In a perfect world, war would only be experienced through artful forms of entertainment. Valiant Hearts: The Great War tells the story of four fictional lives brought together by the hardships and horrors of World War I. The puzzles in this 2D adventure are made up, but the historical events they revolve around are all too real. Once you start to sympathize with how awful the realities of WWI combat were, it's hard to call Valiant Hearts "fun". But its storytelling, aesthetic, and steady pacing make this a war story worth enduring.
Our heroes--the aging Frenchman Emile, brash American soldier Freddie, compassionate Belgian medic Anna, and reluctant German trooper Karl--cross paths in four main chapters, woven into many of the major battles and invasions that took place in Europe between 1914 and 1918. Joining each of them at various points in the story is Walt, a loyal Doberman Pinscher who helps you save lives and solve puzzles. Their stories are all compelling and cleverly intertwined, but switching between protagonists doesn't feel very significant, with minimal changes to the types of puzzles you're solving. Fortunately, their different circumstances--like marching towards the front lines, languishing in POW camps, or being in the thick of battle--change up the stakes and scenery enough to keep you hooked despite the samey gameplay.
You can think of Valiant Hearts as an accessible adventure game set in a 2D world. It's a cinch to play with a controller, as there are no bulky inventories or layered dialogue trees to navigate. Your objectives are conveyed through pictograms and visual cues, and the only in-game dialogue comes in the form of barely audible quips, spoken in each characters' native language, that convey emotion through tone rather than actual conversation. The minimalist design makes Valiant Hearts' struggles feel pleasantly intuitive, in that any age or type of gamer can pick it up and enjoy it.
Puzzles are satisfying, though maybe a little too easy; only being able to carry one object at a time makes figuring out solutions that much simpler. Some obstacles require some timing and/or aiming, but most can be overcome without too much trouble. If you do get stuck, the unobtrusive hint system gives you gentle nudges in the right direction. Intermittent mini-games--like Anna's rhythmic healing and invigorating driving segments set to classical music--are a little trickier than the puzzle-solving, and change the pace at just the right moments.
Unlike most modern adventure games, there are fatal obstacles to avoid in many of the side-scrolling levels. Thankfully, death by running into machine-gun fire or standing idly underneath an incoming mortar is never a huge setback, because the frequent checkpoints mean you'll probably pick up exactly where you left off. And while I did encounter a few spots of progress-halting bugginess--the most depressing of which was having Walt unintentionally abandon me--it was never anything a quick checkpoint reload couldn't fix.
Who are the Valiant Hearts?
These characters, all of whom are loosely based on real-life letters recovered during the first World War, offer different perspectives on the grueling struggles of early 20th-century combat.
Drafted into the French forces well after his prime, Emile does everything he can to help out the frontline troops. His specialty is a shovel that he uses to dig under barricades and around mortars.
This brave, hot-blooded American is fueled by revenge following a deep loss inflicted by the Germans. Freddie is often in the thick of battle, and carries a hefty wire cutter to snip through barbed wire blockades.
A Belgian medic searching for her abducted father, Anna does everything she can to ease the pain of the wounded soldiers on the front line. She applies medical aid via a simple timing-based minigame, and acts as the driver during the excellent car-dodging segments.
Karl was forced to enlist in the German army as war was about to break out, but he desperately wants to return home to his wife and son. Playing as Karl involves switching between different disguises to solve puzzles.
Your trusty, adorable medic dog who accompanies all four characters at different points in the story. You never have direct control over him, but you can instruct Walt to sniff out collectibles or fetch useful items with the press of a button. Oh, and you can pet him at any time.
When you're not deducing how to move forward, you'll often find yourself stopped in your tracks to simply admire the simple and stark art style. Characters are drawn with stubby proportions and simple features, and rarely do you see anyone's eyes, which are typically the most expressive part of any character. But the inability to see people's full faces is made up for by the spirited animations and powerful musical score, both of which perfectly convey moments of triumph, melancholy, or suspense. Complementing the foreground action are some absolutely gorgeous backdrops, which make great use of parallax scrolling and some seamlessly implemented 3D models to give a real sense of depth to the landscape. Whether you're in the thick of muddy, rain-soaked trench warfare or appreciating the scenery in a city as-yet untouched by battle, you'll be transfixed by the richness of the environment.
Valiant Hearts' narrative is moving for sure, but its emotional impact feels a tiny bit lessened by some odd design choices. The main villain, Baron Von Dorf, feels totally cartoonish when stacked up against all the real-life atrocities of WWI. Watching Von Dorf cackle at you in one scene, then seeing the horrors of chlorine gas bombings or on-the-field bullet removals in the next, feels way too thematically disjointed. Another aspect that feels out of place is the use of collectible objects hidden in each environment. Finding them all does provide replay value and unlocks informative historical factoids about life during the Great War--but constantly keeping an eye out for these items will often distract you from the task at hand, softening each level's sense of urgency in the process.
While Valiant Hearts may not have the core-shattering emotional impact of a story like The Walking Dead, it's a journey worth taking. By the time you've finished the four-hour narrative, you'll feel a sense of accomplishment, having weathered many of the Great War's hardships and seen the uplifting moments that make war seem the slightest bit bearable. Valiant Hearts won't redefine your whole outlook on life, but it's a powerful example of how games and real-world history can combine to give new meaning to hardships we've only read about in textbooks.
This game was reviewed on PC.