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I’ve had some deep conversations with Hendrik Lesser, founder of Lesser Evil, about his project Death From Above, an arcade-like game about the ongoing war in Ukraine.
And now I’ve had a chance to play the game via Steam Early Access, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it’s a brave game that takes on the geopolitical horror of our time, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the game, you play a Ukrainian soldier who is trapped behind enemy lines and fights back with a drone that can drop grenades on Russian soldiers and tanks. In that way, it is drawing attention to the war and is trying to help with the cause by donating proceeds to Come Back Alive and Army of Drones.
On the other hand, the game gets a bit silly in its ending in a bid to take a poke at the intelligence of the Russia military. It doesn’t go over that well, and you can see how it isn’t really a work of art.
[Editor’s note: this review has spoilers]
I talked with Lesser about this cause and his motivations in a long “beachside” fireside chat at the Reboot Develop Blue conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Our stage was beside a beautiful pool against the backdrop of the deep blue Adriatic Sea. Rockodile Games made the title for Lesser Evil.
This is a controversial game that brings politics in games together in an uncomfortable way, and Lesser makes no apologies for that. Lesser said the company is “uncompromisingly anti-authoritarian, anti-racist and pro-democracy.” And it will publish video games with clear political or social intent and messaging.
The game debuted on early access on Steam last week for $10, and I’ve played it. It was a quickly made title, and you can see that when you play it. Lesser wanted to ship the game while the conversation about the war was still relevant. That’s why he chose an “arcade” style for the game.
But it’s also clear that it is anti-Russian propaganda. And it makes no secret that it has taken the Ukrainian side and makes fun of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Propaganda films aren’t unusual, often springing up quickly during war. Casablanca is a shining example of a film that takes a stand about World War II, and it came out in 1942, in the early years of the war.
But Casablanca was a work of art, and this game isn’t trying to be that. Indeed, it falls short as a game in multiple ways that I’ll point out.
Death From Above starts out strong. A young Ukrainian soldier is captured near Nenatsk. He is about to be executed with other soldiers. But an older villager manages to poison the Russian captors with her soup, and she sets the Ukrainian soldier free. He picks up a bag full of grenades and a drone and sets off.
He turns out to be a one-man army. The scenery in the forests of Ukraine is quite beautiful. You can see it from the first-person view of the Ukrainian soldier on the ground. But you can set the drone up in the air and see the area from above. The drone isn’t hard to fly at all, as you don’t have to worry about hitting the branches of trees or taking damage from hitting objects.
But you do have to fly the drone in a stealthy way. First, you can’t move too close to the Russian compounds or they will discover the soldier and shoot him. And you can fly too low or get in the face of the soldiers or they will take out the drone. If you get killed, you have to start the whole game over.
This sounds like a good premise for a stealth game, but it has some flaws. You can fly high, and the Russian soldiers never seem to notice you at that altitude. So the threat of having your drone shot out of the sky is pretty low. You also have an unlimited supply of grenades, so you can just drop them on the soldiers and tanks (six at a time) and then head back to the Ukrainian soldier to get replenished.
There also isn’t much point in approaching the Russians on foot. I couldn’t pick up a gun, so I really had to just stay far away and take them out with the grenades. It took three to five grenades to take out each tank. But there was no real problem doing that because the tanks didn’t move. They just sat there and took the attacks. The infantry did run away, but if you drop enough grenades you can take them out.
Of course, it felt morally wrong to drop grenades on soldiers in a live war, as this is actually happening with real human beings as we speak. But Lesser wants us to think about that, and he thinks it’s more honorable and moral to make games like this one rather than make games about fictional wars where we have no qualms about gunning down everyone in sight. This game is not a celebration of war.
If you don’t take much evasive action, then the guards will eventually take shots at you. The game lasts about 90 minutes, depending on how long it takes you to make it through without dying.
There are numerous flaws. The Russian soldiers cannot run and hide from the grenades in an effective way. For instance, they can’t go inside buildings. And while my soldier could go inside some buildings, he couldn’t go into others. In fact, one building I approached had no doors at all. You can scribble on a poster of Putin, and you can hack a computer or two. But there isn’t much you can interact with on foot. It’s almost like there isn’t much point to having a first-person view on foot at all.
A weak ending
The game does have a sense of humor. You can use the drone to pick up stolen washing machines, which the Russian soldiers have looted from the Ukrainians. This is evidently happening in the war, and it adds some levity to the gameplay.
The last part of the game is where it gets too silly. You have to attack a Russian warship in the middle of the forest. Presumably, the Russians have had such bad luck in the Black Sea that they’ve moved a warship into the forest to protect it. This is so silly I couldn’t believe it was the same game that started out in a moving way. And it reminded me in a bad way that this was an “arcade” game.
You do have to drop a ton of grenades to make it safe enough to turn on the irrigation pipes that will “sink” the warship, and you have to dodge missiles from the ship. This makes it slightly more fun, but it does add a bit of ridiculousness to it at the same time.
Bombing the ship is actually pretty hard, considering all you have is grenades. But it was a pretty jarring change in tone, as there wasn’t really much amusing about it. Your goal is to sink the ship by flooding a pasture, which makes no sense. But the ship’s guns are pretty good at taking you out as you try this.
This bizarre and atonal ending to an otherwise serious combat game had me scratching my head.
One of the highlights is that it has a lot of original music. The pop rock band Antytila created an original song for the game called Death From Above. When Russia invaded, the band members delayed the release of their newest album MLNL and joined the 130th battalion of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine, later serving as paramedics in Kyiv and on the frontline in the Kharkiv region.
I can sympathize Lesser Evil’s noble stance in creating a game that could help draw attention to the war and try to make a difference in its outcome. But it has a mixed tone that shows it doesn’t know whether to take itself seriously or not. I think the game is groundbreaking in broaching a serious conversation among gamers and game developers.
But I think its impact could have been far greater if it had paid more attention to quality and its serious tone from the start, the way a film like Casablanca did. This game doesn’t take itself seriously enough at the end to capture the gravitas of something like Casablanca. But it’s reasonably good at being entertaining with all of the constraints it deals with like a small team and being timely.
Lesser Evil gave me a Steam code for the purpose of this review.