Strategic Mind: Blitzkrieg Review02 Sep 2020 16
Strategic Mind: Blitzkrieg Review
Released 22 May 2020
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has two definitions of the compound word 'tone-deaf'. The first is related to an inability to tell differences in musical pitch. The second definition, which is more relevant here today, is as follows: “having or showing an obtuse insensitivity or lack of perception particularly in matters of public sentiment, opinion, or taste.”
Strategic Mind: Blitzkrieg, the latest turn-based strategy game in the Strategic Mind series, can be best summed up, in a word, as tone-deaf. Any game where you play as the Germans during World War 2 can already be a potentially controversial affair, but Blitzkrieg manages to literally play directly into myths about the Wehrmacht being an apolitical, 'clean' branch of the Nazi government.
This line of thinking being literally authored by the protagonist of the game, Nazi General Franz Halder. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about how the game plays.
“TIME TO OPEN UP A BOTTLE OF SCHNAPPS!”
SM:B plays similarly to other games in its field. As a Panzer General clone (which is not a mark against it, as Panzer General is something that should be imitated) you will control a persistent army through a campaign that roughly lasts for the whole war, bringing your units into IGOUGO battles against various enemies of the German Reich. These units are the stars of the show; you will receive auxiliary forces in each battle to supplement your forces, but your men that have followed you since the beginning of the campaign will have better stats and are typically better equipped as well. Keeping them alive and moving forward to seize objectives is the primary concern, which is more complicated than it sounds.
Unit types and terrain will dictate the effectiveness of units when they do battle, as will flanking units, nearby artillery support, the weather, the specific unit’s equipment, etc. There’s a lot of info to take in when it comes to a fight, but in general the strategy is to use tanks in the open, infantry in rough environments, and to Always Be Closing Flanking the enemy. This familiar concept works well enough in SM:B, with some niggling factors that can detract from the fun of blitzkrieg combat.
For example, there can be multiple different units/ objects that can be located in a hex at a time, with an air unit, land unit, and special building all there at the same time. It can be very difficult to select the unit you wish to, and even worse, attack the unit you mean to attack. I have accidentally attacked a key logistics depot several times instead of the enemy unit because the difference between the two is about a millimetre. Making this more annoying is the lack of an undo button, which just means you’ll need to live with the fact that you fat-fingered that attack, or else start the whole turn over. And you probably won’t want to start the whole turn over!
The campaign of SM:B features battles with increasingly large amounts of units, which can become a hassle to manage. Already on the 2nd mission of the campaign, you end up running around with over 20 units on a map half the size of Poland, so the initial learning curve can be harsh, and the turns long, as you click between units to compare stats, ammo, fuel, and the combat forecast against the enemy.
I don’t much care for the level design of SM:B, as your units can frequently end up very spread out and it’s hard to read where enemies could be, particularly with a lack of a fog of war, even though enemies can be hidden from sight. This may be the most subjective part of this review, but I like to know where I can’t see, and it’s annoying to have a unit seemingly spring out of nowhere to cut my supply lines. As with other Panzer General-likes, units need a constant source of fuel and ammo to remain combat effective, and seeing a crappy 1930s tank appear and trundle into my supply depot at base is maddening.
Assuming you can protect your supply lines and move your men forward, another frustrating aspect of the battles is that you will sometimes get secondary missions that pop up halfway through the mission, and half of these seem to be “Oh, go capture this town on the other side of the map that you don’t have forces near because we gave you no indication you would need to do this. Have fun!” Being able to react and adapt to changing combat scenarios is a trait of a good commander, but these feel very stilted and obnoxious to complete, and would be ignored 100% of the time if they did not award more points to purchase and upgrade units with.
Note: As a fair warning to anyone who wants to play this game, the screen flashed several times between turns on some missions, so be careful if you have light-sensitivity issues.
A “CLEAN” WEHRMACHT
Outside of battle, you are brought to a war room, fitted with a couple maps, your avatar (Franz Halder, who we will return to in a moment), and some other generals, who you can click on for exposition. Here is where you can upgrade and adjust your core army outside of combat, and you can also buy skills for yourself by clicking on Herr Halder and spending points (not the same points you use for units mind you) to purchase new abilities or passive traits that make your forces fight better. The macro-layer of the game isn’t very deep, however, with most of the gameplay focus being centered around the battles themselves, and… the story. Let me tell you about the story. You don’t want to hear about the story, but I am going to tell you about the story.
Blitzkrieg begins with you controlling your forces as General Franz Halder, an important general in the forces of Nazi Germany, in the Spanish Civil War aiding the Francoists in defeating the Republican Spanish. This would be fine but the cutscenes immediately seek to establish dear old Franz as a good and honorable general, something that is told to us many times throughout the game. He is portrayed as loyal to the Reich but also to his values, and eventually he moves away from aligning with the Nazi government. I don’t want to give too much of the story away in case you plan on playing this, but suffice to say it diverges from history and paints Halder in a very favorable light.
There are two major issues with the story: the first being that the cutscenes and voice acting is just, well, terrible. I can’t find a nice way to say this; it’s just plain bad. You have maybe one halfway decent German accented voice actor in the game who tries to put emotion into the role, but most characters are voiced by incredibly neutral sounding, vaguely American actors. No one really sounds into their roles, and I can’t blame them, because the dialogue and the story failed to engage me at any level. As an aside, the unit barks are similarly terrible, but more on that in a minute.
The second, and much larger issue, is that the story directly seeks to support Halder’s myth of the 'Clean Wehrmacht'. After the war, in an attempt to rehabilitate the images of high-ranking members of the German military, Halder masterminded a memorandum which claimed that the Wehrmacht was (and this is an extreme summary) an apolitical force that just followed the orders of the government, and was not responsible for any major war crimes. This is a huge lie, but one that the game not only propagates, but goes even farther with, making Halder into some kind of moral German war hero.
It is frankly absurd that the game pushes this narrative in this current political climate, saying that the man who led the Wehrmacht while they committed a huge number of war crimes was a good person. Joe, in his review on Strategic Mind: The Pacific, mentioned that the voice acting that Starni Games got was awfully racist for the Japanese characters, and I fear that trend continues with this game. The voice acting isn’t racist in SM:B, but I could say that it is rather generous to fascism, through lines such as “The trains are running on time” and “We will save the world from chaos” coming from your Wehrmacht units as they seek to expand the German Reich.
I could continue to talk about how uncomfortable this game makes me for some time. As someone who watches the news and sees political upheaval in almost every Western democracy, it is troubling to see a game continue to feed reactionary rhetoric. The absolutely terrible story aside, I found the gameplay middling at best, and frustrating at worst. If you want to play a strategic level game set in World War 2, I recommend looking elsewhere.
In the wake of this article's publication Starni Games has made a comment contesting the characterisation of their game within the review. If you would like to read their response you can do so on their Steam community page here.