The theme of World War 2 and Nazi atrocities is a powerful and engaging one, especially since it is the biggest war ever recorded in human history and is still relatively fresh in our collective memory. Not only does gaming reflect this period of history with portrayals of the heroic actions of soldiers, but the struggles of civilians have not gone unnoticed either, as the moving This War of Mine explored so remarkably. Now, Paintbucket Games is trying to revisit a similar viewpoint by telling the story of people who are not only trying to survive but who also oppose the ruthless Nazi regime. In Through the Darkest of Times, we play as a group of Germans operating in the City of Berlin who are trying to fight back against the Nazi government.
Your task here is to form an underground movement that tries to impede the Nazis by carrying out missions around the city to undermine them. There are three important resources to consider: morale, supporters, and marks. Morale is your group's mental state, and if it reaches zero then your organisation will disperse. Supporters are the measure of your success when completing each of the game's chapters - if the number of turns in a chapter turns zero, then the number of supporters you have will determine if your group is strong enough to endure. Marks are equally important and the rarest resource in the game; it's the main reward in some important missions and you can get it through from supporters and the like.
At the beginning of the game, you can create your own character, although it's just their general appearance. The rest of their features, things such as sex, political stance, occupation, name and age, will be determined by the roll of a digital die. The above factors have a heavy influence on gameplay, though, especially when it comes to their political views and occupation. In certain missions, your background can have a big influence on the eventual outcome.
You can recruit up to four followers, and each one has stats across several areas, including empathy, strength, secrecy, propaganda, and literacy. In addition to their occupation and political views, they also have additional perks that define their character, making them athletic, violent, or emotional - there are dozens. Each one has pros and cons when used during certain missions, so having a group with diverse abilities is favourable. Paintbucket has also implemented a lite RPG system where your character can level up after successfully carrying out a number of jobs for the resistance.
In general, the whole endeavour is very challenging, although much depends on luck. Naturally, you must prevent the members of your group from getting caught or killed while performing their duties, and you must stop them from running out of time when the chapter is finished. (It's important to take note of the number on the mission symbol as it's a countdown for the number of turns until the chapter in question is finished, something we only realised around Chapter 4 during our first play-through.)
As mentioned above, your main goal is to gather as many supporters as possible. However, there are also 'chapter missions' that offer a much bigger reward compared to the ordinary ones. The problem is, in order to attempt these missions you have to collect specific pieces of equipment that are otherwise super difficult to obtain. We struggled to complete these missions at times and unlocking them was such a hassle that wasn't properly rewarded, which made them feel much less relevant in the long run.
There are also a number of small additional tasks where we can help out our colleagues or assist victims of the war. An example of this came when we had to help a teen who defected from the Nazis and had to evade capture. However, after we managed to help them out, there was no reward other than a small bonus to team morale, which didn't really seem worth it considering the risks involved.
While there are some things that could be improved, especially when it comes to giving more consequence to your actions, the narrative took the spotlight. Here you can see the cruelty of the Nazis and their discrimination against other races up close. There are various sequences where you can influence the game (such as making decisions that unlock certain resources for use later on), plus there are certain scenes that are more directly related to history and real events. During your time with the game, you will be immersed in history, from the rise of Hitler and the Nazis several years before the war through to their eventual downfall.
These sequences have choices that occasionally have consequences. From what we experienced in our playthroughs, curiosity and courage will usually help - just don't be too reckless. What's more, Through the Darkest of Times offers distinctive visuals that give this historical strategy game a bleak feel. The music also immerses you in the urban atmosphere of Berlin, and when it comes to determining the outcome of a mission, the score helps to build tension.
In the end, Through the Darkest of Times offers a solid strategy experience, however, the lack of consequence surrounding a number of the key missions killed our motivation to take risks and therefore promoted a more careful approach, despite the fact that there is plenty of satisfaction to be had from successfully completing the tougher missions. If you're a board game or strategy fan, this one's worth a look, especially if you're fascinated by the setting.
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