At just after 5 o’clock on the morning of September 1, 1939, Adolf Hitler declared that the Polish people had “refused [his] efforts for a peaceful regulation of neighborly relations; instead it has appealed to weapons.” Shortly thereafter, a small cadre of Panzer I and II tanks rolled across the Polish border, announcing their arrival with a cacophonous barrage, and ringing the doorbell as they stood on the welcome mat of World War II.
Fast-forwarding to 1944, Poland found itself occupied by both German and Soviet forces, the latter of which were supposed to be assisting the Poles in removing the German presence. Ironically, the Soviets became the most pressing concern following their proclamation that the ultimate goal was to turn Poland into a socialist state – ideals that were the exact opposite of what the Polish government wanted for itself. Indeed, so vexed was General Leopold Okulicki, the officer sent to ensure that there would not be Polish resistance to the Soviets, he became the very catalyst of what would afterward be known as the Warsaw Uprising.
Developed by Pixelated Milk (Regalia: Of Men & Monarchs) and published by gaming company (Project Warlock), Warsaw was released on October 2nd, 2019, for PC.
Stumbling Into Battle
Warsaw wastes no time: a black screen with the date – August 1, 1944 – and a current approximation of the number of Poles left in the city are the only indicators given of the severity of the situation, which puts the onus on the player to research how everything turned out in the end. Tasked with maintaining morale and preventing the rise of attrition across six regions throughout Warsaw, missions are accepted (or declined) via the commander in the refugee hideout.
Although there are six regions entrenched throughout the country, missions are only available in three of them each individual go-round. Objectives can range from tasks as menial as locating a pair of crates filled with supplies, or take it from zero to 100 and send you after a Sturmscharführer — that is, someone you really shouldn’t be going after at all, much less on the first mission.
The overworld map is where Warsaw starts its steep, almost completely vertical descent from having you think that this is a thought-provoking (even poignant) game and turns your rage up to the “Salted Earth” level, the incredulity meter popping like a brittle rubber band.
Maps for each mission are randomized, despite the fact that you may take multiple missions in the same district across the course of your playthrough. Starting off with 100 “Action Points,” the objectives must be completed before said points are depleted. The issue is that simply moving around the map begins to deplete the precious few that are available. And what happens once they’re gone? You fail the mission in its entirety, with no partial credit given. A consumable item — the Compass — halves the rate at which AP is consumed, but lasts for only a few seconds. Should you have been lucky enough to stumble across a precious cache of ammunition or other supplies while traipsing around the city, those are kept, however.
Battle is inevitable during wartime, but it is especially dangerous during an insurgency. Combat in Warsaw plays out in turn-based fashion, with each side allotted one “Activation” (turn) per character on their side of the battlefield. Once again, Warsaw misses its mark — and shoots itself in the foot instead — by placing the player at a severe disadvantage from the very beginning by only allowing a maximum of four units on a team. This may seem fair on paper, but try to maintain that stance when you’re already limping from an earlier battle only to be ambushed by an enemy team of six.
Additionally, akin to other squad-based titles such as XCOM and Darkest Dungeon, the accuracy listings on each character’s abilities can be hilariously miscalculated. I can’t count the number of times where the UI indicated that an attack I was about to make was 105% accuracy, only for the enemy to go full Neo-in-the-hallway and ignore my bullet completely.
Furthermore, abilities that have an area-of-effect (most of which select either three or four random targets) can actually target the barricades that are on the playing field instead of, you know, actual enemies. There’s nothing more satisfying than throwing a shrapnel grenade and having both its damage and subsequent Bleed effect applied to one enemy and two very lucky overturned oil drums.
Should you manage to successfully complete the mission objective(s), you will be rewarded with a single commendation medal used to level up your squad members, and any number of supplies, ranging from literally none to more than you’re able to take with you back to your base.
As far as hubs go, Warsaw’s place of business in between missions is more akin to a purgatory than anything else, nothing more than a place for the insurgents to lick their wounds between missions. Inside is the standard fare for a game of this nature: a mission board, an opportunity to change characters’ skills, a Priest who runs the morgue so that your lack of skill is shoved directly into your face, and a bi-spectacled, bowtie wearing gentleman in a rocking chair who updates the codex as new enemies, weapons, and team members are discovered.
One would think that, as they progress throughout these nail-biting missions in a desperate (yet, as history tells us, futile) attempt to liberate their country, certainly the base could be updated to heal teammates faster, perhaps open up new mission opportunities, or even unlock new cosmetics for the squadmates found so far.
That person would be wrong. In fact, the only thing that the hub is really useful for is selecting the next mission. This is such an incredibly baffling oversight that I was certain that I had missed something crucial during the tutorial, only to find that I had not: there really is not a single thing to upgrade or change during the playthrough. New squad members, once discovered, have a chance to be a part of your starting three on a new playthrough (all three are random), but other than that? Absolutely not.
While the gameplay falls quite short of expectations, the care with which the character models are designed is plainly evident. Idling in the hub, the pre-teen bombadier can be seen playing with his toy train set, pulling him away from the horrors he’s seen and will see. Squad members on both sides of the battles contort their faces in agony when met with a squarely placed bullet, and show relief when they’re healed or miraculously avoid what may have been their ballistic eulogy. The animations, however, are static for each individual attack, which is slightly disappointing, though they’re impactful enough to make known what’s going through the character’s head.
Equally impressive are the soundtrack and audio cues during battle; a thrown molotov resonates its broken glass and subsequent pyre with heavy tones, and rounds fired from each of the different models of guns available have a satisfying pop followed by the ejection of a cartridge. Both the Polish insurgents and German belligerents deliver a short piece of voice acting in their native language, and even though I speak neither, the intensity with which they’re delivered (when a medic is healing a squad member in dire straights, for example) allows the player to, for however long their squad may last, emotionally invest for better or for worse.
An Inevitable Demise
Warsaw has moments of brilliance that left me wondering how a game can have such lofty highs, only to be brought careening down by some truly head-scratching design choices. With some tweaking, this could be a very special game; so often is this particular point in history overlooked, glossed over in favor of other stories such as the Normandy invasion. But, as the game is in its current state, perhaps that’s for the best.
Review copy provided by gaming company for PC. Screenshots taken by reviewer. Feature image courtesy of gaming company.