The muted colors, serious subject matter, and bureaucracy-based gameplay of War Agent make it an aesthetic successor to last year’s Papers, Please. At a glance, you might expect War Agent to do for war profiteering what Papers, Please did to immigration: turn it into a slow, deliberate game of uncomfortable choices. That game might have ended up being really good, but War Agent makes a refreshing decision to go the opposite direction and turn it into a game of twitch reflexes and snap decision making. As a result War Agent is thoroughly its own game, one that can be fascinating but ultimately ends up being a very simple game.
At the beginning of War Agent, there are two functionally identical nations preparing for war: the Red nation and the Blue nation. Your goal as a war profiteer is to keep their war going for as long as possible by selling them evenly matched weapons and stifling dissent in each of their homelands. The gameplay is divided across five screens: a central, real-time battlefield screen and four menus that are accessible from each direction of the battlefield screens. From the menus, you can purchase new types of weapons and manipulate the government of each nation. On the battlefield screen, the tide of battle is represented by a line that moves back and forth across the battlefield at an increasingly rapid pace as the potency of your weapons advances. If the line ever touches either edge of the screen, the war is over. At the same time, you have to contend with the rising war-weariness of both nations’ citizens as the war drags on for years.
Keeping the war going is more of a reflex-based balancing act than a carefully orchestrated strategy. A problem arises and you solve it with a few taps in a few seconds. Each war is designed to be played as a standalone session, and your overall goal is to get the highest score possible and unlock achievements. The bulk of the gameplay consists of selling weapons to each side by tapping their buttons at the bottom of the battlefield screen. Each time you hit one of the buttons, you’ll be paid a fluctuating rate that depends on how badly the nation needs your weapons. You can definitely game the nations for more money by waiting to sell until they get desperate, but at the same time you’ll be hitting both buttons more or less constantly because of how fast-paced the tides of war turn. When you have dissent problems, you can quell them by jumping over to either nation’s homeland screen and assassinating someone important. It’s fun, but it’s very streamlined and more focused on a small number of options that reward your timing.
While the fast-paced gameplay and heavy focus on high score might disappoint anyone who was expecting to agonize over moral choices, War Agent still manages to have some interesting thematic elements. Being a war profiteer isn’t really a morally ambiguous act, it’s a morally bankrupt one. As a result, it’s a foregone conclusion in every game of War Agent that you are going to kill a lot of people and make a lot of money off of it. At first, you’re selling safe weapons that don’t cause any collateral damage, but it becomes clear pretty quickly that you’re going to have no choice but to make the war more and more dangerous unless you want a really low score. You’ll also find yourself going from monitoring civilian unrest with concern to assassinating the opposition the second they give you any trouble. The numbers in the game also tell a story: years go by faster than you expect, and the currency of the game is millions of dollars, which means that even your most minor actions make you an amount of money that would allow somebody to live comfortably for the rest of their lives. These elements are well done, but they mostly hit you early on, and after a few sessions they’re just part of the game
War Agent does a lot of interesting things, but it’s hampered by a lack of replay value and an interface that could have benefited from more strategic choices to mix up the gameplay. As it is, it gets points for an original concept and a well-implemented aesthetic, and it’s pretty fun for the first couple wars. After a while, though, you might find yourself raising a white flag of your own.
War Agent turns war profiteering into a fast-paced game designed to be played in 30 minute sessions. It’s conceptually interesting, but doesn’t have much replay value or nuance.