Where WWII and the related topics of fascism, genocide, and atomic warfare get far more media these days, WWI may have been, in fact, the grittier, dirtier war. With the Age of Industry burgeoning, the relatively high-tech weapons deployed in WWII, particularly air weapons, were still a dream in WWI as trench warfare, running lines of soldiers into lines of soldiers, and brute force armaments were the norm. Battles with thousands upon thousands of casualties were not uncommon, most the victim of bullets or bayonets from ground-level firefights. The majority of WWI occurring on European soil (a continent whose cultures are so close in comparison to the global scene yet possessing centuries of history both peaceful and aggressive), the thin red line never meant so much. Using these circumstances as a platform, Ubisoft developed Valiant Hearts: The Great War in 2014. Possessing a unique, hand-drawn art style, it is a puzzle/action game highlighting the human side of war.
A streamlined run through a couple of major WWI events, in Valiant Hearts players will take on the role of one of four (and a half) characters. Depending on the scene or setting, there is the Frenchman Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, an American soldier named Freddie, a Belgian nurse Anna (and an unnamed dog Emile finds that players can control to some degree—the half). Karl called into war by the German side which subsequently pulls him away from Emile and his daughter, the two men spend a good portion of the game trying to reunite the family. Freddie a gung-ho sapper-type soldier, he befriends Emile in the early going, and together the two escape and must find their way through many difficult situations. And lastly Anna, a young woman whose scientist father has been kidnapped by the Germans and put to work building advanced weapons, seeks to help the injured she encounters, as well as rescue her father. The four’s stories, sometimes individual and sometimes intertwined, form threads in the overall mini-tapestry that is Valiant Hearts.
Winning a Games for Change award, Valiant Hearts is set in war but the violence and fighting, though natural aspects of the game, are pushed to a side position in favor of the human side of mass conflict. For players who are interested, short descriptions on the various details of WWI are available in the menus, not to mention numerous collectibles are littered around the game which have their own historically accurate write-ups. Amid scattered action pieces, it’s puzzle solving that takes the lion’s share of gameplay. Whether it be locating a missing car part to drive to a certain city or figuring out which levers open which doors on a machine that will aid escape, players’ lateral thinking skills are needed. Breaking up the puzzles are said action scenes as well as rhythm movement and quicktime events, all of which test reactions and finger dexterity. Anna, for example, when using her nursing abilities to save people, must push certain button combos in rhythm with the wounded person’s pulse. The overall mix of these elements—puzzle solving to action scenes to dexterity—make for more varied gameplay than one might imagine of such a relatively small title.
If there are any complaints about the game, they would be detail oriented. A handful of the puzzles require a degree of accuracy that the overall loose feel of the game and size of the objects and things used in the puzzle does not fit. For example, one puzzle requires the player to throw a stick of dynamite through a moving bit of fire. I attempted this numerous, numerous times as well as exhausted all the other possible tactics, but nothing seemed to work. So I looked online, and sure enough I needed to throw the stick of dynamite through the fire. I repeated the action many more times until I found the miniscule sweet spot in the fire and could take the next step in solving the puzzle. Were this an isolated incident, I could chalk it up to the inevitable. But that a few of the other puzzles likewise hinge on such a minor technical detail was occasionally frustrating.
One thing I cannot complain about is the art. A type of comic book art animated in almost stop-motion fashion, its pastel colors are consistently delivered, enhancing the overall game. Valiant Hearts could have been a lot of things, but the hand-drawn art style makes it a better game, plain and simple.
In the end, Valiant Hearts is a stylish puzzler heavy with the portent of WWI and the atrocities of war. In some ways the opposite of titles like Call of Duty or World of Tanks, titles which to some degree glorify war, Valiant Hearts tells the human side of armed conflict via comic book styled brainteasers and real-time action events. (Looking at the art and design, one might be inclined to describe the game as ‘cute’, but looking closer at the content and collectibles, such descriptions fade.) In terms of indie/small games, it’s a real winner.