Gerda: A Flame in Winter review - Paths not taken

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A screenshot from Gerda: A Flame in Winter of Gerda crossing a road.

In my preview of Gerda: A Flame in Winter, I talked about how much I appreciated the direction the game took with its decision-making and approach to violence. Without being a soldier, commander, or heroic character, war becomes much less of a two-sided fight.

As Gerda, a Danish nurse living in Tinglev, a small town with a population of just a few thousand on the border with Germany, your life is turned upside-down when those close to you become embroiled in a plot involving the anti-Nazi resistance and the Gestapo. I'll try to spoil as little as possible of the minute details of this narrative RPG.

If you're interested in the lesser-known aspects of well-known history, this is an excellent place to start. A fictional story set in a very real and personal time for the game's creators, the struggle of areas occupied by Nazi Germany isn't something with a lot of visibility, at least when I was learning about the World Wars. It's not just a slice of history, though. There's a fascinating story beneath it all.

A screenshot of Gerda talking to her father in Gerda: A Flame in Winter.

Table of Contents

Impact

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Situated in Southern Jutland, Tinglev was part of Imperial Germany from 1864 until 1920, although it has always been contested territory. After the First World War, it was placed under Danish control again, although a significant number of Germans remember and yearn for the days when the area was part of their fatherland.

It created a complex political environment which saw families (including Gerda's) and friends split. Some Germans supported the Nazi party due to their ability to return the province to what they saw as its rightful owner, and Danes resented the occupation due to rationing and anger over the fascist ideology of their occupiers. The German minority in Southern Jutland even formed the Zeitfreiwillige, a militia supplied by the German army and deployed to keep the Danish population in check.

It's a hugely volatile atmosphere, and as Gerda is half Danish and half German, she's constantly stuck in the middle of all these conflicts. Her Danish husband clashes with her German father, the local members of the Gestapo harass her friends, and the decisions you make change the various relationships Gerda has with each party.

Danes, Germans, Resistance, and Occupation are the four factions Gerda can either please or anger. The thing I was worried about was whether the morality of the situation would be a challenge whatsoever. Just support the resistance and fuck over the Nazis. Duh.

It isn't quite that easy, though. The German occupiers are the ones in power in this situation, and you'll need their help and trust in order to save the ones you love, whilst also going behind their backs to achieve your own ends. Even the resistance isn't all great, with goals that might not exactly align with Gerda's personal requirements. They're cutthroat and ruthless because they have to be, but it means they can lose some of their humanity along the way.

There were moments that genuinely shocked me while I was playing, and they were down to my own decision-making. I tried to help more people than I feasibly could as a 25-year-old nurse with no special abilities aside from the relationships I'd built with others, and the consequences were a genuine kick in the teeth.

A screenshot of Gerda: A Flame in Winter where one character, Mrs Dahl, is calling another a 'traitor'.

Action

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I'm sure we'll see some players min-max the game to perfection post-release, but as I mentioned in my preview, Gerda: A Flame in Winter is designed specifically to force you to get your hands dirty. It's very, very difficult to please everyone. It's wartime in an occupied area - stuff is an absolute mess. You have to manage a lot of stats and numbers to make things work out as in your favour as possible, but they all make sense in context.

You have 'mental energies', gained each day by selecting a diary entry for Gerda to write. These are Compassion, Insight, and Wit. It's an interesting aspect of the game, as these energies function both as consumable resources and character stats. Some dialogue options require you to use mental energy, but others require you to have a specific amount at your disposal. Using one up could mean you're unable to reason with the next person who comes along.

Your relationships with each of the game's characters make a huge difference in what you're able to achieve, too. Coupled with mental energy and your relations with each faction, there will be some dice rolls for certain dialogue options to have the desired outcome. Things become a lot harder when everyone hates you and you're exhausted emotionally, just as much in WWII Denmark as in the modern workplace. I should know.

Another restriction is time. You can't go everywhere and do everything like it's a checklist in an open-world game. You have to pick and choose. This is the toughest bit - you're missing entire scenes, and the world just moves on without you. Your absence is noted, but you can sometimes patch things up later if you have a change of heart. It's really difficult to make these calls - I've had multiple occasions where I really couldn't decide between the three locations available to travel to.

Narratively, it is a bit strange, though. You're a young nurse in a small town, not an all-powerful hero. That's the point. Sometimes, then, it feels as though Gerda's absence is noticed a little too much. Resistance members and Gestapo alike will chastise you for failing to offer adequate time as though their lives all depend upon it, and even though it's a town where everyone knows your name, the townsfolk seem all too keen to love or hate Gerda based on hearsay and small failures. Failure is a common theme in Gerda: A Flame in Winter, though, and I don't mind this as a further way of driving home the fact that you're the weak underdog.

A street with a burning car crashed into a tree in Gerda: A Flame in Winter.

Function

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On Switch, Gerda: A flame in Winter runs absolutely fine. Load times are a bit lengthy, but the visual style and controls work well on the system. You move Gerda around with the analogue stick and select dialogue options with the direction pad. Scrolling through the notebook and reanalysing clues and the personalities of the people you've met is easy and intuitive, and there's even a really helpful area which offers shortened versions of the historical facts being discussed in-game.

There's no fast-paced action to speak of, thankfully, and in time-sensitive scenes, time only moves when you do something like talking to someone or interacting with the world.

I did encounter a couple of issues that took me out of the experience somewhat. A Gestapo officer just disappeared in the middle of an incredibly dramatic and important scene, which was a little odd to see, among a few other minor mishaps with walking animations. All in all, though, they were infrequent enough to look past in favour of the story being told.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter is a game I've found very hard to put down. Its characters and their dynamic relationships coupled with the hugely engrossing setting make this one I'm excited to be able to talk about with friends afterwards. Everything is on a knife edge, and I'll be going back for more as I explore the paths not taken.

Gerda: A Flame in Winter
An intense adventure through a lesser-known historical struggle, Gerda: A Flame in Winter tells its story with charm and empathy, whilst driving home the brutality of living as a civilian in wartime.
Nintendo Switch