I went into Valiant Hearts: The Great War with little to no expectations. Other than the fact that it was a well-received Ubisoft “indie” game and that it had a 2D art style, I literally knew nothing else about either how the game played or what I would be doing. I prepared for a grand adventure.
Valiant Hearts is about World War I, told through the lens of four individuals who are thrust into the war – the lanky German Karl, his bearded French father-in-law Emile, angry American ex-pat Freddie, and volunteer doctor Anna. These characters are introduced one by one, and eventually fall under player control for short adventure-game scenes. It all sounds pretty good on paper, but does it actually hold up?
Though the game is classified as an adventure game for the sake of sorting on Steam or end-of-year award voting, the focus of Valiant Hearts is really the story it wants to tell. The adventure gameplay is certainly present and polished and similar to modern-day point-and-click games (I’m thinking of things like Samarost or Broken Age), but it’s all simplified.
I found very little challenge in the adventure scenes and I think that’s intentional. There is no real inventory, though your character can carry one object and a dog companion can sometimes carry another. There are usually only a couple of interactive objects in a scene, and sometimes the gate of solving a puzzle is more action-based – make sure that guard doesn’t see you! Wait for him to turn around! – than puzzle-based.
Like I said, I think that’s intentional. The game doesn’t want to make solving difficult puzzles what a player remembers. Instead, the melodrama of the story – a family ripped apart, and the way these disparate characters come together in the second chapter – is what stuck with me once I closed the game.
Oh, and it’s educational. Each little scene has some assortment of facts about World War I, along with compelling historical photography. These facts are of course entirely optional to read, but they add great context to the game and make it feel much more real. Sure, Valiant Hearts isn’t based on a true story, but it could be. Germans were ripped from their French homes, and it’s not impossible to think of a situation where a French father-in-law is conscripted only to be captured by his son-in-law’s German division.
It also adds great context to some of the new elements on the battlefield and how much they correspond to historical fact. On the level when nerve gas is a deadly puzzle element, there’s a short blurb about how the gas was deployed and the effects of it. There’s facts about zeppelin bombardments, pivotal battles, and the role of different countries in the war. All of these enhance the current level without seeming overbearing, and is probably the single most unexpected element of the game that really works. When the indicator comes up informing me of new facts on the stage, I’m instantly drawn in and read the facts voraciously.
The game is beautiful. The art style means that the terrible violence of the war is dulled a bit, but it avoids being actually cartoony and making the whole thing feel childish. While the playable characters only move on a single plane, there is plenty of action in the foreground and background, which allows for action-filled scenes of bombardment without it actually making the game about dodging bullets.
Aside from the somewhat farcical enemy Baron von Dorf, all the other characters are grounded and have really strong motivations for what they’re doing. There’s a cute dog that joins you as essentially a squad member you can command to go get some items that are out of reach normally. There are a few somewhat random action driving sequences set to famous classical music pieces.
Which is to say: Valiant Hearts is interesting. If I had been seeking a complex puzzle game that rewarded lateral thinking, the game would certainly be disappointing. In the end, the game is kind of like watching a World War I show on the History Channel but a lot more fun. I care about this random crew of soldiers and a doctor that are drawn into a war that is so much bigger than them.
It succeeds in managing to make both the everyday actions of these people matter, yet somehow instilling a sense of the war as a whole, which is no easy feat.