The Second World War is a reliable setting for video games, and Nazis are reliable enemies, but few attempt to portray the reality of life away from the battlefield during that time period. Through the Darkest of Times aims to do just that, putting players in control of a resistance movement in Nazi-controlled Berlin.
The first noticeable element of the game are the visuals, with a muted palette of greys occasionally broken up by highlights of colour, such as the red in the Nazi flags. It’s very effective at conveying the dark subject matter of the game, as well as how inhumane the time must have seemed to those watching. The black, white and red will remind people of Schindler’s List, but the stylised cartoony art style is far removed from the film. Its DNA is closer to something like Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts, in both appearance and its attempt to show the lives of ordinary people caught up in the larger events of the two wars.
Through the Darkest of Times portrays four crucial periods in the 30s and 40s. Major events are told through interactive cutscenes that break up the gameplay, and are the most interesting and moving sections of the game, creating stories about the lives of people who are forced to decide what part they will play in the Third Reich. How would one react to a neighbour who is delighted at getting a job at the concentration camp, or one whose son has joined the Hitler Youth, or one who is happy that the Jews will be sent “back east”?
The horrors of this time period are well documented, but we tend to think of it in terms of the overall scale of the atrocities. This game focuses on the minutiae, the day-to-day decisions and risks that anyone resisting would have to take. Throughout the game you’ll be forced to make difficult decisions. Do you steal medicine from a hospital for your own use, risking the lives of sick people? Do you sabotage anti-aircraft guns in the hope of ending the war sooner, knowing it will mean the deaths of innocent civilians to allied bombing? It’s these sorts of decisions that you’ll agonise over.
The game is pretty transparent about its politics, and is very obviously drawing parallels to modern events. Each turn begins with a series of newspaper headlines, these and other bits of dialogue throughout draw heavily on contemporary political language such as “drain the swamp”, “make Germany great again”, and “fake news”. I suspect your reaction to this will partially depend on your own political views; for my part I feel the somewhat heavy-handed messaging doesn’t detract from the overall portrayal of the time period.
For all the quality of the narrative and visuals, the actual game aspect is a bit lacking. You’ll start the game with three resistance members in your group and very little in the way of support and funds. In each of the game’s four chapters you have 20 turns to complete these missions, which range from basic repeated quests to missions that link into the narrative sections. Repeated quests might be talking to some workers to gain support, or collecting donations at a wedding. One-off quests might be hiding a Jewish family or presenting proof of Nazi atrocities to a foreign reporter. Sometimes the missions are interrupted by a witness or police, and you’ll be forced to choose between fleeing, hiding or fighting back.
Your five resistance members are your tools, and each will have a job, a political belief and a character trait that lend themselves to the various missions. The worker and wedding missions might be suited to a blue collar socialist and a conservative Christian respectively, whereas other missions involving academics might favour a teacher or one involving striking workers favour an anarchist. You won’t be able to cover all of the different options with your five members though, particularly as you select recruits from a pool of three randomly generated citizens. Unless you’re lucky you’re likely to end up with two resistance members with similar traits, which is not necessarily a bad thing, as often there will be two missions requiring them. Your characters also have stats, such as propaganda and strength, which can be levelled up throughout the game (if they survive).
Whilst it’s described as a strategy game, the game is more of a management sim, and you will have to balance the morale of your group with the strength of your support and contents of your wallet. Plus if your characters are spotted too many times they might be arrested, injured or even killed. You’ll need high support to progress through the chapters (it’s not clear how much support), but if your morale drops to zero the resistance disbands and your game is over.
Despite the pitfalls and a harder "resistance" mode, it is not difficult to progress through the game, and it is certainly made easier by there seemingly being no advantage to completing the higher stakes missions. Yes the rewards are higher, but those rewards are only needed to complete other high stakes missions. Similarly, the agonising decisions mentioned above don’t really make a lot of difference in the long-run. There are no alternative endings depending on what you did, so if you stick to the easy ones and keep morale up, you'll still make it to the end in the same way.
The fact that your actions don’t matter is actually quite a powerful metaphor for what the resistance is doing. Indeed their actions probably didn’t matter to the war as a whole, but they did matter to the small group of individuals impacted. It’s a powerful message: that even if our actions don’t matter, what does matter is the act itself. Overall the game is probably not for those looking for an in-depth strategy or management game, but for those who enjoy an interactive story and historical fiction, Through the Darkest of Times should not be missed.