Print Edition: July 2, 2014
Released just a month prior to the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the WWI, Valiant Hearts: The Great War isn’t another run-of-the-mill war shooter. Instead, it offers an emotional and uplifting story about a time in history that was shrouded in despair.
For a game about war, it’s ironic that you never fire a rifle. This refreshing take is the beginning of how the game shapes itself. It isn’t a war game but a war journey. You play as five different characters, each of whom have intriguing tales to tell that ultimately culminate together. The unique characters all show different viewpoints of the war. While they may fight on different sides, they all share a collective goal of survival. Whether it’s Karl’s forced exodus from France for being German-born or Anna’s desire to help those in need, this game isn’t about two sides fighting each other, but men and women fighting to survive.
Valiant Hearts is as much a history lesson as it is a game. Besides offering the visuals of historic locations and battles, there is a plethora of additional content that would make one think this game was made by the History Channel. Diary entries, historical notes, and items all give detailed accounts about life during the war.
While some of the battle summaries are quite common knowledge, there are many nods to lesser-known historical facts: the involvement of different nations of the British Empire whose participation contributed to their own future independence, the conglomeration of the Paris taxi system to carry troops out to the front lines, the voluntary involvement of Americans prior to their official participation. All these, and many other pieces of history, create a much deeper connection to the game’s narrative. Valiant Hearts’ entire concept was based on several letters written from soldiers who were on the front lines. Some of the letters used in development are featured in the game as hidden items.
Learning about history is something I truly enjoy, and I appreciate a game that can articulate good gameplay alongside respectable re-enactments. Valiant Hearts has a solid gameplay style that is composed of different puzzle-solving scenarios that are intricately entwined into the battlefields. While the basic formula gets repetitive, the manner in which they appear is always different. Seeking and cleaning socks in exchange for a well of ink is one of the many ways of displaying the tasks and troubles of soldiers who lived in the trenches. There are extra segments, however, that offer some good humour; driving through Paris and avoiding obstacles that are appearing in accordance to the tune of Jacques Offenbach’s Galop Infernal was a cheerful surprise.
But as norm with a war drama, these moments of happiness are few and far between. The evolution of the game begins to reflect on the drama as it becomes more grudging to continue the story. Most of the narrative revolves around Emile and his close friends and family. Through his eyes, he sees friends die needlessly in a war he never wished to be a part of. He writes to his daughter Marie about the recent battles and losses, but hangs onto the hope of finding his son-in-law Karl and having them both return to their farm.
The art style of Valiant Hearts mimics that of the 1920s children’s story with a common-day steampunk flair. The cinematics unfold like a comic strip, often miming propaganda posters used during the war, such as an Allied soldier tearing apart the German flag with strength and fury. The lack of eyes on the characters creates an abstract unity with everyone the characters come across. This artistic choice holds greater meaning to the game as a whole: hiding your eyes from the horrors of war does not make the image false or make you any different from someone else. The use of such an art style doesn’t dampen the seriousness of the war. Instead of showing the war in all its brutality, it touches it with a gentle, kind hand that still conveys the message without resulting to disparaging images. Along with a sombre and poetic score, the artistic side of Valiant Hearts is well thought-out.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is both a respectful retelling of one of the most captivating times in our history as well as a compelling journey game. While it tones down the reality of the war, its intentions are not disrespectful. Its childlike art and storytelling are similar to that of Steven Spielberg’s 2011 film War Horse. It gives a factual account of the events that unfolded without displaying images that would disturb players. And with a great story to accompany it, this game is already one of my favourites for this year.