Torn Away Review
Since I started playing video games 20-something years ago, I’ve had to take a break from specific titles for all manner of reasons. Life getting in the way has always been the most common, alongside needing to wait for the release of a few post-launch patches or mods. However, until I finished roughly half of Torn Away, I’ve never needed to put a piece of interactive entertainment down because I wasn’t emotionally able to continue it, and given how I prefer depressing narrative-driven experiences, that’s saying something. I’ve logged dozens of hours on This War of Mine despite its distressing overtones, Arma 3 is my most-played title even though most of the user-made missions I go in involve some sort of war crime, and I even managed to complete Martha is Dead in one sitting. But unlike those games, or the countless others I regularly give great review scores to, none of them made me physically step away from my PC until I was mentally ready to beat them, and the fact that Torn Away did makes it one of the most important titles to launch in the history of the medium.
To be clear, just because Torn Away is a very noteworthy video game doesn’t mean that it’s especially fun to play. In the title, you take control of Asya, a 10-year-old girl who is taken from her homeland in the motherland at the start of World War Two and forced to work in a labour camp alongside her mother. Over the course of a few hours, however, she manages to escape, and then tries to make her way back to the village where one of her few surviving relatives supposedly lives while encountering all of the horrors of one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. To do this, you as the player are rarely tasked with doing anything more than solving straightforward logic puzzles, navigating linear environments or occasionally engaging with simple stealth and platforming sequences. Torn Away is a visual novel, and although what little it has in the way of actual gameplay is well-crafted and more or less unique, it isn’t especially engaging or very interesting.
However, what Torn Away lacks in interactive elements, which isn’t much given how little you do with your mouse in the likes of South of the Circle, it more than makes up for with its narrative, which is both unprecedented and absolutely soul-destroying. For reasons that I’ll never agree with but are probably obvious, there are almost no video games that let you navigate warzones while wearing the virtual shoes of a primary school student, and the title makes superb use of this unrepeated premise. On your journey back to the Soviet Union, you regularly witness events that are depressingly understable as an adult, but are incomprehensible to a child. The way Torn Away’s narrative frames and explains these things, which involve very sensitive subjects like sexual assault and the loss of a loved one, is masterful to say the absolute least.
Without spoiling anything more about the game’s 4-hour-long story, it’s eerily reminiscent of Come and See, the 1985 Soviet anti-war film that follows a young boy who fights for the partisans in World War Two. Just like in one of the most prolifically disturbing movies about the Great Patriotic War, Torn Away pulls no punches, and is genuinely difficult to complete not because of anything relating to its gameplay, but because it’s impossible to not be emotionally affected by the tragic tale of a young girl who is trying to come to terms with the realities of death and suffering in the 1940s. The title doesn’t go out of its way to comment on specific topics, even though it easily could’ve given recent world events, and instead allows you to draw your own conclusions about warfare, the morally deplorable acts of certain combatants, and the very nature of growing up in a world destroyed by conflict. And if you have any sense of morality at all, you’ll no doubt come to the same conclusions that I did, and be left with a deep desire to cry your eyes out after beating it.
This is only really possible, too, because Torn Away is a beautiful game. It uses the same artstyle as the likes of The Long Dark, with a touch of socialist realism, which means that it’s just as hard to look away from your screen as it is to watch the game’s narrative unfold. Its music is also absolutely superb, and the voice acting (which is best listened to in Russian with English subtitles) is fantastic. Everything else about its technical aspects, too, including its animations and complete lack of bugs, is just as near-perfect as you’d expect for a visual novel with a blend of 2D and 3D levels.
So, after all is said and done, Torn Away is one of the few video games that can genuinely be considered art by any definition. Its graphics are great, obviously, and its gameplay is just interactive enough to ensure that it’s sold on Steam as opposed to rented from your book or movie store of choice. But its narrative and the themes it discusses — which it allows you to contemplate instead of forcing you to listen to commentary on — are where the title comes into its own. The game’s story is incredibly well-written, constantly depressing and makes you think about warfare in a new way. Which in a medium filled with shooters that all too often attempt to discuss serious issues with a total lack of nuance, means that it’s easily one of the best narrative-driven video games ever made, and one that deserves to be played by everyone at least once for the same reason that All Quiet on the Western Front deserves to be watched.
Because, if nothing else, it will give you a good excuse to drink yourself to sleep as you try to mentally come to terms with events that many people, myself included, neglected to think about until now.
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