It's easy to see why people are tired of WWII games, yet few studios want to take a risk on taking the genre in different directions. Pandemic's last game, their WWII sandbox, The Saboteur, was a bold and fresh take on the genre despite its flaws, but it's only one of very few titles that have tried to escape the genre's FPS/RTS comfort zone. Replay Studios' stealth-based Velvet Assassin had also dared to bring something unique to the table, but again, it was weighed down with flaws.
Adventure games have largely ignored this period of history. Titles focusing specifically on stories spun around those events have usually given lip service to it, such as Legend Entertainment's Timequest in 1991, the eco-nightmare of Merit Software's Kronolog in 1993, or Sproing Interactive's Undercover: Operation Wintersun in 2007. There hasn't been much else. When A Stroke of Fate: Operation Valkyrie was announced years earlier by Akella, I watched its development with some excitement because it covers subject matter that adventure games have never dealt with before. Now that it's finally on Steam, I jumped into this secret plot but was disappointed to discover how quickly it unravels.
Stroke of Fate casts you as Gerhard Mayer, a member of the SS who has a day job with the Gestapo. He had believed in the Third Reich until he visited a concentration camp and saw the true face of the regime. Then came Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and the eventual string of defeats that further convinced him that Germany was being led down the path to ruin. For years, Mayer has been waiting for his chance to save the nation from the Fuhrer, and he might actually have his chance.
A Stroke of Fate is subtitled "Operation Valkyrie" for its association with the July 20 plot to kill Adolf Hitler in 1944, though you don't participate in the plot other than as another like-minded officer standing on the sidelines. The narrative cleverly weaves the player into the history of the moment without standing in its way, but how it handles itself around the facts can make it difficult to appreciate the game's strengths.
It's also provocative in its choice of character, an SS officer. For those familiar with their history, they were the elites of Hitler's Third Reich and responsible for many of its worst atrocities during peace and war. Mayer's character also challenges the notion that not everyone wearing a swastika did all that they could to aid in the Third Reich's rise. He's not entirely blameless, but he seeks redemption and is willing to put himself at risk to end the war. It's also disappointing that the writing never reaches the lofty heights that this point attempts to make through the gameplay.
This is an old-school pixel hunt. There are no easy "highlight" mechanics to set potential inventory items or interactive items aglow. Clues are often blended into the backdrops, requiring you to occasionally sweep the screen with your mouse for an important puzzle piece. There are also minigames, such as a card game and dodging spotlights while climbing along a ledge, both of which cannot be avoided if you want to simply move on to more puzzles.
If there were a manual, I didn't know where to find it. As a result, certain controls and concepts were the first set of puzzles to solve. A journal activates an in-game tracker that contains his thoughts on what to do next, and a map system allows quick travel between locations, such as the RSHA headquarters to a local Berlin post office. Double-clicking on the edge of the screen zips Mayer to the next area; it's helpful because of his slow walking speed. Combining items is as easy as clicking on one item and then on another. All of this is basic stuff, but to someone who might not have played adventure titles as often as others, the game doesn't do much to help.
The first thing that I noticed is that A Stroke of Fate tosses aside any political correctness. Swastika flags are seen everywhere, and casual references to what the SS thinks of the Jews and anyone else who doesn't fit the Aryan standard are floated in conversation with many characters. It's almost tragically obnoxious, given to whom they blurt it and its attempts to present an oppressive air of paranoia.
It's clear that A Stroke of Fate uses real facts and references in the game to give it a weighty feel that's missing from other adventure games set around the same period. But at the same time, it only makes the fiction sound even worse.
What started out to be a promising side story to the July 20 plot and one man's personal quest to change the course of history eventually descends into weirdness. Certain characters clownishly spout enough Nazi propaganda that the only thing missing from their uniform is an "I am Evil Incarnate" badge next to their party pin. They don't act so much as people as they do WWII cut-outs.
The biggest co-conspirator against the story is the sub-par, monotonous voice acting, which is present from the opening monologue. Whether it is due to localization issues with the script or the actors not caring, I couldn't tell. It ruins nearly every scene and kills whatever emotional build-up there may have been. In addition to the caricatures created by the dialogue, most of the actors savage their lines by reading them as if to a grade school classroom. There were maybe one or two exceptions, but they belonged to NPCs that you might see only once or twice.
Other moments also convinced me that there was no coaching on how to pronounce German names or, in some cases, basic grammar. There's also an instance where the actor catches himself in a mistake only to read on! It wasn't intentional, either. You can tell that the person botched it but, for whatever reason, it was left in the game. Whether it was because of the production's low budget r something else, your guess is as good as mine. At one point, I would have settled for 8-bit JRPG sound effects to replace the voice acting.
One painful example had me speaking to a telephone operator named Victoria at Hitler's Adlerhorst headquarters. Not only did she sound like she was sleepwalking through her lines, but she also insisted on pronouncing "Fuhrer" as "Fur," though she earned points for not mangling Hermann Goering's name. In another line, President Hindenburg is replaced with "Gindenburg." Despite the heavy reliance on historical context, armchair historians will find a lot more to pick on. The good news is that you can turn off the voice acting, but it still doesn't excuse some of the awful dialogue and contrived situations that crop up.
The entire July 20 plot is also glossed over. The main character is simply told that it has happened and a minute later, does one or two things to help, and then it's done. There is no effort to describe anything in the game to create the illusion that the conspirators have gone through with Valkyrie other than a few phrases.
It gets worse. In another scene, the main character tells a complete stranger that he's planning to kill Hitler. The other guy isn't even phased, especially when it's coming from a member of the SS working for the Gestapo. It's simply the other character's "intuition" that allows him to believe his new, black uniformed "friend." In an earlier scene, a leading figure of the July 20 plot welcomes him in on the same thin premise. We're supposed to buy that this complete stranger is so trusted by these people, and the best explanation that they have is that, "It's too late to worry about that now" or that a change of clothes can remake a man. Really?
Puzzle solutions are also often stumbled upon, and in one instance, it seemed to be unfinished. I had decided to grab a vase, and the game informed me that it contained one half of a poison. Poison for whom? Or for what? I never found out. At another point, I had to figure out how to steal a dinner knife. Why? Good luck finding it against the background, much less figuring it out.
The game also ends on an unexpected note, though a follow-up is apparently planned to complete Mayer's story. Finishing the game took me around seven hours, making it a decent bang for your puzzle-solving buck on Steam. Though the story is disappointing, the gameplay isn't too bad, as long as you don't mind the old-school feel of sweeping for clues.
A Stroke of Fate should be lauded for its attempt to take WWII away from the FPS and RTS trenches and into an adventure game's potential. The idea of playing a character living a double life as an SS officer and as a member of the German Resistance is an exciting angle, despite its execution here. It's also visually stunning, even when a few historical anachronisms pop in now and then.
One can only wish that the game's better elements could have been elevated with a better-written story and characters who don't come off as blatant stereotypes. As it stands, A Stroke of Fate is a flawed adventure tightly wrapping itself around WWII's history. At the same time, it sorely lacks the same ambitious spirit behind its gorgeous visuals to make the most of its promising premise.
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