Today is an important anniversary. At 1700 hours (4pm UK time), Warsaw will fall silent. Sirens will sound and the Polish capital will grind to a halt, as it has on this day, at this hour, for the past 74 years. Today, people will remember the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who died as a result of the Warsaw Uprising. But 75 years ago, it had just begun.
The Uprising was only supposed to last a few days. Soviet help was presumed on its way. But for whatever reason - did Stalin hold back on purpose? - it never arrived, and the Poles were on their own. And alone, they could never win. Somehow, they held out for 63 days, until 2nd October, then the Warsaw Uprising was officially declared over.
It's a history not many people outside of Poland know, but you sense it if you go there. I've been, I've seen it. People ask why the city is so new. They can't understand why they don't see castles and churches, cobblestones and monuments, spread out before them. Warsaw is a city which has seen more than 1400 years of history, so where has it all gone? Well, what wasn't already ruined by the invasion of Poland in 1939 was systematically torched in 1944 following the Warsaw Uprising. More than 85 per cent of the city was destroyed.
"No one really knows the history of other countries. I don't assume anyone should," Krzysztof Paplinski, producer of a new game about the Warsaw Uprising - called Warsaw, confusingly - tells me. "Everyone is interested in what's happening on their doorstep, and sometimes they don't even go that far. We know this is a powerful moment in Polish history, a really tragic one, a very profound one, and one which influenced not only the history of Warsaw but the whole of Poland."
But what Paplinski specifically doesn't want Warsaw to do is shove history down your neck. This is not a disguised history lesson. It has to succeed as a game first. If it does, people will return to play it, and when they do, he believes, its history will be absorbed.
To keep you coming back, Warsaw will kill you. It's going to be a challenging, try-again game like Slay the Spire, with retrying built into the loop. "We expect you to fail a number of times," Paplinksi says. The goal is to keep your Uprising going for 63 days, as it did in real-life, and doing so involves keeping an ever-depleting Morale gauge above zero, by completing missions in districts around Warsaw.
Missions are chosen from a Hideout hub, where you also equip and level up characters, and heal them and discover more about them. Your tasks usually involve recovering caches of supplies - a precious commodity! - or taking out Nazi patrols, and once completed, you're served with an event: a situation you have multiple ways of dealing with, and which has repercussions for your characters and Uprising overall.
Missions play out on a top-down map view of Warsaw, and you move an icon around while dodging hazards like patrols and gunfire, and investigating points of interest. The perspective changes when you enter combat, switching to a Darkest Dungeon-style, side-on, turn-based fight.
Characters are spaced along two rows of mirrored spaces - like the dots on a six-numbered domino - and abilities play around with this. Certain abilities require standing in certain areas, and certain attacks target certain areas. Ammunition is a consideration - and another precious commodity! - as is your characters' stamina level, which depletes with ability-use (the stronger the ability, the more draining). It replenishes a little each round but if you over-rely on one character, you will wear them out and they will be unable to do anything, which I discovered the hard way.
You pick characters at your Hideout but they are a precious commodity too! Do you sense a pattern? Characters don't pick up diseases like they do in Darkest Dungeon but the damage they sustain on missions stays with them. You can heal at the Hideout, but slowly, so you can see how ranks quickly become depleted - particularly with new characters only showing up once an in-game week. "You will learn to care for each one of them," Paplinski says.
It's a formula which works rather well. I spend a few hours with Warsaw and the combat and Hideout, particularly, are gorgeous. Combat is challenging and the web of abilities is engrossing, while the Hideout evokes wonderful charisma, with era-appropriate music crackling in the background, as characters idle in places suited to their backgrounds.
The missions aren't quite as convincing - patrols aren't fully working so there's no tension, but I can appreciate what they're trying to do. Nor are resources - characters, ammo, tokens for levelling up, etc. - stretched as fraughtly thin as they will be in the final game. Warsaw is supposed to have you clinging to survival like other Polish games This War of Mine and Frostpunk, but it isn't there yet. But then again, the build is a few weeks old and there's time for fine-tuning before the 4th September release.
A bigger concern is feeling dropped into the setting with barely an introduction. I mean, I know Nazis are the bad guys, everyone does, but I'm not sure what I'm specifically supposed to care about here - I wasn't taught Polish history at school. So to answer some questions, I read up about the Uprising while playing, and as I do so, I start recognising things I see in the game. Uniforms, equipment, names, locations, battles - it's all there, as I suppose it would be, what with three historians working on the game!
Little bells of familiarity begin ringing everywhere and I realise, with a jolt, I am doing exactly what Paplinski hopes players of Warsaw will: organically sponge the history up. "We know the story is interesting and it will 'get' everyone once they learn," he says. "This is the middle of Europe, the most recognised conflict in the world, and people are not aware of the almost total destruction of the city and the death of more than 200,000 people. People just don't know.
"You will be exposed to information and some of it will stay with you. If you want, you can then dig deeper, or you can just leave it at the surface and that's it. We don't come at this from an angle where, 'OK, finally we will educate people.' But we know if we make a good game, this will be the end result: people will recognise this event."
Today is the 75th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, probably the largest single act of resistance in the biggest war Earth will ever see. There will be a minute's silence at 1700 hours CEST. I know that now.
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