Warsaw Review — Fighting the Good Fight With Style
It's quite the surprise that one of the most poignant WWII stories comes from Warsaw, an RPG and strategy title from indie studio Pixelated Milk.
Warsaw begins with a simple cutscene; choppy, and no voice work. The sounds of endless gunfire, cries, and yells, and interrupted with the occasional bombing is the music. Yet this one scene portrays combat in a warzone with a horrific profoundness that escapes many modern video games.
After that, you’re prompted to calibrate your screen, choose your difficulty levels, then play through the tutorial campaign. Said level introduces players to the basics of the game and unlocks several characters.
The overall campaign takes place in Warsaw, Poland on August 1st, 1944 during the W Hour. This event, given the go ahead by the exiled Polish government, was a major battle fought by the army turned resistance movement against both the Nazis and the Soviet threat. Within the immediate area of the uprising are nearly one million civilians in the crossfire.
You move your party around the map as you complete each objective given to you. Yellow arrows indicate that a mandatory objective is nearby, while white arrows are for tracking down optional ones. Movement on the map costs action points (AP) and running out of them before completing all objectives means an automatic mission failure, so it’s important to move carefully and with purpose. There’s also a risk and reward system associated with AP that involves one of the optional objective types–narrative events–which can be found scattered throughout the map.
These special events involve either civilians or soldiers and require the player to make a decision based on real life scenarios that freedom fighters encountered on the field. For example, you could encounter a group of children pointing a gun at you and choose whether to calm them down while giving them supplies. One of your allies could have a sudden mental breakdown and point a gun at you, giving you prompts that range from killing him to talking him down enough to be taken into custody. There are also other events that involve investigating suspicious areas on the map.
While these choices may seem straightforward, there are plenty of factors that can have a profound effect on the end results. For instance, some choices require the player to choose a character to pull it off, and the choice may be dependent on a particular stat like Charm to succeed. Even more stressful are some of these responses that are denoted with a symbol meaning failure will incur severe penalties. The risks come with great rewards, however, as you gain significant experience and loot, so it’s worth searching for these optional events.
As you explore the map you will encounter loot crates, which net you vital supplies as well as enemies that must be taken out. When you’re actually forced into a sorte, there’s a visceral sense of both tension and excitement as you face down often unfair odds. Combat is turn-based, with your party and the enemy party having a certain amount of arrangements or turns; once all arrangements are spent, the round is over. Each party member on your team (with a usual maximum of four) has set skills they can use in combat, depending on both the weapons they wield and their class. For instance, a medic’s main skill is usually First Aid, which heals a unit for a certain amount of hit points, and if they have a rifle equipped they can have other skills that hit enemies from far away with high accuracy. There’s a nice variety of classes you acquire as more units join your cause, and each one possesses useful skills that–when used at the right time–can turn the tides of battle.
Stamina is another stat that affects available skills. As characters take action in battle, they use up stamina and once that’s depleted, they can no longer take any actions and must recuperate said stamina. Finally, players must pay close attention to ammo supplies while using gun skills. Each gun skill requires a certain amount of ammo used for that skill and if you run out during battle, you can no longer use any skills that require them. This can complicate things for players, as poor planning can leave an entire party with almost no offensive abilities to use.
As surmised from the disastrous scenario detailed above, players must take care to diversify both weapons wielded in battle as well as the character classes. Spreading out the ammo types ensures that all of them are being used equally with no drain on any particular type, and having different character classes allows for players to adjust to a variety of scenarios as they occur. Another vital aspect of combat are status ailments and buffs that are either casted with weapon skills or character class skills. Ailments include Burn and Bleed, which causes incremental damage over a period of time, and buffs can raise defense, recover stamina, and more.
This sort of careful planning is what makes the game so gripping and often terrifying, especially balanced against Warsaw’s arguably biggest draw: permadeath. Just as in real life, if a soldier dies on the battlefield they stay dead, and this constant threat of losing your party members forces you to mitigate risks. Specifically, players have to weigh avoiding unnecessary battles and preventing injuries (when a character’s HP dips below a certain threshold and decreases max HP) with constant healing in and outside battle. Scouting and sneaking past potential enemies using flares and camouflage become valuable assets to navigating a perilous combat zone.
When not in the thick of things, characters lick their wounds in the base as it lets units recover from their injuries. You can also barter for ammo and items using the “currency” of supplies, see what units you lost in the morgue, check on units currently under your command, recruit new units using supplies, and choose new missions to embark on.
I love how well all of these mechanics interplay in Warsaw. As you march onward, you begin to adjust to the battle system: you learn how to best tailor your responses to the narrative choices, and you’re able to better judge when to risk searching for new events and when to pull back and complete your mission. The high difficulty makes a successful completion that much more satisfying, and there’s a great balance between genuine improvement and that small chance of failure despite making the best decisions.
Complementing all this is the beautiful artwork that conveys the darkness of war without resorting to cheap gore; damage is punctured by a brief cut to pained grimaces and a splatter of blood. The sound design, already demonstrated in the opening animation, does an excellent job at fully capturing the ambience of wartime ground zero. And the fact that characters speak their native languages is a small touch that adds to the authenticity of the setting and time period. The musical score is also incredible, as it reflects the emotional range behind your actions and just sounds plain catchy. The boss battle music is particularly great and I found myself letting my Switch rest as I simply enjoyed the track.
Warsaw is divided into several districts that need to be monitored, and several of them will have a mission going on simultaneously. When districts go without successful missions for a certain period of time, they gain attrition points that lowers that area’s morale. If morale hits zero, they surrender to the enemy and you lose control of that district, meaning fewer missions to choose from and less supplies being delivered to you as a form of “taxes.” As you’d expect, balancing missions between districts while monitoring overall morale during the freedom fighting effort is a core mechanic of the game.
While I appreciate the clean UI and various tasks performed outside of combat, some of these mechanics are more functional than others. For instance, having the inconvenience of injuries is a great way to force players to switch between units instead of relying on the same team, or risk permanently losing your favored fighters. On the other hand, the lack of tutorials for tasks outside of battle requires players to use trial and error to figure out how to navigate task and mission allocation. As a result, there is the feeling of being punished by the game when you inevitably misunderstand how the process works and choose poorly. The saving grace is that it’s not impossible to recover from mistakes, and Warsaw does quickly teach you what not to do.
There is another glaring issue involving the UI and one that players will immediately notice: the text size is extremely small, to the point that it’s incredibly hard to read unless you’re close to your screen as you play. It would have been nice to have an option letting you enlarge the text, as it can be difficult to see important instructions, data, and flavor text at times.
Warsaw is a complex and deep game that forces players to fight against seemingly impossible odds while making difficult decisions. You must fight against the looming threat of an enemy hell bent on conquest as you deal with the horrors left to fester in the cracks of the battlefield. The combat is fast-past with a fun system that rewards you for battling smart, and the storytelling is simple yet compelling, leaving you wanting to learn more. It’s captivating, exhilarating, terrifying, and crushing with just enough slivers of hope that attempt to motivate you to keep fighting the good fight. And despite a few hiccups, Warsaw most certainly succeeds in that regard.