War is Hell seems to be the dominating mentality in Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War puzzle/adventure game. Finally a game that doesn’t glamorize war, but instead humanizes it. The player feels empathy towards the characters in the story, feeling their pain and frustration, instead of just trying to make the next kill. The game is fun and endlessly entertaining, but it doesn’t stop there like most games do. You walk away having learned something.
War is hell, and this is a hell of great game.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War takes place during World War I and follows four very different characters and begins pretty lighthearted, but turns more and more tragic, all the while being educational without being pushy. Each character represents different parts of the war: Karl, a young man living in France with his wife and young son, who gets sent back to Germany to fight when war breaks out; Emile, Karl’s father-in-law, an older cook who is forced to fight for France; Freddie, an American volunteering on the French side; Anna, a Belgian student who becomes a combat nurse. Oh, and there is also a sweet dog, who helps you with a variety of tasks throughout the game.
The gameplay is almost completely puzzle based. They combine elements of tossing objects to distract people or knock something else into place, pulling levers or finding cogs to make a machine work. They are challenging and interesting, but not so difficult that you ever feel frustrated (there are also hints you can use along the way). The puzzles do get tricker as you go along, but they keep it pretty fresh and recycle only a few things. Most of the puzzles are different from the last, and not every task requires a puzzle to complete.
There is quite a bit of violence and death in Valiant Hearts, but you aren’t the one really perpetrating it. Instead you help people who are hurt, rescued people that are trapped or bring items to soldiers in need; and occasionally you have to hit someone over the head to get somewhere. The violence is happening around you, not because of you; there is death and destruction at the hand of the war, not you. It makes for a very different “war game” playing experience.
There is plenty of beauty amongst the carnage and havoc. The artwork is absolutely stunning, conveying the different European countries with amazing colors and multi-dimensional landscapes, giving the game an almost 3-D feel. If you’re familiar with Rayman (a game also from Ubisoft), it is not unlike the way that game is laid out. The original music is another wonderful creative element that really adds to the beauty. It matches the melancholy tone perfectly, giving the game a much more cinematic quality. Unlike other war games, where you are playing to a cavalcade of hard rock tunes, Valiant Hearts soundtracks the gaming experience with wonderful, classical music. For instance, there is chase scene down the Champs-Élysées in Paris set to the instantly recognizable “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Korsakov (there are a few scenes with well-known classical pieces, but the rest is all original music).
One of the most interesting and important elements of the game for me was the historical facts that you could read throughout the game’s entirety. As you passed through different battles and important moments of World War I, you can learn lots of historical facts about elements of the war, like soldiers living in trenches or how important the postal service was to everyone. You also pick up artifacts along the way (such as coins, photos, or letters) which were real items that belonged to people during the war, and you can read little snippets about them, humanizing the war even more. The characters themselves even have diaries, that you read along with as you play, endearing them to you.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is clearly a very different war game, one that’s quiet and somber, rather than loud and exciting. It’s somewhat geared towards gamers who like puzzle-type games, but I can’t imagine anyone regretting getting this game; whether you’re history buff, a first-person shooter fiend, or a video game novice. Oh, and I would bring some tissues.