One hundred years after the start of World War I, I finished Valiant Hearts: The Great War. I cried a little. This wasn’t unusual, since I’d also cried about two minutes into the game—okay, okay. I cried during the loading screen. What can I tell you? It’s a game about World War I, a group of friends, and a dog who helps unite them. You know going in that it’s not going to be a happy time.
First off, insert obligatory complaint about UPlay’s connection issues. Moving on.
I have nothing but praise for Valiant Hearts’ mechanics. I’m not usually a fan of puzzle games, in no small part because I’m not good at them. I’m easily frustrated, and I hate repeating scenes I’ve already been through. However, while Valiant Hearts is primarily a puzzle game, I rarely felt the crippling frustration that breaks the deal for me.
Each scene is its own challenge—often the format is a set of stacked obstacles that must be overcome before you can progress; i.e., Soldier #1 needs a glass of wine before he’ll let you into the building where your gas mask is located, and you need the gas mask before you can pass through the battlefield. To get that glass of wine, though, you’ll need to bribe Soldier #2 with some hot soup. Where do you get the soup? Etc. etc. You have to work backwards to figure out how to get through that battlefield.
The game changes it up in small ways constantly, though. When you’re playing Anna, there’s a rhythm mini-game whenever you come across someone in need of healing. When you’re in the midst of battle, you’ll be driving tanks and shooting planes out of the air. Sometimes you’ll be playing a game of stealth, trying to avoid being seen by your captors, and sometimes you’ll be setting up complicated networks of explosives in the trenches. A strange but entertaining bonus were the driving mini-games, where you must avoid bombs, street blockades, and other cars…all to the tune of 1910s-era orchestral music. It felt like driving to a conductor’s baton.
Although I occasionally had to look up the answers to difficult puzzles, I never felt that they were impossible to solve, provided you were willing to spend an adequate amount of time on them. And when I did solve them? I felt good. I felt like I’d accomplished something. They were never too easy, never too hard.
The best thing about Valiant Hearts’ gameplay, though, wasn’t the puzzle-solving or the mini-games. It was the way the game’s mechanics laced into the story. The producers were right when they called it a game about war, but not killing. While violence is certainly present—and ubiquitous—the gameplay is never about shooting soldiers down, and even when you do set off an explosion that will ostensibly result in someone’s death, the outcome isn’t written off as part of the game’s mechanics. It’s meaningful. When you’re running through a battlefield trying to avoid being shot down or bombed, you understand what the game is simulating. It isn’t necessarily the realities of war—it’s the adrenaline and tunnel vision that sort of environment necessitates. When you’re faced with seven people who need medical care, you find yourself running past a dying man because you just don’t have time for him—somebody else needs you more.
Valiant Hearts is billed as “the story of five crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart,” and it doesn’t fail to live up to expectations. The story is both heartbreaking and inspiring. The characters emote with speech bubbles, and though they do talk, it’s never to convey dialogue to the player—in fact, unless you’re multilingual, you won’t understand half of what’s being said. Cut scenes have a comic-esque feeling to them, complete with speed lines and exclamation point surprises. The cute, cartoonish style is purposeful, though. We’re reminded that even without incredible realism—or maybe because we’re so used to incredible realism—war is sad. War hurts. It hurts more because we’re watching it happen to Saturday morning cartoons.
We start with Emile, an aging Frenchman living with his daughter, Marie, his German son-in-law, Karl, and their new baby. At the start of the war, Karl is deported along with many other German citizens. Emile is called to the front soon after, leaving Marie alone on their rural farm.
Next we meet Freddie, a black American explosives expert with an unexplained vendetta against the nefarious Baron Von Dorf. Von Dorf is exceptionally cruel; we see him drinking wine and laughing as he deploys more and more advanced weaponry. Von Dorf, in Valiant Hearts, is in many ways a stand-in for all of the privileged, out-of-touch men who set WWI in motion and refused to back down, even as the war became increasingly more catastrophic. He is, however, a very Snidley Whiplash sort of character—silly in his overblown evilness. (I think he might actually twirl his mustache.)
Anna is next to arrive in the story. She’s a Belgian student-turned-nurse who is searching for her father, a scientist who’s been kidnapped by Von Dorf for his advanced weapons knowledge.
And finally, there’s Walt, a German dog of war, rescued by Freddie and Emile, always happy to help. Walt functions as your helper throughout the game—he can fit into tight spaces, make his way past wary guards, and play fetch with important items like dynamite or wire shears. Perhaps most importantly, he becomes an important friend in times of emotional strife.
I won’t spoil the details of these personal stories here. Suffice it to say that while they may be unlikely companions, Walt, Freddie, Emile, Anna, and Karl forge bonds of friendship that surpass the borders of nation, language, and terrain. These aren’t stories of politics and military strategy; they’re stories of people trying to survive and protect their families.
In other words, this isn’t your average war shooter, where the goal is to win the battle. In Valiant Hearts, you’re not trying to beat the Germans, or take the hill, or get more kills than the other team. You’re simply watching the stories unfold, and you’re tasked with protecting these characters, whether it’s from German gunfire or from their own commanding officers. But even this is a simplistic vision of what the game is about—you don’t know who will survive in the end. It’s not really up to you. If you lead Emile into a canister of chlorine gas he’ll die, and it doesn’t feel good when he does, but as with any game, you just try again until you figure out a way past it. The key is that in the end, you aren’t rewarded for a job well done by seeing your charges live happily ever after. You can only do so much, and it turns out that only so much is very little indeed.
Valiant Hearts is based on real letters from WWI, and as you play the game you’re much like historians reading the letters—you don’t know what will happen. You’re experiencing a story that might be cut short at any moment.
The music is an integral part of Valiant Hearts. It’s at times whimsical and silly, at other times rambunctious and nationalistic. And then it’s suddenly just a sad, gentle piano tune that reminds us where we are and what’s happening around us. The juxtaposition between marching anthems and that main theme feels very appropriate as the soundtrack mirrors the contrasts between the scenes: Von Dorf drinking wine and twirling his mustache, the soldiers dying on the battlefield, or the cartoon characters experiencing their individual tragedies.
I know some people thought the “injection” of history into the narrative was distracting, but I loved it—perhaps this isn’t surprising coming from someone like me—I minored in History and took as many history courses as I could fit into my schedule at university. Still, while I understand the argument, I found that Valiant Hearts was an incredible venue for learning more about a time and place I hadn’t known much about.
It’s like a museum. As you go along, you pick up collectibles—items with histories attached, like a urine-soaked cloth for counteracting mustard gas, or a ring fashioned from bullet casings that might’ve been sent home to a loved one.
You also get short descriptions of places and battles as the beginning of each scene. Forcing Emile to climb that bloody hill in the Nivelle Offensive is emotionally difficult at best, but once you know the historical context it’s even more meaningful. This isn’t just some generic battle. The history brings something to the game, but the game also brings something to the history.
That being said, I do wish that the history had been integrated into the gameplay better. If there was one thing that really bothered me, it was that—at least on PC—I had to exit to the menu whenever I picked up an artifact, hit the right button, scroll through some stuff, then go back to the main menu, then resume the gameplay. Meanwhile, the music paused, which took me completely out of the scene. I would’ve preferred that the history tabs came up automatically without pausing the game. The social media share buttons in the history tabs were also distracting.
Appropriateness for Kids
Middle- and high-school kids should have absolutely no trouble. However, it’s important to note that while the game is at heart a critique of violence, it does include scenes of brutality and death. If there were any good way to introduce very young kids to the history of World War I, though, this would be it—by placing the emphasis on the people and the love they held for each other. Some may disagree with me on this, but I strongly feel that kids are capable of understanding tragedy, and it benefits no one to hide the realities of war. Valiant Hearts is an example of a story that spares no detail…but at the same time avoids glamorizing the violence.
That being said, I wouldn’t simply leave very young people with the game. It’s a story they may need to be guided through; they will have questions, and guardians should be very attentive to their needs and discomforts. War is not a happy subject, and it isn’t just facts and figures Valiant Hearts gives you—it’s also emotional learning. If you think they’re ready, be there for your kids, and make it a positive, hopeful experience.
Whether you’re playing for the fun, the story, or the education, Valiant Hearts: The Great War delivers. It’s definitely risen high on my list of favorite games, and I look forward to my second playthrough.
This reviewer played Valiant Hearts: The Great War on a PC using a Steam client.