Telling the Story of the Warsaw Uprising in the Style of Darkest Dungeon

By Jeremy Hosking on at

Upon loading up an early preview build of WARSAW, the player is thrust into a turn-based battle slap-bang in the middle of Warsaw, Poland. The date is 1st August 1944. Amidst stunning pen and ink style characters and their hardy backdrops, something else catches the eye. Small blotches of rich red contrast against pale skin in this street skirmish.

We are looking at Jadwiga, a medic whose blood-spattered arms and face steer well clear of typical 'healing' character tropes. There is no fade-to-white healing spell complete with chimes, or even an off-screen bandaging animation helping you recover from a direct rocket launcher hit. Jadwiga is a composite of multiple real-life heroes during the Warsaw Uprising, a bitter conflict in which medics were often first to lose their lives as they rushed to aid the wounded. As you play the tactician, it is details like Jadwiga’s tired, dirty, visceral appearance that connect the weight of your choices and the game’s detailed mechanics.

WARSAW is being developed by Pixelated Milk, a Warsaw-based team of 11 previously responsible for the  multi-platform tactical JRPG Regalia: Of Men and Monarchs. A publisher called gaming company (that's not a typo) approached the developer over two years ago with the budget and concept, then things went from there.

A tactical RPG built around turn-based strategy, WARSAW’s most immediate gaming inspiration is Darkest Dungeon, but its setting during a real-world conflict is a major differentiator and dictates chunks of the design. During the World War II, and despite German occupation, Poland continued the fight wherever possible through an underground Home Army. This force had their own secret printing presses, munitions factories, armouries and more, as well as a fully operational chain of command.

On 1st August, the Warsaw Uprising began as 50,000 Polish Home Army insurgents took back their capital city, gaining control within a few days. In swift retaliation, German reinforcements attacked en masse, as well as bombarding with air strikes and artillery. The Polish forces held out, hoping desperately for the Red Army, which held positions close to the city, to move in and turn the tide.

The Russians wouldn't arrive until it was far too late. Eventually, with the Polish resistance’s resources exhausted and countless lives lost, including more than 150,000 civilians, the Home Army surrendered on 2nd October 1944. In all, the Warsaw Uprising lasted for 63 days.

WARSAW’s introduction gives a broad overview of these events while guiding the players in and establishing context. You begin on day 1 of the Uprising, a tutorial launching you into battle with four motley characters taking on the same number of varied German enemies. This is a deliberately balanced choice for gameplay, because a truer reflection would’ve been a sobering eight Germans for every three insurgents.

Each side’s characters stand their ground on one of eight positions within two parallel rows of four. The resistance members can take a single action per turn, using one of a variety of attacks or abilities unique to each insurgent and reflecting their role in the Uprising.

The shady Kazimierz is from Bazaar, for example, an area known to the Polish where you could acquire anything, even if a little more illicit. A character can then inflict burns with a regular weapon as a recipient of Kazimierz’s contraband ammunition skill. Alternatively, young scout Franek can hurl an incendiary gasoline bottle; a common homemade weapon that could nevertheless be devastating in the right situation. Upon discovering sapper Halina and her ranged explosives, I enjoyed inflicting some serious splash damage to the enemy.

At this point it might seem that WARSAW is almost leaving reality behind: these tools, after all, are not new to strategy games. But WARSAW balances potentially overpowered rampages with an urgency about depleting resources, reflecting the ever-dwindling supplies that so challenged the insurgents.

One such resource is ammunition: Halina’s heavy ammo category is in very short supply. The theme even finds reflection in the visual style: the mish-mash of clothing and helmets seen throughout the Polish characters is because the resistance’s uniforms and other resources were scavenged in any way possible, often raiding German storehouses.

Another 'resource' element is stamina, with one of three bars disappearing if your hero uses an action point, and restoring if they don't act. Movement decisions are as important as combat considerations thanks to the positioning system. For example, the Home Army’s Krzysztof can inflict hefty damage with his rifle, but is greyed out unless he’s standing away from the front line. Is the risk of a turn spent moving him worth it, knowing that whilst your hero was safe before, he’s now in range of a German rifleman?

The term 'hero' is key. WARSAW's producer Krzysztof Paplinski says the developer is trying to create “heroes not units,” and make players connect with individual characters. One aspect of this is that when a character dies there is no second chance: they’re gone for good.

This effect is helped no end by the stellar artwork. Exuding both richness and subtleties, the bold illustrative style distinguishes each human figure, whilst the hand-drawn facades are dilapidated and filled with overflowing rubble. Even the menu windows are styled after traditional Polish signage.

Beyond the artwork, a careful use of other visual effects sets the mood, including deft touches of chromatic aberration and film grain. Outside of the visual presentation, whilst not in the preview build, the game will feature full Polish and German voice acting alongside English subtitles for even deeper immersion and authenticity. Evoking the excellent voice work on display in Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, where regional actors dubbed the silent footage with accurate accents, the WARSAW team has worked closely with a historical dialogue expert to ensure an authentic sound.

Amidst such strong presentation, however, the idling, attack and reactionary animations all feature rather static limbs and movements, not quite matching up to everything else on-screen. The development team explored going down a less static path but early tests showed that, applied throughout, the costs would’ve been impossible for the game's budget. Ultimately, the compromise takes away little but can’t quite be ignored.

WARSAW is split between battles on the city's streets and a hideout. The latter acts as the game's hub, where you can upgrade characters within their skill tree by way of the 'battlefield commissions' they receive. The hub also allows resources to be bought and sold, has a makeshift infirmary to heal characters, and is where you'll find new missions. A map displays Warsaw’s various districts, each presenting a different option along with details on what needs to be accomplished and how many days the patrol will be.

Upon selecting your characters and choosing the resources you think you’ll need for the duration, you're transported to the district, presented as a traditional top-down style map. Your button-like unit icon is dragged with the mouse (there is also controller support) through the streets to get where you need to go. Other icons appear as points of engagement; some are resources to salvage, some are enemies to fight whilst some are text-based scenarios with the player deciding the outcome. These moments are well written, avoiding cliches and carrying a real gravitas in the scene presented.

What is striking even now is how the Warsaw Uprising’s story permeates everything in the game. This is no linear re-telling, but a digressive and detail-soaked exploration of an event in relatively recent history that is equal parts awful and incredible. The authenticity exudes from the environments and clothing and weaponry, and even the typography. Krzysztof wants WARSAW to stand as a game first and foremost, of course, and hope from there that players’ curiosity may prompt them to discover more.

There are still areas that need tweaking. The game’s morale system lacked clarity, for me, and the sometimes confusing map exploration could use a little refinement. Minor adjustments aside, a larger concern is how tricky it is to get to grips with the game’s various mechanics; the tutorial is barebones and so the early stages are a slightly staggered trial-and-error affair. This was a preview build, to be fair, and none of these problems seem insurmountable, even if WARSAW launches on PC as soon as 3rd September (with consoles to follow later).

WARSAW will never, of course, tell the whole story of the Warsaw Uprising, nor is it in an 'edutainment' product, nor does it intend to do or be these things. It is something different. WARSAW has obvious gaming antecedents, but also the exciting potential of doing something new in that particular style: taking living historical accounts of the Warsaw Uprising, and using them to create something authentic for new generations.

Call it what you will: a starting point, perhaps, an interactive moment of time. Or simply a tribute to the hundreds of thousands of courageous Poles who faced, and fought against, the unimaginable.