It may seem like an odd statement to anyone who doesn’t play video games, but there is an oversaturation of World War 2 in games. At best, they highlight and comment on the brutality of war, and at their worst are propaganda machines used for placing Western military on a bloody pedestal. Svoboda 1945: Liberation veers from this typical telling of WW2. It instead offers a more intimate experience told in the fictional village of Svoboda, now part of the Czech Republic, and the country’s lesser-known painful history with events before, during, and after WW2.
Developer Charles Games incorporates FMV (full-motion video), point-and-click, dialogue choices, and a drawn art style into Svoboda 1945: Liberation to tell its short story about Svoboda’s past. The result is a very effective learning tool for anybody curious about Czech Republic history, and general World War 2 knowledge not widely known. It’s an excellent way to be taught history you might otherwise snooze through in a class lecture, but it does miss the mark in being as good of a game.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation is out now for the Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac and iOS devices, and Itch.io for your regional pricing.
Story – Developing a picture of tensions in the Czech Republic
Svoboda 1945: Liberation places you in the shoes of a Heritage Institute employee tasked with surveying and deciding the fate of Svoboda’s old school building. Is it worthy of landmark status, or should it be torn down? Your time in Svoboda is also made a little more personal when you discover a family connection with it. To help you make a decision on the school’s fate, and assist in answering the questions you have about your family, you’ll have to talk to eight characters residing in the village. With every FMV conversation, you learn more about each villager’s individual history with Svoboda. In the process, you’ll also learn the village’s role in the larger horrific events occurring before, during, and after WW2.
It’s a heavy topic, but developer Charles Games manages to speak on the true, dark events of WW2 and communism with delicacy and consideration to all involved. As I’m not from the Czech Republic, and haven’t learned anything more about WW2 since my school days outside of the odd history documentary or book (which themselves tend to focus on Britain, USA, Russia, and Germany), I wasn’t familiar with a lot of the events being relayed to me in the game. At first Svoboda’s story seemed pretty cut and dry. Czech people were hurt, humiliated, and killed by Nazi Germans. So, when Nazi Germany crumbled, of course the Czechs would feel hostility toward Germans who associated with Hitler and fascism. I wasn’t aware of the extent of violence and expulsion that happened to any Germans living in places like Svoboda. Even those who vehemently opposed Hitler and Nazi Germany.
This is only part of the history that Svoboda 1945: Liberation is showing us. As of course we also get a window into just how bad Czechs and others were treated by Nazi Germans. There’s a particular animated telling of a Nazi Death March making its way through Svoboda that left me feeling sad, angry, and powerless. A reminder of just how many people were dehumanized, tortured, and murdered during the years of Nazi rule.
Associating these true events with the fictional peoples of Svoboda is a good way of making history feel personal – it’s just unfortunate that Svoboda 1945: Liberation doesn’t do this more. One or two conversations with each character is not enough to form a meaningful connection with them. So while I empathise with the events they are telling me, I don’t feel an attachment to the characters themselves. This isn’t a knock on the actors’ performances, as I think they do a wonderful job with the short time they have – but that’s just it, it was too short of a time. This lack of time to explore characters extends to the protagonist too. You have a connection to the village, but it’s barely explored past its surface-level ramifications of whether you want to tear down the school or not. That decision ends the game, which also falls flat as the credits roll.
Therein lies my overall conclusion on the good and bad of Svoboda 1945: Liberation: it’s an excellent learning tool, but not a very good game. It sets up all these big themes and stories… and then it just ends. However, this flaw doesn’t make it a bad experience. As long as you don’t go in expecting tremendous things from the overarching story of Svoboda 1945: Liberation, you should appreciate the way it’s telling this particular era of the Czech Republic’s history.
Gameplay – Simple and effective
Being such a short game, there aren’t a lot of long gameplay sequences in Svoboda 1945: Liberation – but I did enjoy the mix of different gameplay styles when they did pop up. I guess you could call them minigames, but they’re nowhere near as trivial as that makes them sound. These gameplay snippets usually involve a memory from one of the villagers set in and around WW2. Each memory then has a different way to progress through them. One has you packing a suitcase as you experience the memory of a German family’s expulsion from Svoboda after the war has ended. Another very short segment placed me in a soldier’s memory as they hid in a crater from raining gunfire and artillery.
For the most part, these ‘minigames’ do a really good job of getting the reality of a situation across to the player. Particularly when you try to accomplish a task but are stopped in your tracks. The best way this is conveyed through gameplay is actually a memory that sees you try and maintain a farm in postwar Svoboda as an ‘affluent’ farmer. You have to manage your own personal income while trying to keep up with the increasingly demanding wheat requirements you must provide the communist government. If you don’t meet the requirements, you get a fine. If you can’t pay the fine, you need to sell off land or resources. In the end, you’re helpless to this impossible balancing of finances and quotas. It’s the most effective way the game conveyed its history to me. It showed me just a snippet of how powerless it must have been for somebody in this situation.
The actual travelling between villagers is just a button press on a map, and the dialogue choices don’t really amount to much in the end, so I found myself wishing there were more of these memories. Although always simple, they were very good at explaining the situations of different people in the Czech Republic at different stages of fascist rule, and the rise of communism.
Graphics & Audio – Black and white beauty
Besides its short, playable memories, Svoboda 1945: Liberation has three different ways it tells its story. There’s FMV dialogue exchanges, animated cutscenes, and archive footage from the 1930s and 40s. The footage is often played during the FMV cutscenes to add a layer of authenticity to these fictional stories based on real events. This footage certainly helps with visual learning – showing you different moments in history, not just telling you.
The best way Svoboda’s particular story is told, however, is through the animated cutscenes sprinkled throughout conversations and memories of the villagers. It’s a wonderfully simple and beautiful art style that plays out more like an interactive comic book. Unlike comic books, these black and white images move in each panel, and are used to display some of the worst acts committed against people in the Czech Republic. They have some moments of levity too, but not a lot, as it’s hard to slot in when trying to show the inhumane Death Marches and senseless murder that occurred during WW2.
The background music has an appropriately sombre tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable to listen to. It is only the one track though, or multiple tracks that are so similar I couldn’t really tell the difference. This was never a problem, however, as I really enjoyed the tone of the track. As the game is so short, the music never became repetitive or ineffective in relaying the dark history of the village of Svoboda’s involvement in and around WW2.
Svoboda 1945: Liberation was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a review code provided by Charles Games.