Being someone who has studied the Third Reich and the years leading up to World War Two, I never thought I’d be playing a game based around the time period. As a very intense and often difficult subject matter, the content of similar games is often sugar-coated and infantilized to make the subject matter more palatable to its intended audiences. Through the Darkest of Times sugar-coats nothing about the beginnings of the Nazi regime that it is presented through the eyes of a small, underground anti-fascist organisation. This strategy game requires patience, forward-thinking, and a strong stomach!
As aforementioned, Through the Darkest of Times is set in pre-WW2 Germany and follows your character who is the self-appointed leader of an anti-fascist group fighting the growing terror and fear created by the Third Reich, the Nazi’s and their collaborators. The plot of the game follows the years approaching the start of the War, and through gameplay you make decisions that affect the morale and the supporters of your group. The strategy elements of the game see you choose the tasks that the members of the organisation take, each having its own risks and rewards. Each decision is made under the context of real-world events that happened during this time period and in-game events relevant to the current members of your group. With internal and external conflict, Through the Darkest of Times takes a deep-dive into the inner-workings of Left-Wing and anti-fascist groups. Doing missions such as collecting donations, meeting comrades, and even buying paint and paper can arouse suspicion. There isn’t anything safe to do besides support the regime in this world and you are being watched by Germany’s secret police, the Gestapo. Your decisions matter.
In the almost 8 hour run time of my playthrough, I was bewitched by the constant state of unease created by the game’s careful and calculated writing and atmosphere. The narrative of this game is pretty strong, handling nuance and complexity with delicacy, but refusing to do anything but tell the truth. As one of the first games ever published in Germany that gained permission to openly show the Swastika and other Nazi symbols, this game is not for the faint of heart and tells history how it really happened. While I do not discourage people from playing the game for its content, I would advise those looking for a relaxing and mindless play-session to pick up this game at another time. The writers of Through the Darkest of Times tackle war from a new angle, the art of resistance. Most of the resistance presented through the game is not openly fighting the pervasive enemy, but about consistent resistance and encouraging change even despite the danger. Your team are normal people, the everyday opposition of evil. The pressure is overwhelming at times during a play through, where each decision can threaten your team’s morale or even their safety. This title is inherently political, but wonderfully executed. Alternating between scenes of the story and scenes of strategic gameplay and inventory management mean that the player can never get too complicated and their internal, procedurally generated team is constantly shifting.
Inspired by Weimar Art, the artwork of this game made by Paintbucket Games and published by HandyGames is incredibly unique. The subtlety of the drawing, exaggerating some features while completely stripping back other images really adds to the difficulty established in the game’s world. Through the Darkest of Times uses colour really well also, mostly focusing on a black, white and red canvas with occasional additions of other colours. This inherent drama created by colour contrast plays beautifully with the themes of the game- resistance, survival and hiding in plain sight. The artwork, accompanied by the chilling soundtrack of the title, sets the scene perfectly. What the developers of this game really knew what when it was better to be quieter than to fill the silence with unnecessary sound effects and music. This interplay of contextually relevant and historically accurate music helps immerse the player into the action and the story of the plot. This with the sound of radio static and the visual effect to accompany your screen enhances the whole experience for a lover of 2D animation. While some 3D animation would be welcome in this game, especially in cut-scenes, I think the developers handled the visual and audio design with tremendous care and sensitivity for their subject matter.
What Through the Darkest of Times does that other indie titles often fall short on is the amount of content. This game has a lot of quality content and a lot of time can be sunk into its main story and extra features. Just when I was worried that I might get to the end of the game, I realised I was only at the end of the first chapter. For the rather affordable price for both the Switch version and the PC version on steam, a player can get hours of turn-based strategy from this game. While the plot and historical setting was certainly a first for me, the turn-based strategy reminded me of games such as Here Be Dragons and Battle Brothers. Despite this, I felt that the gameplay system was rather refreshing and provided enough challenge to keep me entertained. While the game wasn’t hard in its actual levels, the increase in difficulty across the game was evident. Your decisions and risks mattered more, and I felt the pressure to strategize more and guess less. While I was teaching the game, the game was teaching me a lesson about patience that another subject matter may not have taught me. My virtual resistance group felt more than names and randomly generated personality traits and defects. These members had stories and lives that were affected by my decision. Someone could disappear or be arrested. Someone could turn up dead. This added something that drove me to complete the game and seek out one ending.
With alternate timeline modes and an increased difficulty setting, the game doesn’t just end after the main story closes. There are opportunities for more challenge which increases the game’s replayability and value for money. Even though I have just reached the end of the game, I am itching to return to the world that I have fashioned not only in the game but in my head thanks to the studio’s incredible storytelling.
My main concern for this game was how it would handle its subject matter, and I find it hard to criticise how they have presented this game. I cannot be the sole judge of its appropriateness to play, but personally as a reviewer and a lover of history, I think the game is an excellent medium for education and social change. While I think the gameplay could definitely be improved with more features which would add time and more skill-building to the experience of Through the Darkest of Times, I still thoroughly enjoyed the title. These extra features would add more weight and meat to the story they have created and might make the turn-based events more fulfilling and less trivial than just waiting for the next turn to act again and manage inventory. But this game was one of the best indie titles I have played in a while, and while it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, it’s more necessary than ever to play.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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Through the Darkest of Times Review
Gameplay - 9/10
Graphics - 9/10
Sound - 9/10
Replay Value - 9/10
User Review( votes)
A must-play game. Through the Darkest of Times is a strategy game that you won’t want to miss.
- Fantastic, harrowing story.
- Choice-based gameplay.
- Lots of replay value.
- Some great artwork.
- Gameplay can be repetitive.