I drive past a bunch of brownshirts who harass a Jewish shopkeeper. They hold posters which read “Don’t buy from the Jews!” and accuse the owner of being a parasite for the German community. The woman inside cringes as I reach the shop and warns me that if I buy something, the men outside won’t like it. But I insist and hand over my list of groceries to her. I have three dialog choices at the end of the exchange: “There will be better days ahead,” “I am so sorry,” and “I do not know what to say.” They all sound tragic and insufficient.
When you’re one person trying to fight the Nazi juggernaut in Germany in the 1930’s, your best course of action isn’t clear at all; indeed, something you want to do may always seem pointless. During Through the Hardest of Times there were so many occasions when I questioned whether I was doing the right thing, or whether something I did would even make a difference. I just just didn’t know what to say. All I knew was I had to keep fighting, live, resist and hope it would be enough.
In the Worst of Times, it is marketed as a strategy game of historical resistance and plays like a kind of narrative board game as you lead a band of as many as five freedom fighters against the Reich. The story starts in 1933, when the appointment of Hitler when Chancellor confirms the takeover of power by the Nazi party. The four-act structure skips ahead to 1936 and the Berlin Olympics, to France’s occupation and Soviet Union invasion in 1941, and to the final months of the war, a year after the Allied victory, until a brief epilog in 1946. The periods of time it follows charts an emotional path that feels authentic: Denial gives way to frustration and terror as the truth about the aims of the Nazis is revealed; pain and sorrow contribute to the steeling of a just fury; and finally, glimpses of cautious hope are tempered by an uncertain future.
As it were, every turn you play your hand allocating leaders of the resistance to perform missions around a Berlin globe. After a turn you see the results coming in: Charlotte managed to get those flyers printed; Arthur raised donations at the plant, but the authorities may have noticed them; Gerhard was arrested while painting slogans on campus walls. You are handling money and resources — we need two people to get this job done, a truck and some explosives for that task — and getting the logistics in order to become the main priority. Often operations manager, never operational.
A scarcity drives strategic decisions. During each act, a 20-turn limit is imposed which is nowhere near sufficient time to accomplish any possible task. Big projects also have other preconditions, too. If you want to finally bust a group of prisoners out of a torture facility, you’ll need some brownshirt uniforms, and you’ll need to do a reconciliation mission to get those you’re going to get first. Constant is the need to pause and think about what you have the time and money to do in practical terms.
Throwing a spanner in the works can also activate new missions which may only be possible for a handful of turns. Can you afford to spare someone to tackle a side project without disrupting your main objective? In the meantime, you are running low on funds to have those books released, so Angelika would probably have to skip the meeting with a British Secret Service contact and seek to steal new funds from the SA, the Nazi militia, instead. Over the course of 20 turns, the decisions rapidly pile up and with them comes a growing fear that there are simply not enough turns to get something done.
At times I felt as if I was drowning. Apart from a few plot threads running through the entire game, and your early choices flowing on accordingly, the start of each act resets the strategic layer basically. You retain your recruited members and their experiences, but all your resources — your money, all that paper and paint you’d purchased, the precious knowledge, medicine, fuel, bicycles, and so on — have returned to square one. And you have to set it up all over again. With each reset, and indeed with a second playthrough, I would start with a clear mind, pick a specific target, and reassure myself that it was my only priority. But every time, without fail, I would find myself pulled this way by halfway through, and that, I could only partially complete a few mission chains but never manage to pull anything major off. It’s incredibly stressful, the sensation that there is just not enough hours in the day to get anything finished. Looming over it, the knowledge of all that partial progress will be wasted and eventually counted for nought.
It didn’t always seem like this to me. The members of my resistance movement will often find themselves experiencing a similar feeling of desperation as they meet each week to plan their next steps. Peter would be embarrassed if they had done nothing. Juliane’d be afraid the situation is hopeless. I found it surprising I was not the only one struggling to find the strength to keep going.
Away from the strategic layer’s dry dynamics, it was during these narrative interludes between turns that I was genuinely linked to the German people’s plight. One day Rosalinde learned her brother had joined the SA. She was dismayed, but I might urge her to take advantage of this and get details from him. A few weeks later she raised concerns that she was now accused by her brother of being a member of the resistance and I had a choice: advise her to leave the community for her own protection or make her stay. The brother had given us useful information unintentionally, but I had grown up to take care of Rosalinde and could not bear the thought of her being found. Needless to say, I asked her to leave.
I wanted to run a ruthlesser ship on a second playthrough, to be the kind of radical who would stop at nothing. So when Lotte told me that she was pregnant and wanted to go out to protect her imminent child, I demanded that she stayed with us. Morale plummeted inside the party, and one day Lotte never showed up for the meeting of the resistance. I learned later that she had lost her son, and fled. It stung, of course, but, thanks to the versatility of the dialog choices provided during these scenes, I was able to coldly describe her departure as a betrayal of the cause.
Given the premise’s particulars — you’re doing absolutely nothing but fighting back against the Nazis here — I was pleasantly surprised to see how different choices I’d made over two playthroughs could form two such wildly different personalities. The strategic layer seems ready for replays because you’re looking for productivity to achieve those end goals, but I was initially concerned that the story scenes wouldn’t hold up to repetition. To some extent, that’s the case and I find myself fast-clicking through conversations I ‘d already seen on my second playthrough. But making different choices allowed me to view our battle in a new light, and as a result, grow attached to a second set of characters otherwise created by randomness.
As you would imagine, the sound is somber, almost constant in its terror. A trip to a camp where the Nazis have rounded up the Romani community in Berlin is grim, particularly when you see children being brownshirts separated from their parents and taken away for unknown medical reasons. I met a Russian woman on the Eastern Front who had survived the massacre and made it into Berlin. She told me about the Scorched-Earth policy of the German army in the East, about the mass graves and hangings of Russian civilians. It was heart-wrenching, and almost too difficult to manage at times.
There’s still some respite to it. Angelika got married and we were in the park having a wedding. We succeeded in finding Monica’s missing husband and reuniting her children. Even as I was running to an underground train station to find refuge from an air raid, I was able to stop and support a Jewish man who was trying to conceal the star on his coat which would keep him from entering the refuge. Throughout Through the Darkest of Times, such moments of community, of kindness, of hope that there is still something worth fighting for, appear just when the desperation of the strategic layer left me at my lowest ebb.
The twin elements of the game could be combined more effectively. Given the limited presentation, the narrative scenes are vividly depicted, frequently intensely moving, and packed with choices that bear weight that can be felt weeks and years later, sometimes. But there’s a frustrating lack of detail outside of the plot interludes. You are circulating “leaflets” and painting “slogans,” smuggling “books,” and retrieving “intel,” but none of this is mentioned in detail. On the strategic hand, the material is zero, with its elements reduced to mechanical symbols. True, there’s some overlap — a plot scene might trigger a new project on the map — but it’s all one-way traffic, and your decisions in one domain have no effect on the other.
Paints what seems like an true portrait of life in Nazi Germany during the Darkest of Times. Cherry-picking big incidents, like the Reichstag Fire or the Olympics opening ceremony, it convincingly positions you at the scene, putting you in the shoes of a normal German trying to get to grips with how one person — or even five people — can react in the presence of evil. It portrays daily life, and ordinary people, including those who are politically seduced and those who think.