Have you ever wanted to experience life in a small country village during the early stages of World War 2? Well unless you’ve got a time machine, that won’t be happening. The closest you’ll be able to get is by playing Gerda: A Flame in Winter, an RPG-Lite released in 2022 by Don’t Nod publications and developed by PortaPlay. In Gerda: A Flame in Winter, you play as the titular Gerda, navigating life in a Nazi-occupied town when you’re world is quickly upturned one evening.
Gerda lives a simple life, working in the town’s clinic while navigating the world as a half-German, half-Dutch woman during the war and occupation. She’s described as a bridge between both communities in her town; her father is a supporter and member of the Nazi Party, and her husband is a fervent supporter of the Danish town. One day after coming home, Gerda is forced to leave the sidelines after her husband Anders is arrested by the Gestapo and imprisoned.
For the next five days, you play Gerda as she’s thrust into a world of resistance and unsteady allegiances in order to free Anders. Gerda is often trying to walk the line of least violence, as even in dangerous situations, she is a nurse and would rather help than hinder.
There are a lot of routes you can take as you try to free Anders from the Gestapo, which aids the game’s replayability. There really is no way to explore all your options in just one playthrough. Spend the next five days forging alliances that may help get Anders out of Gestapo hands. During that time you have the chance to pick up where Anders left off once he was captured. You get to choose between joining the Dutch resistance, aiding a hidden Jewish mother and daughter, and even finding help from a disgruntled Nazi officer, but remember that your actions and choices have consequences.
Personally, I’ve always been a little character blind; it’s pretty common for me to forget who’s who outside of the main cast—sometimes even the main cast—but I surprisingly didn’t have that problem in this game. It’s especially surprising considering the characters are all low-poly, but they are each different enough to make it fairly easy to tell who’s who.
It’s clear to see that the townspeople and characters that flesh out the world of Gerda have so much effort put into their writing; they feel like real people. With each character, you get the chance to build a relationship of trust, which can make certain dialogue options easier or harder depending on previous interactions. It’s easy to feel like they all go home after the end of a major event and have their own lives to live outside of the story.
The fleshed-out characters may also make it a bit of a tough recommendation. The many Nazi and Nazi supporting characters aren’t shown in an exclusively negative light. They’re portrayed in a very real and human way, reflecting the true lives of soldiers back then. According to Don’t Nod, the game is based on real-life events.
Speaking of major events, that’s how we experience the story. Despite it being an RPG, it was a lot more linear than I expected, but maybe I just feel like that because the only RPGs I play are Pokémon and Stardew Valley. Playing Gerda reminded me of when I used to spend hours reading and rereading those R.L. Stein Goosebumps choose your own adventure stories.
While playing, you choose between different events, building up relationships and alliances with characters of your choosing. Each day you’re presented with different options; early on, you can do all of them, but as the days pass you will have to choose depending on your priorities and built-up alliances.
After each event, Gerda records her thoughts and feelings in her diary, a feature that also serves as a way to keep track of all the information you learn over the course of the game, keeping track of relationships, events, and facts. A feature I really liked about the diary was getting to choose between three diary entries that each reflected on the event.
Each one will give you a different point, either with wit, compassion, or insight. These points will allow you to pick helpful dialogue options and actions throughout the game. Along with that, the trust you’ve built with characters can help throughout the story, making social interactions the real puzzle of the game.
Visually, I find Gerda: A Flame in Winter stunning. Each town and country scene was a joy to look at and explore. I found the low-poly look perfect for the wintery setting and reminiscent of Impressionist movement artwork. I was extremely delighted that my two years of art history in high school actually paid off and that Gerda’s aesthetic was styled after Nordic impressionist paintings.
One issue I had with the visuals was that it was nearly impossible to see anything during nighttime scenes. I’d have my brightness all the way up and still struggled to make out what was happening or where I was going, which is such a shame. There are some pretty pivotal moments during nighttime scenes that I basically missed out on.
My one other issue was that the only way to save was to complete the event and return to the town map, which, as a frequent saver out of fear of losing progress, I found very inconvenient. Other than that, the game is very easy to navigate, letting you fall into the intricate storytelling and vivid characters rather easily.
The game is also perfect for Nintendo Switch Lite owners, taking up only 5GB. It runs smoothly most of the time. I found Gerda’s waddling through scenes rather endearing, and one of the moments where it glitched actually helped with the atmosphere, so I didn’t think much of it.
Audio-wise, the game’s sound is rather minimalist, usually just a single piano, favouring the atmosphere over an intense score. At one point during a dream sequence that I won’t spoil, the use of sound really swept me away. I was genuinely unsettled during that sequence, which in my books is always a plus.
Brought together, this creates this sombre but endlessly compassionate story of a small Dutch town seen through a resident’s eyes, during World War 2. If you’re a history buff or just enjoy interactive storytelling, I’d recommend playing Gerda: A Flame in Winter.