Torn Away review — Clawing your way back home

In a perfect world, there would be no war, in a better world, civilians would be exempt from the effects of war, but that’s far from reality. The human cost of conflict is heavy, especially for children, whose ability to care for themselves is limited if they’re separated from their families. Developer Perelesoq’s Torn Away is a 2D side-scroller and first-person hybrid that tells the story of a small child and her quest to get back home after war comes knocking on her front door. It’s a story told with fun, creative mini-games, and a respectful sense of tact.

You play as Asya, a little girl who lives in Stalingrad… in the August of 1942. If you know anything about WWII, then you know that this combination of words is a recipe for suffering. Adding to the situation, Asya’s father was drafted and her mother is hard on her. There is a silver lining, as her father was sent to the front lines. That might not seem ideal, but it’s better than being a part of the million-plus casualties in Stalingrad.

Asya talks with her toys, a yellow hobby horse named Arkady and a red doll named Madame. The former is rather kind to Asya and offers her words of assurance while the latter is belligerent. The toys are stand-ins for her parents and how she perceives them. On top of your toys, you also have a diary, where notes and drawings will be added throughout the game.

To cheer her mom up, Asya plots with her toys and decides it would be nice to draw her some pictures and put on her favorite music. Asya also fixes her dad’s glove, which becomes a new imaginary friend named Comrade Mitten. With the plans all ready, Asya waits for her to return home, but the Germans beat her there. A bomb drops, obliterating the living room, and Germans take Asya and her mom off to a forced labor camp. From here, the game begins.

The basic gameplay and controls are very simple, you mainly just move around and interact with things, and there’s a hint button that highlights points of interest. Sometimes Torn Away throws an immersive mini-game at you, and the controls can be slightly finicky, especially when you have to move things around. Let’s say you’re in the labor camp repairing boots, well, Asya has about as much control over her hands as a newborn here. Trying to hammer nails into the bottom of the boots feels floaty, and there are a few mini-games that feel like you’re trying to perform tasks with a phantom limb. On the other hand, many mini-games I played were relaxing and completed without a hitch, but not all.

Torn Away uses perspective expertly, as the game switches from side scroller to first person to add tension or to immerse players in a mini-game. At one point you’re running through a cold, windy forest in the dead of winter with a side-scroller view, then the perspective switches. Now you’re in first-person mode. Given that Asya is so small, every gust pushes her back. You have to use the freedom of a 3D first-person play space to hide behind rocks until the wind dies down, then sprint to the next. In another first-person section, you guide Asya through a crowd to find her mother. The people in the crowd tower over Asya, giving the player a sense of her small height.

The artistic design is also amazing, stealing the show and bringing the whole game together. When you’re walking down a verdant country road in the spring, you can feel the warmth, when you’re crawling through a snowy forest, the frigid, somber tone seeps through the screen. Aesthetically speaking, every scene of the story has its tone matched with stellar art direction. Using hand-drawn graphics in a game about a child overcoming the struggles of war was a bold choice. Too cartoony and it could take away from the tone, too abstract and it could remove players from connecting with the characters, but they hit the nail on the head, especially with character expressions.

With Arkady and Madame lost in the blast, you mainly interact with Comrade Mitten. The banter between Asya and Comrade Mitten is a light in the darkness. It’s entertaining to hear the elaborate backstory of Comrade Mitten, especially knowing it’s all in Asya’s head. Of course, it’s also jarring to hear him wishing for warmth in a snowstorm for the same reason. At one point Asya finds a dead cockroach and he states that it must have stuffed itself full of food and fallen asleep. I love how he’s a window into Asya’s mind and how she rationalizes the brutal world she’s been thrust into.

There are disconnects between the player and Asya. Given her youth, there are things she doesn’t understand. Some narrative beats are only revealed to the player, despite Asya being our vessel. For example, let’s say we know a character dies because the screen fades to black and we hear a gunshot, but that’s something Asya misses. I like this presentation style, as it helps to preserve Asya’s naivety and innocence, which in turn gives the player a better experience of the game’s emotional beats. The disconnect means we’re not only looking out for ourselves, we’re looking out for this small child who’s in a horrible conflict.

For spoiler reasons, I’ve avoided mentioning some of the saddest moments in Torn Away, but Asya has numerous encounters with death and loss. Tragic moments are always played straight and to great effect. My jaw was dropped for a solid third of the playtime as I gazed in silent horror at whatever fresh tragedy just graced the screen. Then there’s the other two-thirds.

Of course, there’s such a thing as too much tragedy. If the game is too sad, then events can be seen from a mile away, thus paradoxically detracting from the dreary tone. Torn Away suffers from this to a degree. There are a few light-hearted moments, like chasing a cat through town who stole the sandwich you were also trying to steal. Cute moments help, but at the end of the day, when your brain switches into Murphy’s Law mode, it’s harder to be impacted by future emotional beats. I will give the game credit, the tragedy is almost always subtle or straightforward. They never went with gratuitous violence, a rabbit hole which they could have easily fallen down given the time period. Sad and disturbing plot beats are always portrayed with a high degree of tact.

There is one thing that subtracts from the tone of the game and even makes it funny at times. Asya is a powerhouse of a child. Honestly, she’s just a powerful human being in general. Sometimes you’ll get to a point where you need to bridge a gap. It’s so funny because Asya will push over trees to do it. I don’t care if they’re dead trees, she’s a child. At one point she even pushes over an electrical pole with her bare hands. Just when I thought she couldn’t get stronger, she pushed over a concrete pillar… with rebar. She also has a habit of falling through floors. Given how many times it happens, and how she always turns out fine, it genuinely seems like Asya has the power level to solo the Axis powers. I have no idea what they put in the water at Asya’s school, but I want some for my pre-workout.

Despite her strength, many times you can’t brute force your way through a situation, and Asya needs to sneak around or find boxes to reach higher areas. While these areas were usually well-telegraphed, it did get a little ridiculous at one point. I was in a room with a ramp, a box, and a door. The door was locked, but it seemed like there was space above it to crawl through. Naturally, I align the box with the ramp and play around with the positioning. The game has thrown this kind of puzzle at me many times before. The solution? Go back to the entrance of the building and move a wooden cabinet many times Asya’s size to crawl through the floor. It’s jarring to have rules established then thrown away like that. While most of what you’re supposed to do is well-telegraphed, one or two sections fall through the cracks.

Overall, Torn Away is an aesthetically excellent story game with plenty of entertaining mini-games, interesting uses of perspective, and a main character who you want to protect. The game took a little over four hours for me to complete, but I took my time with it. If you want a poignant, powerful story then I would highly suggest checking it out.

Jackson loves to play and write about video games. Rogue-lites, FPS, and RPG games are his favorite. He's a big fan of the Battlefield series and Warhammer 40K.



Torn Away

Review Guidelines

Torn Away mixes beautiful hand-drawn aesthetics with the grim story of a little girl trying to survive a war and make it home. The game excels at establishing tone and getting the player to feel a sense of connection to the main character, Asya, through heartfelt character interactions and mini-games. While the brutal story beats hit hard at the beginning of the game, they lose some of their steam towards the end when you begin to expect them.

Jackson Lustberg

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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