in the 1990s. Thousands of Sarajevans lost their lives when Serbian forces surrounded the city in an attempt to drive out the Bosnian government forces within.

At its core, This War of Mine is a task management game — you fill your time by making sure you have the supplies and equipment you need to survive at all costs. From the gameplay perspective, This War of Mine isn't conceptually different from simple casual fare like Farmville or Flo's Diner. But the execution is so entirely different, drawing a direct comparison with games like that is insulting.

Survive at all costs

The game puts civilians with no survival or combat experience in a bombed-out but habitable building, left to fend for themselves. The characters are randomized for each game, and each character has a different dominant skill: One may be very strong, for example, and capable of carrying more when scavenging than his comrades. Another may be a fast runner — useful for getting out of potentially lethal situations. One might be a good cook, able to stretch supplies further, while another might have a gift for bartering.

The first order of business is to search the premises, scavenging whatever you can to survive — food, fuel, medicine, and whatever parts you can muster together to create things like a stove for cooking, tools, even weapons. If you can find enough parts you can cobble together beds to sleep on, patch up the holes in the wall (a good defense against casual looters), even a moonshine still, which you can use to aid in the creation of medicine and use as a valuable commodity.

During the day, you're left to produce whatever you can to survive. Occasionally you'll hear a knock on the door — it's often someone looking to trade; sometimes it'll be someone looking for help, or someone desperate for shelter.

You can turn away those looking for help, but be careful when you do: An act of kindness or generosity is sometimes rewarded with food, supplies, medicine, often at a time when you might need it very badly. So there is some benefit to altruism, even during times of war.

Grab what you can

At night, you can send one member of your party to scavenge buildings in the surrounding area. The others stay back at the home, either resting or guarding against looters. Each action has an effect: Scavenging and guarding wears a person out the next day; they're slower than they would be if they'd rested, and they may want to lie down, making them less useful for preparing food and supplies.

Scavenging is key to your survival, but it can only be done under cover of darkness, when the chances of being shot at by snipers is low. You search nearby buildings for whatever you can find, load up a backpack (with a limited number of equipment slots) and then run back home. You can only perform one scavenging trip per night, so you need to be careful to grab what you need the most.

Not every nearby building is uninhabited: Sometimes you'll encounter other people that might either be hostile to you or anxious to barter for supplies they need. Fortunately your intel is pretty good: You'll have an idea before you visit each location of what you might find there, how much resistance there will be, and how picked over it is.

You can also just outright fight and steal what you need, though this has practical ramifications: At worst, if you're caught, you'll get into a fight. You can get seriously injured (or killed) depending on your skills and your equipment. Theft, injury and murder also have profound impacts on the mood of your party.

People get sick, people get depressed, people die. You must do what you can to liven the spirits of those that survive, whether it's scoring some coffee (a rare wartime commodity), cigarettes, a radio, or a guitar. Sometimes getting drunk is a valid choice, too, though it seriously impacts that person's ability to function for the rest of the day.

This War of Mine ramps up its difficulty quickly. The first few days are a bit of a walk in the park, but soon things get dire — troops move in, looters get more desperate and the weather turns too — and the constant grind of scraping for survival affects the characters too.

If you're sensitive to rough language, be warned that This War of Mine doesn't pull many punches: In fact, there's a prominent "F—k the war** graffiti on the wall right outside your dwelling, and some of the characters occasionally use four-letter words too. But with the gritty subject matter, this game is focused squarely on mature players.

Despite the lack of focus on combat and action, This War of Mine is no walk in the park — in fact, it's one of the most difficult games I can remember. The war and everything that happens has a huge impact on each character. If they slip too far into depression, they'll be inconsolable, and eventually they'll die no matter what you do.

Eventually, though, things get better — if you can survive long enough to see the end. Therein lies the challenge of the game.

Unique look

The game is built around a 2D engine; you see the building and its contents in cutaway, using a neat pencil rendering effect that gives everything an illustrated look. Doors, cabinets and other furniture or piles containing items are clearly marked; you'll also see red warning beacons if you hear footsteps or other disturbances nearby, so you can hide or flee if necessary. When you're on the prowl, scavenging at night, your ability to see your surroundings (and recognize others in the darkness) is hampered by obstructions like doors, walls, rubble and stairwells.

I did run into a few rendering errors on my Yosemite-equipped Retina MacBook Pro; occasionally I'd see dialogue bubbles and other popups fail to clear. A quick restart of the game fixed it.

You can continue the game if you need to stop playing, but there's only one "save slot," so if you start over, you'll lose what you've already done. The game randomizes your party, scavenging locations and many other factors (including how long it takes the siege to stop), so each time you play will be different.

A somber guitar soundtrack punctuates the story, with ambient sound effects marking whatever you're doing, and some background noise like the distant echoes of shelling and automatic weapons fire. It makes for a compelling and dramatic scene.

The Good

  • Gripping and dramatic tension without lots of twitch action
  • Great 2D engine adds to the atmosphere
  • Unique twist on task management games

The Bad

  • Occasional rendering glitches
  • Quickly ramping difficulty level

The Bottom Line

This War of Mine is a poignant, dramatic and gripping experience that will certainly have you emotionally invested in your characters, and may give you a perspective on war that few of us have ever had — and hopefully one few of us ever will have. This isn't an easy game to play, but it is richly rewarding, and one that I strongly recommend that you check out.

Mac App Store: - $16.99 - Download now

Also available on Steam: - $19.99 - Download now