It used to be unusual to have glimpses of important historical events depicted in video games. When history is depicted, it’s more often through grand strategy war games—and you can often change the outcome. But games intimately depicted from the viewpoint of a person or group of people who are historically on the losing side of a conflict have been more common lately with the advent of games like This War of Mine, Warsaw, and Papers, Please!
Through the Darkest of Times is a strategy game with some sprinklings of adventure and resource management genres whose mix of genres make the whole experience feel a bit eclectic. Building morale and gaining supporters as you weigh risk versus reward makes part of the game feel like a resource management sim, but a lot of the interactions with the game are through text prompts that almost border on visual novel, or adventure game. Dialogue is an extremely important aspect too, since what you say or what you decide to do via text prompts can have significant effects on the outcome of any given encounter. While it uses its different parts well, it can feel a bit complicated and maybe even a little bloated compared to a game like Papers, Please!
Genre discussion aside, Through the Darkest of Times is a representation of some of the darkest times leading up to World War II, where you play as part of a political resistance trying to subvert the Nazis’ inevitable rise. This isn’t a perspective that I’m used to, and it’s not a very comfortable one. You are helpless as you watch Germany turn into a fascist state, and anti-Semitism finds its way to the streets in bloody display. You have the opportunity to be defiant, and even step in to help in some cases—to your potential detriment.
Most of the choices you make in regards to the story, as I’ve mentioned, will be through text interactions. The same goes for members of your resistance. While the resistance as a whole is represented by numbers, your resistance group is the small group of people who will be doing a lot of the grunt work—including your player character. Each of your crew has their own personalities, and even backstories to explore and interact with. Sometimes they can be helpful, but other times they can get you and your group into trouble.
The story is surprisingly rich, and deep. But there is also rich story background for the characters you recruit, and through gameplay you might even find out personal information about that will endear them to you—or even make you despise them.
The strategy aspect of Through the Darkest of Times comes in when you choose where to send a specific character. Each of your characters, in addition to their story backgrounds, has different strengths and weaknesses that may make it easier or harder to perform any given task. To start with you’ll have your resistance handing out propaganda, recruiting members, and even unwinding at clubs for morale. Eventually though, they’ll be tagging buildings, planting explosives and more as the story escalates and Nazism takes hold.
Not all of the odds are stacked against you in Through the Darkest of Times. The success of any given assignment you send someone on is based on a percentage, which is influenced by several factors and determined by a random number generator. There is also a separate indicator of risk, meaning that even if you have a high chance of succeeding at your task, you still can still suffer the associated consequences of that action.
You can send your team in with additional help, and items that would make the task possible. If you need to paint signs, for example, you need to buy paint. Of course, you have to make sure you weren’t seen buying the paint, or you might get a visit from the Brown Shirts. Throughout the entire game you and your resistance members have the constant threat of arrest, imprisonment, etc., and the margin for error can be razor thin.
If you can’t stand the difficulty, or would rather play Through the Darkest of Times for its story, you can eschew the challenging normal difficulty for its story mode.
Through the Darkest of Times ends up being a a good learning tool, and in it there are a lot of issues that are discussed–many of which are hot button topics today. As a game, I wouldn’t describe it as “fun” since the subject matter is so heavy—it’s much too accurate of a reflection of our current political climate. It’s like looking into a dark mirror and playing out struggles that seem too close to home. It’s great to have a video game depiction of this, but I fear those who will see it as a cautionary tool are already cautioned, and those that wouldn’t be swayed by it would probably dismiss it as propaganda or even criticize it for its gameplay elements before addressing its message. Games like this are important for a multitude of reasons though, including as a glimpse into our own current political climate.
Through the Darkest of Times is not an easy game for a number of reasons. It can invoke strong negative emotions, and in it there are stories of small triumphs against fascism and oppression, and the iron will of those willing to make sacrifices—with their freedoms and sometimes lives—to resist what they know to be inhuman wrongs. It’s also challenging as a strategy game, that requires you to manage your people—some you may even be endeared to—as you navigate the hazards of resisting the Nazis.
Through the Darkest of Times is available now on Steam
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR