War ain’t all fun and games.
I’ll be honest; I enjoy a good war game every once in awhile. I like charging the battlefield and blasting the skulls out of whatever opposing army stands in my way. I’ve fought terrorists in the deserts, stormed the beaches of Japan, and led the charge on Berlin several times over. But every once in a while there comes a game that turns a genre on its head and actually makes you think about the guys you’re killing. Valiant Hearts, a game where you never once fire a gun, is one of those games.
Valiant Hearts was released under the radar by Ubisoft last year, as one of the few games they didn’t mess up. The story is set in the time of World War 1, then known as the Great War, and follows the struggles of 4.5 characters who find themselves caught within it. There’s Emile, an elderly man sent to fight for france in the war; Freddie, an American fighting for France to get revenge on a German commander; Anna, a Belgian nurse who is searching for her kidnapped father; Karl, Emile’s German son in law who is deported and forced to fight for Germany; and Walt, a medic dog that follows the characters throughout the game.
The graphics are done in a 2D art style that makes the game resemble a political cartoon, and most of the in-game dialogue sounds like cartoonish gibberish, which actually works in the game’s favor. The art style combined with the game’s use of dark and dull colors helps bring out the tone, and reflects the emotional state of the war while not making itself look too depressing.
At its core, Valiant Hearts is a puzzle game. The main gameplay obstacles involve solving environmental puzzles, finding items needed to get past an objective, and dodging enemy gunfire. Puzzles are well designed and actually require some thought to get by. Occasionally as Anna, the game has rhythm-based segments that involve imputing correct button prompts to perform medical operations, and segments where she is driving a car to the tune of classical music while dodging oncoming obstacles and hostile vehicles. I guess Anna learned from the Guitar Hero school of Medicine.
One of the things I liked about the gameplay was that you aren’t given any sort of score or rank that tells you how good you did. There’s nothing telling you how fast you complete a puzzle or how many bombs you dodged in a car level, and you aren’t punished in any way for using the hints. It lets you go at your own pace, stress free, and offers help should you need it.
In most war games your goal is to win the war, save your country, and kill whoever is in charge of the bad guys. Valiant Hearts does none of these. The closest the game gets to that format is Freddie’s motivation to get revenge against a German commander, but that’s about it. Karl simply wishes to return to his family, Anna wants to save her father and help the wounded, and Emile’s ultimate goal is just to find Karl and get through the war in one piece. Aside from Freddie, none of them have any wish to fight in the war. Its a story driven by its characters rather than by its conflict, unlike most other war games.
What makes the game stand out is that its a war game, but it doesn’t focus on the war as much. Rather the focus is placed on the characters and their bonds with each other. The war exists as a sort of dark force that drops obstacles in the character’s paths. The game also doesn’t choose any one side of the war to focus on. Both sides have their share of good people and bad people; a good example is a section in the game where Emile helps a German soldier, and the two work together to get out of a caved-in tunnel; and later on, when Emile is under the command of a French General who forces his own troops into gunfire. The characters are not judged by the army they serve, but rather by the actions they perform.
I liked most of the game’s characters, even if I didn’t understand half the words they said. Most of the characters outside of the main cast are expressive through their body language, facial expressions, and by the items they request. Its a good way of developing secondary characters without breaking the game’s narrative style.
Throughout the game you can find collectible items that were actually used in the time of the war, that provide some educational benefits to the game. Speaking of educational benefits, throughout the game you will be prompted to press a button which will open a menu containing historical information about an aspect of the war you encounter in-game. Its a cool feature that educates you on the time period, and makes you feel a little smarter reading them. Assassins Creed did this too, but Valiant Hearts keeps the descriptions professional and to the point, like a the good parts of a history textbook.
With its unique take on the genre, its focus on characters, well designed puzzles and the respectable way in which it treats both the war and its participants, Valiant Hearts is easily my favorite war game.
Final verdict: 5/5
Available on: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 4, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One; Publisher: Ubisoft; Developer: Ubisoft; Players: 1; Released: June 24th, 2014; ESRB: N/A ; MSRP: $14.99