Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a game I was always planning on getting. The game uses the UbiArt engine which gave life to the enjoyable Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends games, as well as the excellent Child of Light which kicked off Ubisoft’s efforts at making indie-like games.
Child of Light demonstrated that Ubisoft were still able to make smaller, but quality, games that weren’t a different take on the open world genre. Child of Light was a refreshing experience for me and provided a more accessible and streamlined entry into a Western take on the JRPG.
Valiant Hearts like Rayman and Child of Light retains the 2D perspective, but utilises a comic book style aesthetic that is surprisingly very effective given the subject matter. As the subtitle The Great War suggests Valiant Hearts is a depiction of World War 1, following the lives of four different individuals (and a very helpful dog) from the outbreak of the fighting to just prior the United States eventual entry.
What separates Valiant Hearts from most story focused games based on historical conflicts is that it shows both sides of the war, no side is just in their overall actions. The enemy is war itself and the heroes are those who manage to not succumb to the evils of war. The game might spend more time with characters who are with the Allies, but the overarching story basically revolves around Karl who is German, but lives next to the Franco-German border in France with his French wife and their child. With the advent of war Karl is sent back to Germany to fight for his home nation, even though he doesn’t want to, and at the same time his French father in Law Emile is likewise forced to enlist, meaning that the family is now on opposing sides.
For a game about war Valiant Hearts is almost a game about pacifism. This is because the gameplay mostly revolves around puzzle solving. But given the trench combat nature of WW1 this was a sensible decision, and also allows the game to explore the other aspects of the war. This is complemented by optional pieces of historical information about The Great War. As a 20th century history nerd, who also has a degree in War Studies, these pieces were of great interest to myself and I even learnt some things I didn’t previously know. Admittedly out of the two World Wars, the First is the one I know less about, and the whole experience of Valiant Hearts does a superb job of bringing to your attention the finer details of this horrific period.
The only possible downside to Valiant Hearts is that the main ‘villain’ Von Dorf is characterised more akin to the stereotypical Nazi villain than a high ranking German office of the First World War. This is also at odds with the games overall attempt at not portraying each side as good and evil. However it does reinforce the notion that the ordinary soldiers have very little say in what they did during the war, for it was their superiors that made the decisions, and failure to follow their commands can get you killed by your own side.
It was also good to see that the lesser known nations that provided troops that gave their lives for the war effort are recognised here. Canadian and Indian soldiers are often forgotten in the main descriptions of the war, yet these brave soldiers were risking their lives long before the Americans got involved to shift the balance of power.
Valiant Hearts is not a game that overstays its welcome, but it does offer plenty of variety and is also helped by the steady switching between the different characters, all of whom have different skills which are used to either navigate different areas or alter the way in which you approach certain puzzles. Whilst none of these characters have any core dialogue (aside from different remarks, giving you a chance to brush up on your French) they still manage to emote their concerns making it very easy to care about these characters.
Valiant Hearts The Great War is the most interesting game about warfare I’ve played since Spec Ops: The Line, and considering I wrote a mini dissertation about that game it is not a statement I make lightly. Valiant Hearts might not be making a critique of the industry, but it does provide a very solid puzzle adventure game, and one which teaches you about The Great War whilst (almost) bypassing the prescribed categories of good and evil that history tends to place on the period.