Written by Brendan Tam
During a visit to Poland back in 2019, I happened to come upon the Warsaw Uprising Museum which is dedicated to memorialising the 1944 Warsaw Uprising and the context of the overall German occupation of the city during World War II. It is this event, vital to the development of Polish national identity post-war and the country’s wider experience after being buttressed between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, that Warsaw, a turn-based tactical RPG by Polish developer Pixelated Milk attempts to capture. Of particularly interest is how Warsaw handles the harsh themes and the broader historical context that this historic moment elicits. During the second mission, I experienced the annihilation of my four-person rag-tag group of resistance fighters as they fruitlessly attempted to destroy a German Sturmpanzer without any heavy ammunition at their disposal. It evoked a sense of futility and tragedy that permeated the museum I spent hours walking through and reading the various displays. It is moments like these, through utilising minimalistic storytelling that relies upon the underlying gameplay mechanics, that reveal how the developers have successfully crafted a game that weaves together the experience of what many of the citizens of Warsaw experienced in the autumn of 1944 in a mostly respectful and reverent manner.
Warsaw is a turn-based tactical RPG that appears heavily inspired by Darkest Dungeon, in both its overall aesthetic look, showcasing a hand-drawn art style, and its gameplay mechanics that features permadeath as an integral part of the experience. Like many rogue-like inspired RPGs, each playthrough is randomised, from the character units available to the missions encountered each day. Each playthrough of Warsaw is split into 63 days, spanning the historic period of the Uprising from the 1st of August, the beginning of the Uprising, to the 3rd of October which is the inevitable end of the game whereupon the Polish Home Army, the leading underground resistance organisation that coordinated the Uprising, surrendered to the German Wehrmacht. Up to eight named characters from a cast of seventeen are randomly assigned per playthrough, featuring a range of colourful backgrounds from a Polish Grey Rank boy scout, a Polish Uhlan cavalry officer, a German turncoat, to a Jewish ghetto survivor. Each day consists of up to the three game phases: the hideout, missions, and the end of day resolution.
The hideout, which evokes similarities to the home base in squad-based strategy games like X-COM, is the main hub where the Uprising is led from. Supplies act as the main currency of the game, which are gained from holding districts, selling items acquired through missions or events that occur throughout missions and during the end of day resolution phase. In turn supplies are primarily used to purchase items, salvage weapons, and improve the morale of districts. However, during both my playthroughs of Warsaw, I never found myself short of supplies. The few times I ran out of ammunition during a mission was due to my own laxness which was never repeated after I bitterly fought through an engagement that spanned over thirty rounds due to only having close-combat low damage skills available for use. Supplies can additionally be used to recruit volunteers, basic units limited to a single weapon and skill choice, that bolster your fire team if permadeath happens to cripple the availability of named characters during a given playthrough. Thus, while useful to recruit, volunteers are no real replacement for characters, particularly during more difficult enemy encounters where character skills can prove the difference between success and failure. Character deaths thus have a significant impact that can derail a given playthrough by reducing your effectiveness in combat-focused missions.
Missions are split between two modes, with the first being an overhead map portion that provides a street view of the relevant district the mission takes place in. Traversing the map reveals events, ammunition drops and battles where your chosen fireteam of up to four units are pitched against an assortment of Wehrmacht soldiers. Each mission has a set objective and it is here where Warsaw’s difficulty level is compromised by both the randomised nature of the game and the mission structure. While some missions involve daunting tasks such as defeating a certain number of encounters or particularly powerful foes such as the Sturmpanzer, others that utilize certain items such as camouflage which allows you to skirt enemy encounters, can be completed without a single battle. While doing so will reduce the amount of experience points characters gain, this is hardly a limitation due to the lack of a difficulty scale when it comes to missions. Missions encountered during day 1 of the Uprising can similarly occur on day 60 which results in an anti-climatic finale as the game immediately halts as you reach the 3rd of October without a set-piece finale that could have elevated the back-end experience.
Avoiding battles, while a viable strategy to completing a playthrough and partly encouraged, is a mistake that can cheapen the player experience and remove an important facet of the game where it truly shines. The battle system of Warsaw is reminiscent of Darkest Dungeon with a greater emphasis placed upon unit positioning. With the presence of a second row, the positioning of your fire team over the eight spaces available on the player’s side of the screen plays a pivotal role in determining the outcome of battles. Unit skills are interwoven with positioning as where a character is situated and the positions that opposing units occupy determines what skills can be used. Locations may be targeted and whether the flanking mechanic, that results in units dealing extra damage to enemy units in the opposing row, is activated. This adds a much-welcomed strategic layer that rewards time spent tweaking the composition of your fire team through upgrading your characters with complimentary skills to ensure that they are equipped to defeat the diverse range of enemy units that may appear in a given mission. Additionally, while many skills are only usable or effective against certain enemy types, when coupled with the positioning limitations to many abilities allows for extremely satisfying character-specific loadouts such as a sniper who can kill certain units in a single shot, or the Uhlan officer that has an unlockable passive skill that provides and extra action per turn, without such skills being wildly unbalanced.
The writing and narrative of Warsaw compliments the frantic and against-the-odds sensation created through fighting a successive series of battles that slowly grinds down your characters and the Uprising as a whole. Narrative events, that are encountered optionally during missions, take the form of text-based scenarios where the player can make choices that determine the outcome. Events provide experience points and potentially other rewards if the outcome of the event is successful such as supplies and district morale bonuses. These events play an integral role in fleshing out the game’s narrative and setting as they act as vignettes, illuminating the experiences that coloured the Uprising and the choices that ordinary citizens of the city were forced to take. It is through events that the game broaches several heavy themes, ranging from suicide, hopelessness, loss, and desperation. Instead of glorifying war or the actions of the Polish resistance, Warsaw constructs a sombre image through both events and the character backstories that are progressively unlocked as they hit various experience point milestones. It is a shame that these are effectively optional, as a large proportion of the writing is confined to either these events or the fleshed out character backgrounds in the codex that can be accessed during battles and at the hideout.
The end of day resolution is triggered upon either the conclusion of a mission or after resting if you choose to do so. This phase provides a summary of the overall success of the Uprising, determined by the Uprising’s ‘Momentum’ and the number of ‘Districts’ that are still controlled by the uprising. If ‘Momentum’ hits zero or you lose control of all six districts of Warsaw, the game is over. Additionally, at the end of each day an event is triggered. Events include a number of outcomes, from mirroring events such as those encountered in the overhead map phase that are text based choices that can result in either increasing or decreasing the amount of supplies, district attrition or Uprising momentum to offering new named characters, each of which has a unique class with differing skills and abilities.
Despite the issues encountered relating to the randomised nature of Warsaw that comprises the overall impact of its writing and the randomised nature of the mission structure that creates an unpredictable difficulty level for each playthrough, Pixelated Milk have succeeded in crafting an experience that does not sacrifice historical accuracy for overall enjoyment. Historical Word War II games outside of the RTS and FPS genres are a rarity and I can happily report that it is a satisfying tactical RPG that expertly utilises its gameplay mechanics to strengthen its overall narrative, crafting a cohesive and easily re-playable experience that captures the difficult themes that are inherent to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. I highly recommend it to all who are either fans of the genre who are seeking a dependable tactical RPG in the vein of Darkest Dungeon or hold an interest in the historical event that the game captures.
- Expertly captures the sense of futility, struggle and loss that is at the heart of this historic event.
- Gameplay mechanics that fit seamlessly with and compliments the narrative content.
- A diverse set of customisable classes and characters.
- Randomised missions result in an inconsistency difficulty.
- Barebones resource management component that is either an insurmountable challenge or easily ignorable depending on the playthrough.
- Narrative that is largely confided to optional walls of text via the in-game codex.
- Tiny screen text, particularly when playing on handheld mode on the Switch.