When you tell a story taking place any time during the first half of the 20th century, you have every advantage. Industry, prosperity, war, famine, reconstruction, love, loss, politics, genocide, and violence all begin to scratch the surface of how impactful and rich that portion of history was for the world, especially in the west. Through the Darkest of Times plops itself in the dead center of the ‘30s in Germany to start. A decade of oppression, fear, and death manages to get utterly squandered by PaintBucket Games. The moderately interesting gameplay does little to make up for the yawn-inducing story and frustrating technical oversights of the game.
Because going another minute without writing about the story and characters will physically kill me, I will start there. If I were to sum up the issues here in one sentence, it would be this: PaintBucket Games does not understand how to tell a story. The game should’ve been named Beating a Dead Horse: The Game.
Before I go further, understand that I’m fully aware of the atrocities of war and the hell that minority groups went through during Hitler’s reign in Germany. Can I say that I fully understand and can imagine or comprehend them from the perspective of a minority group in Europe during that time period? Absolutely not, but few people left living can. Most of us are in the same boat; we can understand what took place, but we can’t understand how it was or what it was like.
Now, with that being said, Through the Darkest of Times doesn’t help anyone better conceptualize The Holocaust. The game takes the stance that the Holocaust was bad. It proceeds to beat you over the head with this for eight hours straight without ever turning it into an effective plot. We know the Holocaust ruined lives, tore apart families, and decimated populations, so why did the game feel the need to consistently go back to this fact? A good narrative knows when and how to make a point and move on. Instead, Through the Darkest of Times fixates on this and refuses to continue on with things. This limits the characters to being one-dimensional textbooks that just spew facts about 1930s and ‘40s Germany. While I should dedicate a clause to congratulating PaintBucket Games on their accuracy and research of the setting, I can read Anne Frank’s diary to get a lot of the same accuracies while digesting a much more fascinating perspective.
Games like Oxenfree, Life Is Strange, and The Walking Dead survive on the shoulders of their enticing characters who develop and grow throughout the game. Do characters make or break every game? No, but they certainly broke this one. Through the Darkest of Times has few recurring characters and far fewer interesting ones. The main character (going by many names) doesn’t even serve as a punching bag for the plot; they simply serve as a hollowed-out vessel for you to play the game through. Going back to storytelling 101, you simply cannot have your protagonist be a static character. For an interesting tale to take place, dynamism is a must for the hero.
Some of the other characters change throughout the game but only the ones who clearly change based on a random number generator. Your character leads a resistance group in Germany trying to inform the people of the world about Hitler’s plans for genocide and destruction. As you recruit people to fight for your group (a maximum of four), they have something to say almost every day that goes by in the game, and none of what they have to say is intriguing or consequential. The same can be said for anything that happens to them. They will often bring stories to the group about their lives as it relates to the war being waged by Hitler. These anecdotes carry kernels of character traits in them, but these traits and stories are randomly put in front of you, and sometimes they directly contradict each other.
For example, I once had a group member who was pregnant. She was worried about her baby’s safety since she was part of the resistance. I convinced her to stick around. Later on, she left the group, and I was informed by one of the other group members that it was because she lost the baby. This hit me harder than anything else that had happened in the entire game… until the very next day when the group informed me that she just had her baby and how happy they were for her. Honestly, what the actual hell? This also demonstrates just how unpolished the experience is.
Additionally, you’ll sometimes find yourself reading exposition and dialogue for and from a character that literally is nowhere to be found. Several times, I had to stop and look at the names of all the people in the room to find that who I was talking to didn’t exist. This pulls the curtain up that previously covered the programming and development side of things, effectively taking you out of the experience. You’re faced with this quite often; the many problems include typos, grammatical errors, and missed punctuation. There’s even a specific bug where the option to go buy paper for the group to use for pamphlets is labeled “Buy Paint.”
Options like these are the core of the gameplay. The game is separated into four chapters, and each chapter consists of twenty days, during which you have the ability to gather supporters and supplies for your cause, take action against the Nazis, or help people affected by Hitler’s rule. You’re presented with a map of where your headquarters is located, and you can send your members to act on these options with varying levels of danger and success. Members can be arrested or leave the group as consequences for certain actions.
While the game does satisfy a strategic itch, it, unfortunately, fails to give you a sense of urgency by the end. You gradually figure out that the sole thing that matters from the perspective of winning the game is gaining supporters, the easiest and most boring option presented to you. This doesn’t mean you stop trying to achieve more, but it ruins what could’ve been a redeeming quality of the game. Through the Darkest of Times never really ventures into uncharted territory with its strategic recourse management. However, it’s hard to say I completely disliked the time that I spent actually playing. I was engaged during a significant portion of deciding which actions to take next. The actions you take couple nicely with the danger of being seen by Nazis. Every time a member of the group is seen, it’s more difficult for them to get a task done. Sometimes they will have to go into hiding or spread rumors to throw the Nazis off the scent. Otherwise, members could be lost to a concentration camp. It’s not the most aggressive type of game design, but it did save the experience a bit and got me through the entirety of the game.
The only part of the game that truly resonated with me was the color palette. Sebastian St. Schultz, credited as the art director, and Vivian Maria Köhler, art and illustration, made the smart choice to paint the entire world in differing shades of gray, except for the Nazis, especially the swastikas. This serves as a perfect representation of the world during this point in history. Gray shows the gloom and dread that enveloped everything, while the red shows the commanding presence of the Nazi army. As an additional detail, eye colors are included, giving certain people drops of humanity. Meanwhile, those without color in their eyes are portrayed as German drones. If there’s one thing Through the Darkest of Times got right, it’s color-based storytelling. I wish this was enough to sway my opinion of the game more.
Too many errors in basic narrative design hold Through the Darkest of Times back from reaching a place of greatness, and while it’s far from unplayable, bugs and a lack of polish keep you constantly from truly engaging with what’s there. I highly recommend buying The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Night by Elie Wiesel instead of this game. The impact on your life will far outweigh anything you get from PaintBucket Games with this one.
This review is based on the PC version of the game. A review code was provided by the publisher.
Through the Darkest of Times is an unsuccessful attempt at telling a compelling story about the state of Germany in the 1930s and '40s. As a game that tries to be story-driven, it consists of bugs, uninteresting characters, and little in the way of plot.
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.