The strategy game "Through the Darkest of Times" leaves lasting impressions. Few other video games manage to make players think so intensely. All of the content that the Berlin indie developer studio Paintbucket Games has based the game on has long been known - at least it should be. The self-proclaimed historical resistance strategy game is an ambitious and at the same time courageous project. One that can only be created in this form in Germany - because it only works the way it should.

Already in the first few minutes of "Through the Darkest of Times" this intense moment arises, in which the players realize what it's about: The horrors of the Third Reich - unembellished, only nicely packaged. The strategy game from Paintbucket Games, now in partnership with Handy Games (now part of THQ Nordic), focuses on the horrors of World War II from the perspective of a resistance group.

"Hitler is chancellor" - and the horror begins

"Through the Darkest of Times" is an ambitious, a courageous project. Only a German development studio could give such a game credibility. The Paintbucket Games squad took a big risk: A video game by Germans that actually spell out the word "Nazi"? An affront. And then there are swastikas. A while ago that would have been unthinkable.  

In the meantime, the entertainment software has its own self-control (USK for short) Legal opinion changed and has now taken on a much more active role. Adapted to modernity, so to speak. Until early August 2018, titles even containing Nazi symbols were not accepted for review. Everything changed in mid-August: “Through the Darkest of Times” was rated for ages 12 and up – despite the swastikas everywhere. Or just because of them. 

A Nazi game with swastikas? A while ago that was unthinkable. Today the industry is grateful for that. Image: Handy Games

Nazi game with swastikas? Unthinkable some time ago. Today the industry is grateful for that. Image: Handy Games

The game by the Berlin indie developers was a game changer. It heralded the turning point and paved the way for future historical-educational games. The title will definitely be released for PC Steam and MAC, console versions for Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Nintendo Switch are possible. Almost everyone can then learn from the German past. And "Through the Darkest of Times" offers plenty of opportunities to do so.

Players control a resistance group during World War II. In four stages you will then learn what happened between 1933 and 1945. Players cannot change history, but individual fates can influence it. Identifying with the resisters is easy. Instead of relying on well-known resistance fighters, the developers throw a fictional person at the player's feet as part of a character editor. It is not a mistake. On the contrary: this trick is extremely clever. It doesn't take Sophie Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, or Georg Elser to credibly bring the resistance against the Nazi regime to life. The player feels in the shoes of a completely unknown, because fictional character, as well. Why? Because the character at the time could have been anyone: the class teacher, the neighbor, the salesman in the corner shop, even your own father or mother.

Thorough research instead of "Nazi club"

The gameplay in "Through the Darkest of Times" is based on strategic titles in which the focus is on resource management. Resisters are sent on missions to collect whatever is needed: money, support or morale. The latter in particular runs out faster and faster as the chapters progress. The more the National Socialists spread, the more difficult it became to keep up the morale of the resistance group. This is not just a playful trick, but the result of thorough research on the part of the developers: How was the resistance group in the Third Reich during the Second World War? Experiences and stories have also been incorporated into the development. 

During the strategy phases of the game you sometimes forget what it is about. Then the next cutscene follows and the gruesome past hits the player with the force of a sledgehammer. One scene: blazing flames, a crowd of people standing around it, hooting - a hate speech by Jospeh Goebbels runs as the background sound. Scary atmospheric, because back then it was real. As a player you know that - or at least you should know it.

Unbearable lesson: Players directly attend the hate ritual. Image: Handy Games

Unbearable lesson: Players directly attend the hate ritual. Image: Handy Games

But it's about to get worse. Dialogue options open up and it becomes clear to the player: You communicate directly with Erich Kästner. The writer who, in 1933, attended the ritual of Berlin students burning "un-German books". The scene becomes unbearable when the player realizes that - despite direct interaction within the framework of the dialogue - one cannot do anything to change the story. The historical depth of Through the Darkest of Times is the real star of the game, which isn't the result of a swing of the Nazi mace, but rather captures the past as it happened - as it must have felt. Only Germans could develop the game in this form: haunting, frightening, sensitive - but always thoroughly researched.

"Through the Darkest of Times" is also convincing in terms of gameplay: every action has an effect, every click becomes a story, so to speak. You've learned a lot at the end of a game session. A "fun" is more likely to be found on a meta level. No one yells "Hooray!" when a sent out resistance squad successfully returns from a mission - but as a player you are satisfied. You have turned the wheel of time, even if only in a fictitious environment.

There remain agonizing questions: Why didn't more people then have the courage to resist? And what if they did? As is well known, there is no happy ending - or much too late.

Even stylized, the scenes create discomfort. Image: Handy Games

Even stylized, the scenes create discomfort. Image: Handy Games

The concept was so convincing two years ago that the Berlin-Brandenburg Media Board sponsored the video game with 70.000 euros. Compared to millions in productions, these are peanuts, for a small indie development studio the sum is more than just financial: It is a recognition of their work.

The duo from Paintbucket Games traveled tirelessly to present the project, including at Gamescom 2019. In the meantime, Handy Games from the THQ Nordic family has found a publisher who will market and distribute the video game. They take their time for the comprehensive project, there is no precise release date, the plan is for the beginning of 2020.

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