Through the Darkest of Times (2020)
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Developer: Paintbucket Games
For anyone who lives in Texas, last week still feels like a horrible nightmare that still continues to have lasting repercussions. The weather emergency left most of my city without power and water, and the roads almost impossible to drive on for several days. Thankfully, I was lucky to have power and was able to hole up warm at home playing my Switch. I'd heard of TtDoT due to its Game Awards nomination in the "Games for Impact" category, and its style and narrative really stood out from this rest (I've now played 4 out 5 games in that category, meaning: Spiritfarer, you're next). Through the Darkest of Times (TtDoT) is a historical strategy and "organizing" simulator that takes place in the era of Nazi Germany. TtDoT is an important and impactful story well told through the game, but the missions feel fairly repetitive and the Switch version definitely needs some work.
TtDoT immidiately starts with a cutscene, first informing us about the crucial setting: "It's 1933. Adolf Hilter has been appointed chancellor." This cutscene shows the effects of what it meant for the Germany and how right away, resistance organizers began to take action. You're able to then customize your own character, choosing from different auto-generated character names and stats but editing your appearance. You play the leader of a resistance organization in Berlin. Your first job is to start recruiting other members to join the resistance against rising Nazism. You play in rounds, assigning your members and yourself to specific missions ranging from collecting money for your organizing to breaking in to steal Nazi intel. Each mission has a designated level of risk, so you can decide if it's a risk worth taking or not. The risk itself is of being seen by the police and even of being arrested. The missions also have designated skills and qualities that they call for, making some missions a better fit for certain character. I quickly learned that having a diverse skillset was very valuable in my team. You need both the white-collar Catholic Conservative and the union worker anarchist to really be able to tackle different missions successfully. Interestingly enough, in the dialogue portions before missions, your teammates (such as the two mentioned above) may actually argue and disagree with each other despite being part of the same movement. This made me reflect on more current political trends and realize that, in order to fight fascism, we may often have to work hand-in-hand with those who still don't share all of the exact same values.
There's two modes you can pick between when you start a new game: Resistance Mode or Story Mode. I tried to do some research before picking for myself and I mostly found that Resistance Mode was a good bit more difficult and less forgiving. It's probably a good fit for anyone who plays a lot of strategy games. I went Story Mode since I'm not super familiar with this type of game and wanted to get a more gentle introduction. However, that being said, story mode wasn't super easy. Most chapters were reasonable, but in the last one I almost failed due to very low morale level several times. You also have to plan your missions around raising more money and getting more supporters, as many missions require funds to move forward. Towards the later chapters, I had items in my inventory that I found didn't really help with any missions, so I was a little confused on why I had them at all. I wish there would've been a short description given to each item so you could know what their function was. Also, the chapters were often fairly repetitive and didn't do anything particularly new from the last. I also encountered a few minor bugs, such as missions saying I was missing an item but it wouldn't show what, or a time when the dialogue showed code instead of a character's name. Those are all fairly minor and easy to ignore compared with the biggest problem with this game: it's very badly optimized for the Switch. I absolutely wish I had bought it for PC instead. I try not to judge games based on how they play on a specific port, but at the same time, why port a game to a console if you know it's not going to play well on that console? It's basically unplayable on docked mode because of how tiny the text is. I switched to undocked like 5 minutes into the game. Even then, it's still really small text. Also, the controls move in a very strange way on the mission screen. I would try to move between my members from left to right, but somehow one of them would get skipped unless I moved my joystick up instead. There things were mostly just annoying in undocked mode, but it was enough to keep me from playing long sessions at a time.
Between the missions, you get to see your protagonist's life play out and how it drastically changes through the years. These portions consist of image cutscenes and text in which you get to make dialogue choices. In the early years of Hitler, you are faced with friends and acquaintances who are suddenly supporting the Nazis, and you make decisions on how to respond to them. You also encounter injustices playing out and have to choose how to act to both help the victim and protect yourself. In the later years, you're seeking out contacts in other countries who can either help your organizing efforts or help in the effort to bring down Nazi Germany's power and image. This is where I learned a lot about little details I either didn't remember or didn't know about Nazi Germany and WWII. This included how much of culture was restricted by the Nazis and how the resistance group missed and valued music and art that was considered "un-German" by the Nazi regime.
The art style is something particularly worth mentioning for TtDoT. It's incredibly different from any game I've played and has a somewhat abstract, less realistic look. It somehow works incredibly well for the setting and one is of the things that sets this game apart. Despite it mostly being in black and white (with the occasional dramatic touch of red), it tells a lot of story with these images. The music was well thought out, using sort of classic old-timey ragtime music that would have been popular at the time. It doesn't really have a memorable or unique soundtrack, but it's fitting for a historical game.
TtDoT is an excellent example of games as historical storytelling mediums. Playing the part of resistance leader puts you right in the center of a time and place that's very difficult to imagine. It's an incredibly heavy game, so please take that into consideration going in. I had to play in fairly short periods as the subject matter was often very dark, raw, and upsetting. Ironically, as a strategy game, it often feels futile to make any moves when you know that this story is historical and you can't actually change the outcome. However, it was a worthwhile experience that not only taught me more of history but also instilled in a me a drive to never stop fighting against injustice in our communities - knowing the efforts of so many people before us. I recommend it especially for fans of WWII history and strategy games, but also for anyone who may be new to the subject and still wants to learn more. (I highly recommend you play on PC, though).
Through the Darkest of Times is available on PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Android, and Apple Store.
Played on: Switch
Playtime: 9.5 hrs