Why aren’t there more games about World War I? It’s an uncomfortable question once you get down to trying to answer it: it’s harder to define an ‘enemy’ (World War II has the Nazis), much of the fighting was particularly senseless, and America’s involvement didn’t kick in until 1917. The most potent World War I texts remain films, novels and poems because game developers aren’t sure how to make this war entertaining, as grim as that may sound.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War isn’t like the other war games. A World War I game released a century after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, it features very little combat and (at least for a few chapters) a female medic/expert driver as one of the playable characters.
Instead of gritty realism or detached comedy it goes for a cartoony look, thanks to the ever-wonderful UbiArt engine, and tells a story that is alternately slightly goofy and quite sombre. It deals with loss and pain, but also the blurred lines of a World War, the realisation that your enemies aren’t so different from you, the horror of actually being responsible for someone else’s death.
Flitting between multiple battles, characters and settings, Valiant Hearts tells the story of a handful of intersecting individuals as they try to get by and protect the people they care about during the war. The gameplay alternates, mostly, between puzzles, fetch quests and light stealth as you move through each environment, trying to figure out what is needed of you. It plays out like a light adventure game at times as you search the 2D environments for items that will give you passage to the next area.
Sometimes you’ll need to stop and solve a simple movement puzzle, all of which you can get the complete solution to from the hint system if you wait a few minutes. At its most exciting Valiant Hearts has you running through warzones, dodging incoming shells and finding ways to disarm machine gun nests, or sneaking through bushes to get past enemies. These moments are punctuated nicely throughout the story, meaning that the quieter moments never have much of a chance to grow dull.
There’s a dog too, because this is a game with an emotional core and for some reason people seem to care more if a dog is in danger. This dog is nigh-on invincible – he can be holding a burning stick of dynamite and not be bothered by the explosion – and gives many of the puzzles an extra dimension as he can crawl through holes, grab items and distract enemies. The dog is emblematic of how the game uses its characters and puzzles to further the game’s emotional impact – the game is truthfully quite simple, but when a character reaches down and pets the dog after he helps solve an obvious puzzle, it feels rewarding.
Every now and then the game will actually make you enact violence – in one sequence you drive a tank through the warzone of Douaumont, France, blowing up German soldiers, for instance – and it always feels just a bit off. It would have been great to have an entire war game that was never really about killing, because when you do get your hands dirty it feels genuinely wrong…but then, maybe that’s sort of the point. The game is packed full of trivia insights into the war that prove genuinely interesting, if you’re inclined to read through them all, although they do tend to push the realities of the whole thing into stark contrast against this game’s often lighter take.
In any case Valiant Hearts does something genuinely different, and it does so well. There has been a large contingency of people asking for a war game in which you don’t pick up and fire a gun, so it’s great that, when it actually happened, we were given a game with this much charm and emotion packed into it.
James “Jickle” O’Connor is a freelance games critic, journalist and occasional editor, based in South Australia. His favourite game of all time is The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and he is absurdly, comically rubbish at most fighting games (except for Killer Instinct on the SNES, which was, incidentally, the first game he ever owned). He has huge soft spots for point and click adventure games, third-person shooters, and Deus Ex.
Recent articles by James:Find and follow him on Twitter - @jickle.