From fanciful first person shooters to tactical strategy games and everything in between, World War II has been amply represented in video games and it isn’t hard to understand why. Conflicts and key figures are well defined and there is a wealth of incident to draw on, not to mention reams of material about weapons and tactics. Warsaw is a challenging roguelike that aesthetically takes some cues from Darkest Dungeon while taking its subject matter from the closing days of WW2 and the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
History buffs will probably know the setting of Warsaw, which is explained through the briefest of introductions and a bare-bones tutorial, which covers the basics of movement and the game’s turn based combat, but which barely hints at most of the game’s more complex systems and overall punishing difficulty. You might understand what to do but not much about how to do it.
Warsaw is played in three basic phases: time in the hideout/HQ, where the player recruits squad members, heals them after battle, repairs equipment, purchases ammo and levels up various skills. The second phase involves moving through the city streets of Warsaw on an abstracted, overhead map and the third phase is turn-based combat or other encounters. While all of this sounds pretty straightforward, the challenges come thick and fast in every phase from selecting recruits — each with specific strengths and weaknesses — to selecting the next mission, to wise use of diminishing action points while exploring, to the game’s rather unforgiving, somewhat quixotic combat where luck plays as much of a role as skill.
While some turn-based games have a limited number of stats to manage, Warsaw demands that players pay attention to stamina, action points, ammunition supplies, character skills and rotation in combat, weapons and the many ways in which the systems interact, which takes some time to fully discover. Selecting (as required) one mission out of three at each return to HQ automatically fails the other two, reducing the overall morale of the uprising which can reach a game-ending low. Poorly managed exploration and of course, failure in combat can have the same effect. Because this is a roguelike, character death is permanent. I suppose that the dictum that informs most roguelikes — you will fail — shouldn’t be surprising but in Warsaw, failure seems to be the assumed outcome.
Graphically, Warsaw is pretty bare bones, with an overland map that is a means to an end and 2D character models and combat that I wish added a little more humanity to the experience. There is little music in Warsaw and overall, the aesthetic experience is somewhere between grim and bland. No one expects the Warsaw Uprising — one of the darkest yet most inspiring chapters in WW2 — to be populated by comic relief and lighthearted moments but Warsaw’s mix of recruits lack personality beyond their function as fighters.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with complexity and challenge in a game but Warsaw adds to the mix some capricious unpredicatability in its AI mechanics and design that can be frustrating, resulting in gameplay that is simply not on the winning side of the challenge/reward equation. Some streamlined systems and little more tolerance for varied playstyles and approaches would make Warsaw feel encouraging of creativity. If Warsaw’s intent was conveying the hopeless desperation that the city’s residents felt in 1944 was the goal, the title succeeds but that doesn’t necessarily make for an engaging game.