Conscript preview – The horrors of war should chill your bones

Conscript is a terrifying reflection of war – as it should be.
conscript pc game preview

Moments into Conscript, I became very, very angry. Not at the game itself, but at the portrayal of war in modern media – and how often it’s interpreted as a power fantasy. War is awful. Bloody, disgusting, traumatising, and horrific. Every year, there’s new first-person shooters that commodify the act, commercialise it, and somehow make it an “escape” for players – a violent fantasy where enemy soldiers are picked off without thought.

Conscript, from Australian developer Jordan Mochi / Catchweight Studio, is a salve to that irreverence. It’s a game that evokes a more realistic tone for war, with a focus on dread and terror, and an oppressive darkness that dogs your run through deep trenches. As part of Steam Next Fest, a new demo for the game has been released – and while I loved it for its realism, it was also difficult to stomach. That’s exactly how it should. While we are desensitised to depictions of war through modern media, Conscript is a powerful reminder of what war really is.

In the game, you are a lone French soldier attempting to survive the trenches of Verdun. These trenches are dark and dingy, and littered with blood and bodies. Conscript does well to balance its depiction of gore here – it’s used only sparingly, for moments of shock and panic. Dead bodies are largely part of the scenery, and it’s difficult to determine them from the rubble. Approach them, and the game’s protagonist may make a short comment, but they are simply presented as a reality of war – in a way that speaks to the mental dissociation of soldiers. The way war makes them re-interpret their own existence, for survival.

Read: 9 Steam Next Fest game demos to check out

The mood is made darker by the game’s atmosphere, which is defined largely by impactful silence. As you travel, your footsteps echo – but then, the sound is broken by distinct shouts in a foreign language, loud, crackling explosions, a rumble in your controller, and the spread of fog. It makes each step feel terrifying and uncertain. Your mind is constantly alerted to threats in the distance.

conscript pc game
Image: Jordan Mochi / Catchweight Studio

The darkness, ever persistent, also complicates your path forward. There are lights in the trenches along the way, but for the most part, you’ll be stumbling through the battlefield, picking your way through shadowy corridors, stifling a squeak when another body appears in the gloom – or a roving enemy.

In combat, this panic is only amped up. You’re alone and afraid, and usually holding an unwieldy weapon. In one particularly tense moment of the demo, I found myself facing down an enemy soldier with only a shovel at hand. In three devastating swings, I caved the man’s head in. And there is no real reward for victory.

You kill enemy soldiers and they crumple to the ground, and become part of the scenery. Conscript makes clear that you could just as easily be the one lying there. Enemies look just like you, with only small visual tweaks to mark them out.

Later in the demo, you find the soldier you’re looking for, but there’s no victory there, either. Your path only gets more complicated, as Conscript throws up further roadblocks. You find a gun, and must turn it on enemy soldiers that find your hiding place. The battle is a heart-pounding race to grab bullets, reload guns, fire in the right direction, and avoid being hit. Even when it’s for survival, you feel a horrible pain in your chest with every death.

And that’s really what marks Conscript out as being so compelling.

conscript gameplay pc preview
Image: Jordan Mochi / Catchweight Studio

Conscript is a game defined by dread. It’s an interpretation of war that focuses on reality and history, grounding its tale with a darkness worth remembering. The wars of history have been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times in popular culture, to the point where they’ve become abstracted. Rarely are the realities presented so starkly – but Conscript, even in is Steam Next Fest demo – displays such a maturity of this subject matter.

War is an ugly topic, and for that reason, Conscript won’t be a game for everyone. It’s defined by its inherent horror, and tells a tale that makes you feel sick to your stomach. But it’s also game you shouldn’t look away from. Media shouldn’t always make us comfortable, and tell us stories we want to hear.

There is responsibility in telling war tales, to tell them accurately, to be realistic about portrayals of glory and dominance. There should always be recognition that war is multi-faceted, and that soldiers are individuals first, with their own histories. Their own desires and goals.

Conscript takes an admirable stance in this regard, portraying war with a focus on its true, horrific visage. It’s a tough game to demo, but one that certainly deserves your attention. We must not look away.

A demo for Conscript is now available as part of Steam Next Fest.

Leah J. Williams is a gaming and entertainment journalist who's spent years writing about the games industry, her love for The Sims 2 on Nintendo DS and every piece of weird history she knows. You can find her tweeting @legenette most days.