Through the Darkest of Times Review

History and war are 2 of the most fascinating subjects. By studying either you get to understand the root causes, the mistakes made, and how to prevent it from happening again. Unfortunately, as we’re all humans, and it’s in our nature to fight one another, and destroy the things we love for power, the lessons learnt are purely academic. Whenever you read about any war, the viewpoint is usually taken from the soldiers on the front line, or the government’s that are in control. Rarely do we get to see and understand what “the people” think. Things are about to change as developers Paintbucket Games alongside publishers HandyGames have created a heartwarming and tough to play strategy title known as Through the Darkest of Times.

This game has you controlling a small group of like-minded individuals who want to highlight the evil and negativity behind the newly appointed chancellor, Hitler, and his Nazi party. The story starts in 1933 and spans to post-war 1946. Your underground resistance survives on the goodwill of your supporters, and the missions you undertake. As the leader, you have a difficult task ahead of you. You are constantly juggling priorities, and your planning must be fluid. Each task you undertake will offer a variety of rewards, but where there is reward, there is also risk. No-one is safe unless they fit the new chancellors vision, and support the third Reich. These are dangerous and unprecedented times ahead, and you must tread carefully if you are to succeed.

Though the principle of the game is complex, with several moving parts that can alter your approach at any time. The premise is simple. You must expand your group of resistance fighters, select the missions that best suit them, and hope not to be spotted. You can trust no-one and rely on luck as much as planning. Most of the action takes place on a map of Berlin, where all the missions that are available to you are shown. Each tells you the reward, what you will do, the required number of people, attributes for success and failure and the risk of it all going wrong. The important thing to note here is the attributes, as not only does this influence which mission you undertake, but it also underpins which people you will add to your team. Failing your mission can have dire consequences; the Nazi’s are suddenly more aware of your presence, you don’t collect the vital goods from that mission, and you could get arrested. If a team member is jailed, you must spend a lot of resources breaking them out, risking the lives of more men and women. Is one person worth the life of 2 or 3? The choice is yours, and yours alone.

Each turn you take represents a week, and at the beginning of each, you are welcomed by 3 newspaper headlines which highlight the atrocities committed by the Nazi party and the reason you lead this small pocket of resistance. The newspapers are poignant as they reflect real-life scenarios, and they hammer home the injustices and brutal path that Hitler took to push his ideology and to win no matter the cost. This dark and hard to stomach theme continues in selected special events that occur at “random”. Alongside the other narrative that you experience, in the cutscenes you are free to choose how you interact with the “brownshirts” and supporters of the Nazi party. These conversations are a tough read, with you experiencing a lot of antisemitism, and feelings of isolation as it appears only you care about opposing the oppressive regime.

Like all strategy games, this is all about planning, however, in Through the Darkest of Times several elements are taken out of your control, and these all revolve around the members of your group. With so many highly strung and passionate individuals, arguments are bound to occur. These go from bickering to all out hatred, and you must decide which member stays or goes. Other times you will lose people because of family problems, or pure fear. It can be a devastating blow and can undermine your plans and whole operation. Unfortunately, there is little that you can do about it, so you suck it up and carry on, regardless. Other than your team another area that can feel out of your control is the group morale, the bar is ever present, and fluctuates constantly. Losing missions and teammates, and in group bickering have a negative impact. Success in these categories helps to push the value in the correct direction. If you allow it to fall to 0, the group is disbanded, and it’s game over. Remember me saying about juggling lots of issues, well this is just another to add to that pot of misery.

As you’ve probably already gathered, this game covers some emotional and tough subjects. You felt attached to the decisions you make during the dialogue with your group and the members of the public. The game gives you the impression that your decisions influence the outcome, and that you are the driving force behind the positive and negative results. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Having attempted a second playthrough I experienced the same outcomes no matter what choices I made. This took away from the emotional impact for me and undermined a key element of the games make up. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still enjoy an additional run, but it just doesn’t hit you in the same way.

The sombre and oppressive nature of this title is represented wonderfully in both its graphical and audio presentation. Each using a simple, yet effective approach to support the game’s difficult theme. With a bold and striking cartoon style, the characters you interact with are larger than life to look at. Maybe this represents their willingness to stand out from the crowd and not to be like everyone else. There is a use of a mainly monochromatic colour scheme, that is except a few flecks of vivid colours in your group’s eyes. Think of the girl in red in Schindler’s List. For me this colour reflects emotion, passion and freedom. The view of the city map, and the UI is reasonably clutter free, it’s easy to navigate and takes little time to get used to. The text dialogue has been translated from another language, and contains several minor issues. These don’t affect the gameplay, and I skimmed over them without issue.

The audio compounds the issues that you will face. The melancholy music supports the theme perfectly, it doesn’t overpower the situation, and sits in the background. It doesn’t distract you from the action that is taking place, nor does it detract from the storytelling. The developers have done well to balance the approach in what could have easily been very depressing.

Whenever I play a strategy game on a console. I worry that the control system will be clumsy and over complicated. I fear that submenu’s will litter the screen, and you are left scrabbling through unnecessary lists. Luckily, a straightforward and pragmatic approach has been taken. Once you crack the first week, everything else runs exactly the same. So, other than the tough subject matter, this one really is easy to play.

Now, I’ve already touched upon the idea of a second playthough, and the lack of emotional attachment. But does this reduce the replay value? Does a less emotive piece ruin the enjoyment a second time around, or are the fundamentals of this game strong enough to play this repeatedly? In short, yes! This has plenty to draw you back into play. There are several gameplay styles which alter the outcome, and each challenge you in the way you manage your team, and the approach you take. There is also a challenging and complex achievement list so several successful playthrough’s, lots of hours, and a thick slice of luck is required to get a 100% record.

The principles of Through the Darkest of Times is similar to your standard strategy game; preparation, planning, a solid team, and luck. What makes this stand out is how it hides these mechanisms within its dark and sombre theme. The story pushes you to ditch your plan and principles as you become emotionally attached to your team, and the subject matter. This is a wonderfully difficult title that takes a unique viewpoint. Do you have the correct mindset to make the tough choices en route? Can you be flexible in your approach and roll with the punches? You must as things rarely go to plan. Do I recommend that you play this? Without a doubt, yes. It’s as touching and beautiful as it is oppressive and sad. You’ll experience some heart wrenching moments, but if your actions can spark one shimmer of light, then surely it’ll all be worthwhile. Can you make the right decisions and lead the resistance against the Nazi party? Only time will tell.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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Through the Darkest of Times Review
  • Gameplay - 8/10
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  • Graphics - 8/10
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  • Sound - 8/10
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  • Replay Value - 9/10
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User Review
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Overall
8/10

Summary

It’s 1933 and Hitler is now the chancellor, surely all the Germans are rejoicing? A small resistance of fighters sees through his plans and the hate they spew. Can you undermine the Nazi’s in this tough strategy game?

Pros

  • Beautifully written story.
  • The newspaper’s are poignant and harrowing.
  • Crisp art style.
  • A well balanced audio.
  • Plenty of replay value.

Cons

  • Subject matter may be uncomfortable for some.
  • A lack of influence to in game choices reduces the emotional impact.