In Germany circa 1933, still reeling from its defeat in First World War, the nation turns to a new charismatic leader that promises to Make Germany Great Again. This is the backdrop to the beginning of Through The Darkest of Times, a strategy game from Paintbucket Games published by HandyGames.
When The Night Gets Dark
World War II is a popular setting for video games, and is a ripe with strife, intrigue, bravery, loyalty, deception and betrayal. The war has hosted games that run the genre gamut from shooter to puzzler to visual novel and back. TTDOT begins with a random character creator giving you a base template; from there, you get to make sartorial choices, but your character’s name, gender, and beliefs are all selected randomly.
It is not apparent at this stage, but the reason for that inability to change the randomness lies in the fact that this story could be about anyone that lived in Germany in 1933. Your character is the leader of a resistance movement against the growing oppressiveness of Hitler’s rise to power.
Choices Aplenty, Never Enough Time
TTDOT is a strategy game in which you select characters to go on missions and get rewards, remarkably similar to how war tables from games such as Dragon Age: Inquisition work. In fact, this is a pretty good way to think of TTDOT: as a commander behind the scenes sending out agents to accomplish tasks.
There are a number of different missions available on the map with more being unlocked after performing the prerequisite mission. Each mission takes one week of in-game time and there are occasionally obstacles that you have three choices of how to deal with. It is an effective system because of its simplicity rather than a detractor.
In addition, you must manage the morale of your resistance as well as its finances, both of which you can gain more of by performing certain missions. However, if the morale of funding of your group hits zero it’s game over.
You recruit a squad of up to five resistance fighters including your character, and each of those characters have stats broken into different categories, as well as different character traits. The categories of stats are: Secrecy, Empathy, Propaganda, Strength, and Literacy.
Missions will require certain skills or combinations of skills, and characters that have higher stats in those skills will of course do better on those missions. Missions also have lists of both helpful and harmful traits; characters that go on missions with helpful traits will increase the potential reward while harmful traits will lower it.
There is no reward without danger however, and the higher the level of danger a mission has the more likely it is that your agents will have a negative fate befall them, such as being arrested to outright killed. Also, the more missions your characters undertake the more likely they are to be seen and marked by the Nazi’s and their supporters.
Individuals with high visibility have an even more likely chance of a negative result and increase the danger of even normal missions proportionately. Characters can go into hiding for a week to reduce their visibility and there are also missions that will reduce the visibility of all your recruits, though these are expensive and should be used infrequently.
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?
Fighting against Nazi Germany is a story that has been told countless times, and rarely do we hear the stories of those who combated the threat from within. These are people who risked everything to fight for what they believed in, facing off against the darkness they saw overtaking their lives and loved ones.
One interaction my character had was that one of my neighbours had been hired by the Nazis to serve as a guard at a concentration camp and was ecstatic about it. This character was a matronly woman who baked cookies for children but also viewed the wrongful imprisonment of others as the right thing to do because she believed in the regime.
The game is full of moments like this that punctuate the strategy aspects, with cutscenes and dialogue choices attempting to show how the ordinary people of Germany reacted to the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
From decisions about kicking members from the group due to their spouses being members of the Nazi party to whether to use the group’s funds and intel to save a family member from imprisonment, TTDOT can and will tug at your heart strings. To be fair, TTDOT can almost be more accurately described as a visual novel with strategy elements more than a strategy game with narrative elements.
The art style of the game is very simple as it takes place almost entirely in the monochrome spectrum, but the eyes receive special attention, which can provide and intense reaction when you are dealing with a character whose eyes are shaded or covered.
The ambiance of the game is complemented by 1930s swing jazz background music, which provides a strong companion for making strategy choices as it is not too bombastic or over-present. Tone shifts can happen instantly though, and the music will shift accordingly, which is a nice touch. As I said the visual style is in the monochrome spectrum for the most part, which really helps sell the immersion of being in the 1930s setting.
Ein Aufruf zum Handeln!
Through the Darkest of Times attempts to tell a rare story, of how not everyone in Germany supported the Nazis and the sacrifices those people went through and the horrors they witnessed inflicted on themselves and those around them. TTDOT is historically accurate, so there is no surprise victory where you manage to kill Hitler and return Germany from the brink of war, nor is there a last second intervention before the Holocaust truly begins.
Indeed, one of the main points the game makes is that no group as small as yours stood any real chance of turning back the tide against the Nazis even when they were a minority party with no real power.
The changes happened too rapidly and seamlessly, and a large part of the German populace embraced Hitler and his party because they truly felt they represented the future of what Germany could become: a prosperous nation respected on the world stage on a level that hadn’t been seen since before the Franco-Prussian War.
Playing the game really strikes a chord with me because I can see the parallels between 1933 and today. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That quote is as true today as it has ever been and most definitely puts one of the game’s strongest messages into its purest form. Through the Darkest of Times itself is not a commentary on a state of the world today, but it is hard to play it and not see the similarities between the world back then and the present.
[Review code kindly supplied by publisher]