Krzysztof shot first. It was one bullet from my Polish Home Army Soldier’s rifle, hurling down the Warsaw street towards the enemy. I’m actually startled by the sound of the bullet hitting the grenadier. I’m no Nazi sympathizer, but that bullet slapped hard.
Warsaw (the game) takes Darkest Dungeon and reframes it in WWII historical-fiction. You oversee the Warsaw Uprising, the Polish underground resistance that sprang up in the country’s capital city of Warsaw, Poland, in the summer of 1944. Germany had already been occupying Poland for five years, and the Poles had had more than enough. Time for those Nazis to get the boot. And look, I tried reading the Wikipedia page on the Warsaw Uprising. It’s a confusing situation. By the time I got to the third paragraph, I wasn’t sure if the incoming Russians were allied with the Poland or Germany. You'll have to pardon my ignorance. But Warsaw isn't making it its job to teach you about the war either, really. You'll learn some names, and you'll learn about the weaponry involved. You'll see some street names and, if you're a monolingual American like me, not be able to pronounce any of it.
All I know is that my video gamified efforts to win back Poland were unsuccessful. Repeatedly. I tried many times. But unlike many popular roguelites today, Warsaw doesn’t give you a leg up on subsequent playthroughs. You don’t take some hardcore weapon or veteran hero back to the beginning of the Uprising with you. You start over with nothing.
Rather than the single-file attack and defense of Darkest Dungeon, Warsaw uses two lanes. Before heading into an area of operations, you establish your marching order. There are two rows across, and four columns top and bottom. This easily doubles the complexity of soldier placement. And placement is important because guns only fire upon specific regions from your side of the board, and they only hit specific regions on the enemy’s side of the board.
The sound effects do slap pretty hard, at least from the guns. The zoom-in, zoom-out effect is always great in these types of games. The rockets have their launch and hit sound effects pinging at the wrong times. And flames from flamethrowers have their sound clipped short. The soundtrack, however, is pretty neat and could be spinning on your great grandma’s Victrola as we speak. Old World instrumentals warble and crackle like black and white movies, and the instrumentation is entirely too innocent-sounding for the two-front war popping off in Warsaw’s streets.
While slowly leveling up your heroes, taking them on multiple missions unlocks more and more of their backstory, and are treated to their likes and dislikes. Krzysztof Zielinski, your boyishly handsome Home Army Soldier, likes long walks in the countryside. Jadwiga, your absolute god of a Paramedic, likes clothing from Paris. Does any of that matter? Not on the battlefield. But the battlefield isn’t everything. These guerilla fighters had lives before the war and, if all goes well, they’ll have lives to look forward to after the war. Not with me at the helm, of course. But you, perhaps. Maybe you’ll have better luck finding a winning solution for the Uprising. I couldn’t keep up with the Mt. Everest-like escalation of enemy weapons, armor, madcap abilities, and monstrous hit points.
Battles can be won and lost before you even deploy to the scene. You have to set yourself up for success back at headquarters. Stashed away in Warsaw's Prudential Tower, you hoard and expend supplies. This is where you handle the arms deals. This is where you stock up on long-range ammo, or pack an extra medkit into the field because you can’t afford to let Jadwiga, who likes clothing from Paris, spend one more night in sickbay. Get back out there, Jadwiga. These bullet holes aren’t going to patch themselves.
When it’s time to select a mission, you’re given three choices across the city’s districts. You can choose one and only one action, and the others you don’t choose will fail. This is non-negotiable. So choose wisely. Repel German forces in the western district of Wola and earning a commendation while taking losses in Ochota and Praga? It doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all. The choice often ends up being, “Which place will be the most devastated if I don’t go there?” And then you go to that location.
I came out of my first mission with 100 percent casualties, every member severely wounded. They all needed two or three days in the hospital. But there's no way to advance time except by accepting missions and heading back out into the thick of it. Nor could I afford to buy four new combatants—as if I had that kind of money in the first place. Warsaw is bleak from the get-go.
In missions, with my Action Points ticking away as I stalk down down side streets and up wrong alleyways, I’ve failed missions only one block away from my objective, since I’m mostly wandering across a map blindly, praying for a compass heading to pop up that will help my mission objectives.
The start of each day hands over the demoralizing statistic of the city’s dead. With nearly a million residents in the beginning, the number goes down by the tens of thousands every day. I don’t know if they’re dead or if they’re abandoning the city altogether. But it’s probably a safe (and sad) bet that these citizens aren’t making it to safety. They’re being killed by enemy action, rounded up by the Nazis. And history has shown what happens to wartime prisoners when they're rounded up by Nazis.
The frustration I felt at meeting each new and deadly enemy was palpable. But I refused to wave any white flag in the beginning. I refused to retreat. I was barely getting by, but I was getting by. Then, in one horrific showdown, one German sniper in the back row put two of my veterans and two of my rookies in the morgue. Wiped my whole team. It took exactly two rounds for the entire Uprising’s efforts to go down the tubes. Interestingly, this overpowered enemy type didn’t even have the decency to show up in the Codex afterwards (a minor glitch, but they happen). It’s like the sniper showed up, murdered my entire team in two rounds, and then ghosted. Dude was Swayze. Gone. Suffice it to say, I learned how to retreat after that day.
But then I also remember that poor enemy RONA Officer, a Soviet, with an 85 percent accuracy, that couldn’t land a single shot on any one of my soldiers. He XCOM’d himself three or four times in a row, missing those high-percentile shots. Poor guy. I could feel the enemy A.I.’s morale ticking down.
Warsaw’s artists get a lot of things right. Watching the background evolve, telling the story of a city being bombed into ruin, is well-told in sketched-out frames. Homes that had their walls blown out. Stores with roofs blasted to the ground. Piles of brick strewn about, once serving as civic buildings and industrial properties, now good for nothing but barricades.
While Darkest Dungeon is incessantly hopeless, the Warsaw Uprising feels like a truly lost cause. War assets disappear in increasing numbers every day. The city’s casualties pile up in numbers far too large to count. Momentum for the Uprising slows, the enemies grow stronger and more numerous daily. And here I am, scraping together picnic baskets of supplies just to buy a handful of bullets. Morale and attrition has everybody slouched over, jaws on the floor in utter disbelief at the losing war raging around them. Warsaw is stuck in a downward spiral that I’ve rarely encountered in games before. Well, perhaps I’ve encountered it in Darkest Dungeon--Warsaw’s closest relative. There’s certainly a part of me enjoying the experience. The side stories, the narrative beats, the literary-minded random encounters are all great. But as a whole, it’s not fun by any means.
Some elements of the game still need to draw a little more attention to themselves. Quality of life issues, in general, need some attention to detail. Like the Excursions on the Mission board. I’d checked and checked and checked; there was never anything there. Then one day I checked again and there were half a dozen Excursions, but, of course, I had no extra supplies to run an Excursion. I came back the very next day, a stockpile of supplies happily in hand, and then there was only one Excursion left.
My biggest gameplay grievance happens right on the battlefield. Characters and barriers seemingly switch positions during the zoom-in of the attack, making it hard to figure out who and what is taking which amount of damage. It’s endlessly confusing.
Being the “rogue-lite” that it is, when you lose the Uprising--as you do--the game deletes your save. That’s it. Nothing to do but start a new game. I was relieved and bewildered everytime. And again, Warsaw gives you nothing to carry forward. Nothing to aid you in your next run. Giving you something for your efforts is more and more commonplace in rogue-likes/lites, but Warsaw won’t do it. It won’t give you anything except the option to skip the tutorial on my subsequent playthrough.
It’s startling that Warsaw’s writing is its high point. When “The chatter leads you face-first into a spectacle of mob judgment,” or “Any war becomes a domain for the wounded, the maimed, and the dead.” It’s excellent. Warsaw paid its writers and artists well.
Despite its hiccups, the gameplay has its moments. Like when I sent one remaining enemy scrambling behind cover with a pot shot. Then scrambling back out of cover from a fake out that left him suppressed. Then dropping heavy ordinance directly on his location for a critical hit. Then watching him bleed out for the kill. Sometimes it feels like your just a cat batting a mouse between its paws.
When the mid-shot shifts in character placement are confusing, when it’s harder than it needs to be to keep track of damage-over-time, and when Warsaw shows you incorrect animations--like soldiers bleeding when they weren’t actually hit--or when the game doesn’t give you friendly reminders to just level up your heroes, or how you have to keep your finger awkwardly perched on the Esc key on some screens for navigation purposes--there are still those good moments. When the buying and selling on the bartering screen is awkward, when adding and subtracting team members is also awkward, and when swapping skills in and out is the same kind of awkward, there are still those good gameplay moments. When the game lets you walk right into a mission accidentally undermanned, or when trying to figure out, battle after battle, exactly how the “whose turn is it?” bar works, or if you run headlong into a three- to five-day engagement without enough ammo to see you through, there are still those good gameplay moments. It’s just too bad there are too many quality-of-life issues that will keep rearing up their head throughout the entirety of the Uprising.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, and open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982 and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile