We are far from the famous battlegrounds such as Normandy and Stalingrad, but this new narrative adventure still manages to deliver a gripping story set during World War II.
Setting your game during the Second World War seems like a rather safe and uninspired choice – the McDonald’s of historical settings if you like. While the ingredients are as popular and timeless as ever, great sacrifices and shooter-inspiriting honour and duty are found in spades, and we have played through the years 1939-45 so many times that it is starts to lose some of its impact. Luckily, that isn’t the case with Gerda: A Flame in Winter, a new title from the Copenhagen based studio PortaPlay and the first game being published by Don’t Nod, the creators of the Life is Strange series. As a narrative adventure set during World War II the game shows great courage in trying to bring some more nuance into a conflict that is often seen (and in some areas rightly so) as completely black and white.
Courageous is probably also one of the first words I would use to describe the game’s protagonist, the young nurse Gerda. Living in the Danish city Tinglev close to the border of Germany she has managed to avoid most of the horrors of the war and even enjoys a strained, yet civil, relationship with the German Occupation. All that changes though when her husband, Anders, gets arrested for being part of a local resistance group. Gerda, caught in the middle of her various allegiances, must now try to pull the right strings in trying to free her husband making for an intense story filled with meaningful and nerve-wracking choices.
Before trying the game, I got to speak to the developers, and they told me that one of the main inspirations has been Eastern European games such as Stalker and Pathologic. On the surface, this seems rather surprising. Gerda: A Flame in Winter doesn’t have the mad, sprawling ambitions of those kind of titles and is fortunately also a lot more polished with only minor glitches during my playthrough. Yet having now played through the whole six – or seven -hour adventure, I can certainly feel the inspiration in several aspects.
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First of all, the developers have spent a lot of effort bringing local flavour into the game, and I’m not just talking about the so-called sønderjyske kaffebord consisting of a whopping 21 different cakes! Danish songs crackle through the various radios, and local landmarks such as the church, train station and inn are recreated in great detail. The overall art style is inspired by Nordic Impressionist paintings and look excellent once you’re used to it. Atmospheric lightning inspired by the famous Skagen Painters combined with some sombre piano pieces strike a hopeful tone in what is otherwise a pretty gloomy adventure.
Gerda’s diary holds all sort of usual information including historical tidbits.
Like the previously mentioned titles, Gerda: A Flame in Winter features a small but interesting cast of characters. Since the game takes place in February 1945 with the war just about to end after more than five years of hardship, there is lot of to learn about earlier dealings of for example the resistance fighter Liva or the controversial industrialist Mr. Vestergaard. This is not just flavour text filling out you’re in-game diary. With food and essential items in short supply, everything is a resource in Gerda. Even information as it can be used to put pressure on characters or discover new dialogue options.
Of course, there are proper physical objects such as band aids, cloth, radio parts, food stamps and lots more to be found by exploring. These can be used to aid the pain of a struggling refuge, but beware that altruism always comes with a price, and the resources might be better spent later on to bribe an official. It’s perhaps in this aspect of resource management, that the game resembles the eastern European titles the most. Even your skill points – Compassion, Insight and Wit – are not permanent stats, but resources to be spent, as Gerda drains herself mentally to keep it all together. It’s a great way for the gameplay to reflect the harsh realities of The Occupation, and the game really shines in its overall design.
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Holding the right items might open up new dialogue choices.
Because of these resource management elements, the game is being marketed as an RPG-Lite, a genre that is also alluded to in the choice of an overhead perspective as seen in CRPG classics such as Fallout. This is reflected in the various skill checks you must perform during crucial dialogue or when performing risky actions. The chance of succeeding is based partly on luck and partly on your various relationships with nationalities (German and Danish), factions (Occupation and Resistance) as well as the individual characters with the relevant variables always clearly indicated.
In a way, this is the only real gameplay mechanic in the game as the developer has decided not to include puzzles, Quick Time Events, or action sequences of any kind. Instead, the main mechanics – skill checks and dialogue choices – is cleverly expanded to encompass different genres such as stealth or action. For example, during a particularly exciting sequence early in the game, I had to sneak through a dark building with each failed skill check adding to a detection meter. I really applaud this design as it builds excitement without suddenly turning Gerda into an action hero or Sherlock Holmes-like mastermind.
A minor complaint is that the underlying RPG mechanics are sometimes too much in your face. At times it feels like you are playing a spreadsheet, with numbers constantly going up and down based on each little dialogue choice you are making. I personally think it’s a bit too much, but I get what they are aiming at, trying to make each and every little decision matter.
And to be honest, most of the times, they really do. If you are tired of games not really responding to your choices, Gerda: A Flame in Winter will be right up your alley. Where you choose to go during the story, who you’ll help along the way; all of it influences later events, and the developer does an excellent job of tying it all together in an exciting finale. At one time I wore a little pin with the Nazi insignia to get easier access to the local Gestapo headquarters, only to get scolded later as the story had spread throughout the little town. Later I pocketed some chocolate (for the starving and the poor of course) and ended up offending my friend when she offered me another piece only to find the box empty.
Little details such as these really make the world feel alive. And of course, when you get to make larger decisions, they are often extremely hard. Do you steal some penicillin for a helpless and sick Jewish child, or do you use it to barter with a soldier that might help your imprisoned husband? Whatever you choose there is not right answer, and it’s simply impossible to save or help everyone reflecting the brutal reality of the game’s world.
The tough choices reflects the harsh reality of the Occupation.
If you have read this far, you will probably not be surprised to hear that I liked Gerda: A Flame in Winter. A lot. It’s one of those titles where each element – whether in world design, gameplay, or graphics – feels thought out and not just included to appeal to a certain demographic.
That being said, it’s not a perfect game. A few more moments of quiet exploration or more dialogue that didn’t necessarily revolve around the war or clashes between the Danes and the Germans, would have provided some much needed relief akin to the more light-hearted sections of The Walking Dead. And more crucially it would have added an hour or two to a game that feels just a tad short considering how much is going on. Also, there were some areas of the presentation that I didn’t quite like such as some HUD elements and character portraits not being quite up to par with the overall art style. These are small blemishes though on an overall excellent game, and for anyone interested in narrative adventures or World War II this is a huge recommendation.