Developer: Paintbucket Games
Review Context: I’ve played very few educational learning games, but I am always seeking games that present historical facts in a creative way to make them easier to learn.
Date of Playthrough: February 4, 2020
PC Specs Game Played on:
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Processor: Intel(R) Core(TM) i3 CPU 540 @ 3.07GHz
RAM: 8 GB
Video Card: GeForce GTX 950 2GB GDDR5 ACX 2.0 SC+
Disclosure: This review is based off of a review copy.
Through the Darkest of Times, developed by Paintbucket Games, is a game that I didn’t have on my radar prior to 2020, but upon learning this was an educational game about the rise of Adolf Hitler and living in the Third Reich as a resistance group the player controls, I had to play it. Just at face value of the subject matter this is a difficult ‘game’ to wrap my head around as to how the historical facts can possibly presented to the modern gamer to maintain interest in learning about the sensitive subject that is the Holocaust.
Playing the game in ‘Story Mode’, the game is divided into four chapters, beginning in 1933 Berlin as Adolf Hitler is just appointed chancellor, and it’s your task to recruit supporters to your resistance group and fight back against the Nazi propaganda by using various information sharing methods. There are different presentations shown to the player during the course of playing, as you have a map overview to perform resistance simulations by doing missions with your ‘core supporters’ that are selected in the very beginning. Core supporters are members of the resistance that have various traits and statistics that affect mission simulations, in particular the chance that a mission will be successful and how much danger they are put in during the mission to get caught or arrested by the National Socialists that patrol Berlin. The gameplay portion in the Through the Darkest of Times is mostly in the map overview, where you assign core supporters to a mission then run the simulation. Following each simulation you unlock further missions, obtain supplies for your resistance effort, such as Marks (currency, paint, paper, or even clothes and weapons. After each simulation on the map you will be shown how many new resistance supporters you recruited, which is the essence of the game.
The simulation missions themselves provide text of the recruiting experience in that location, for example a church, a factory, or handing out leaflets outside. These are interesting to read the first several times, but you will find yourself wanting to keep clicking to the next mission event quick during the actual simulation. The core supporters are recruited in the beginning and replaceable if one dies during the experience. There is a certain RPG mechanic of leveling up the core supporters for stats like Strength, Empathy, Propaganda, and other stats, but there is no experience meter and the leveling up isn’t really explained, so you have to keep a close eye for a special icon blinking if you have a level up to distribute a stat.
The simulation map is only a small slice of game, but unfortunately, the simulation map gameplay of the game is probably the least ‘enjoyable’ (for lack of a better word) to play because it starts to feel repetitive and the supporter progress resets from chapter to chapter. Where Through the Dark of Times shines is the storytelling and the method of storytelling for such a horrific time in history to make it playable for a gamer and keep their interest. Between simulations you have a resistance hideout with text choices featuring a split-screen of characters with an interesting graphics style on the left and text on the right side of the screen in a typewriter font. During the course of each chapter you will have to make choices for your resistance team that can have consequences, but it’s difficult for me to see how much ‘illusion of choice’ there is for the resistance team, but to me they seem to be real choices unscripted. The historical storytelling of the actual events seem to be airtight in facts, as I periodically fact-checked and everything checked out.
The production and presentation value of Through the Darkest of Times is what carries the experience, as there are narrated animations before each chapter, newspaper headlines of current events in that time period, sensitive images depicting the historical events between each simulation, and the most surprisingly strong point for me was the sound mixing and soundtrack that fits with everything you’re seeing. Despite the game largely relying on still images and mild animation, the sound mixing makes up for it in spades, as I distinctly remember a chilling scene near the end of the game where you hear gunshots and screams as someone is murdered. That is only one of many good examples of using sound to tell the story of the image. What Paintbucket Games demonstrated throughout this whole game is successful use of a combination using text dialogue, still graphics, and sounds to create the atmosphere of the time period for the player. They also successfully weave in a made-up resistance character you make in the very beginning into actual historical events to help tell the story. That doesn’t mean the storytelling is perfect, as I felt like the text dialogue sometimes didn’t read right for what was actually happening, but you can easily suspend disbelief and look past it without damaging the immersive experience of the game.
I really have a difficult time digesting Through the Darkest of Times as a reviewer because I don’t know who the target audience is. The historical storytelling is so well done that I learned some things I didn’t know, particularly about details in the Auschwitz concentration camp. That’s what makes this ‘game’ something special because of how it tells the story of the Holocaust with even more horrifying details that are normally glossed over learning it in school. In school you generally learn who Adolf Hitler is, but hardly ever any of the other disgusting Nazi officers and their role in the Third Reich. For those players that don’t want to see any swastikas there is an option to turn them off, but they are shown by default. The game also features a “Resistance Mode” that doesn’t really explain how different it is from Story Mode, but I tried it and didn’t seem different than Story Mode of the short time I played. Through the Darkest of Times could easily leave out the Resistance Mode and the simulation strategy aspect and this game would still hold up as being something special. Don’t get me wrong, simulating resistance actions like painting anti-Nazi propaganda and recruiting resistance members helps make this more of a game and maybe a little more immersive, but it could be left out because everything else more than makes up for it.
I will never play Through the Darkest of Times again, but I recommend everyone go through it at least once because this is a very valuable teaching tool about a very important historical topic that should never be forgotten.
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