Almost one hundred years have passed since the First World War officially concluded, but it will never be forgotten and will always live on in many ways, most notably in classrooms and history books. The conflict — despite its horrible nature and the heavy losses that resulted from it — taught us a lot about humanity and showed us how far men will go to fight for what is right. Many tales of bravery, perseverance and resilience came out of those trenches, and they reflect the men and women who risked their lives for their countries, after enlisting into a common cause. Those heroic souls deserve to be celebrated and honoured for eternity, and the stories of what they went through cannot be forgotten either.
Although war is a common setting for today’s video games, World War I is usually overlooked in favour of those that came after it. This is surely due to its trench-based nature, which doesn’t exactly lend itself well to gaming. Still, that doesn’t mean that the conflict has been forgotten by the industry. In fact, it’s now under the medium’s spotlight more than ever, thanks to a risky and appreciated move by Ubisoft Montpellier, who chose to mix real human history with colourful artwork and quirky animations, with the end result being Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Released through digital means, with an affordable fifteen-dollar asking price, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is not your typical war game. Instead, it presents a unique and rather unexpected take on the subject matter, which is more story and character-based than anything before it. Despite being small in scale, the six to eight hour-long game still manages to feature four playable characters, whose actions between the years of 1914 and 1917 are well documented. What’s most unique and impressive, though, is how it manages to mix sides and make you feel for one of the enemy’s own.
Picking up just prior to the War’s onset, Valiant Hearts begins in a small French village. There, a multi-national family is torn apart after the father (Emile) — a French citizen — is enlisted into conflict against his son-in-law, Karl, a twenty-something German. Leaving behind a daughter and wife, as well as a newborn son/grandson, the two set-off for opposite sides of the battlefield with warranted worry in their hearts and minds. Will they both survive and make it back to their idyllic family? Or, will the toils of war prevent that from happening?
Emile and Karl may be the game’s two main players, but they’re not alone. Joining them are Freddie — an American who’s decided to enlist into the British Army, instead of waiting for his country to declare war — and Anna, a young veterinarian whose shocking realization of war’s depravity causes her to become a tireless volunteer nurse. The two bridge the barrier between supporting cast and important players, but aren’t used as much as their peers. Still, they play incredibly vital roles, and their actions help determine the final result. The same is also true of a friendly dog, who acts as man’s best friend from start to finish, and is depicted as an unsung hero.
Unlike most war games, Valiant Hearts isn’t about stacking enemy corpses en route to a battle with the big bad bossman. That’s not its style. Things are, instead, focused on war itself, and the characters’ related trials and tribulations. Emile and Karl are trying their damnedest to get home to their budding family, Anna is willing to do just about anything to make a positive impact on injured soldiers’ health, and muscle-covered Freddie is out to make a difference after losing his newlywed wife in a bombing raid.
While attempting to make good on their goals and, most of all, survive, the foursome is forced to work together for the common good. However, this doesn’t mean that all four characters are constantly available to players. In actuality, certain chapters only feature one playable character, while many others switch between two of them at certain points. It’s an interesting set-up, which works very well within what is essentially a mix of the action and puzzle genres.
Completing each of the game’s four, seven mission-long chapters, requires both smarts and patience, though hints are made available to those who become stumped for minutes at a time. There are many environmental and machine-based puzzles to solve, but none are particularly challenging or overly obtuse. That said, they’re also not easy or “walk in the park” material. You’ll have to step back and think about how to get from point A to point B, or how to create the reaction that is required. Additionally, it’s important to really assess each situation before acting, which is where patience comes into play. Although death may not result in any sort of penalty, it’s still best to avoid it, and stealth is often the answer.
The characters aren’t too different from one another, but there are some special traits to be found within their move sets. For example, Emile carries a shovel that can be used to dig through loose dirt, while Anna heals and saves people by playing a Guitar Hero-esque rhythm game. Freddie, on the other hand, is a wire-cutting badass, whose help is vital whenever barbed wire appears. Sure, the others can steal items like wire-cutters later on, but they break quickly and are only intended for one-time usage.
Certain puzzles wouldn’t be solvable if it weren’t for the dog, so it’s important to make note of his contributions to the mix. He’s a dependable rock, who can drag injured soldiers out of troublesome areas (like rubble piles), use switches when commanded, steal items and distract enemies. Those are all key attributes, especially when being shot, captured or hit once means a trip back to a previous checkpoint. Don’t expect perfect AI, though, because you’re not going to get that from this canine companion.
There’s more to this puzzle than meets the eye, though, because driving also plays a factor. Granted, Valiant Hearts‘ definition of driving is different from most games’, because all you really get to do is weave left and right to avoid obstacles. Grenades can be thrown from time to time, but those moments are few and far between, much like the title’s couple of tank-based sections, where side-scrolling mechanics and aimed missiles both factor in.
Although its gameplay is polished and well above-average, Valiant Hearts won’t be remembered because of those mechanics. This is the type of game that seeps into your heart and soul because of good storytelling, memorable characters and events that make you feel. Combine that with gorgeous, hand-drawn visuals, tons of historical background and great depth, and you have a winner. One which focuses more on creating emotion through art and written words, rather than spoken dialogue or vocal star power.
People say that there’s a lack of innovation in the gaming industry, but that’s simply not true. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a prime example of this, as it’s something truly unique and unabashedly different. Give it a chance and support risk-taking developers, because it’s something that you won’t regret doing.
This review is based on the Xbox One version of the game, which we were provided with.
With Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft Montpellier has created something magical. That is, a game which manages to convey the seriousness of war, while also being creative and imaginative. All of this is done in an incredibly respectful manner; so much so that the game acts as both a teacher and an entertainer throughout its colourful narrative.