War Makes Men Mad: A Review of Valiant Hearts: The Great War

We do reviews differently here at Game Losers. I’m not going to bury the lede.

Is Valiant Hearts: The Great War worth playing? My answer to this question is yes. It has the most to offer if you are a fan of puzzle games or a history buff. Full disclosure: I am both. But, most importantly, it has a well-crafted (and heartbreaking) story that is accurately framed by its historical context. It’s relatively short—it can take anywhere from four to eight hours to complete depending on your skill with solving puzzles and interest in collecting the optional historical items scattered throughout the game. At $14.99, it’s an excellent value and, if it’s on sale for any amount less than that, even better. 1)I picked the game up from XBL for 66% off.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about why it’s a game worth playing.

Ubisoft announced Valiant Hearts as part of its E3 2014 presentation with an excellent, although misleading, trailer.

Watching it in June I remember thinking, “Oh my god, you’re going to play as the dog. I’m going to cry so much. The dog is narrating this trailer and I am already wildly emotional.” Actually, trudging through my Twitter archive, after the VH reveal I tweeted three things.

  • “this game will fuck me up so bad if i ever play it” 2)This prediction was spot-on.
  • “DONT GIVE ME SAD DOG STORIES” 3)I was wrong here. The story isn’t really about the dog, though the dog is critical. I’ll get into that later.
  • “im all in on valiant hearts. you had me at Dog” 4)Just so y’all know, the dog is safe. The dog does not die. That is the one spoiler I will say. Happy ending in that regard.

As stated, the trailer is very slightly misleading, but maybe just to me. Though the dog is an important part of gameplay, you never directly play as him, though when you are with him you can tell him what to do and, most importantly, pet him. 5)For the record, the dog’s name is Walt. I don’t recall his name being revealed in the game, though the official website lists it in his character bio. Instead, you play as four different characters throughout the game. They are Emile, a Frenchman, Karl, a German and Emile’s son-in-law, Anna, a Belgian nurse, and Freddie, an African-American fighting in the French Foreign Legion.

Clockwise from top: Freddie, Karl, Walt, Anna, Emile.
Clockwise from top: Freddie, Karl, Walt, Anna, Emile.

Already, that is an incredibly diverse cast! After the VH reveal trailer, Ubisoft went on to pretty much immediately announce that the four playable characters of Assassin’s Creed: Unity were all white dudes. Video games, y’all! Anyway, VH came out June 25th to little fanfare, at least from my point of view. 6)It is crucial to note that this game came out almost exactly one hundred years after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. A few months passed before I snapped it up on sale and enjoyed every last minute of it. It looks beautiful and, though there are a few hiccups, plays just as good.

VH was created using the UbiArt Framework, which also brought us Rayman Legends and Child of Light. I haven’t played Rayman but my head editor Christie and I got a few hours into Child of Light together and it was great. No AAA game is going to be made using the UbiArt Framework any time soon, but it offers a lot of tools to make games easy to pick up and enthralling to look at.

Speaking further on VH’s visuals, they are uncensored. What I mean when I say that is that it does not hide how gruesome World War I was for a single minute. You will see many dead bodies during the course of this game, though there is little blood and no gore visible whatsoever. But there are a lot of them. The Battle of Verdun and the Battle of the Somme were two of the deadliest battles in human history. You are there for both of them. You will, at one point in the game, use a pile of dead bodies as cover from a German machinegun.

The destruction wasn't limited to human lives, of course.
The destruction wasn’t limited to human lives, of course. This screenshot and the one that follows have been pulled from the official website for the video game.

This leads me to my main point. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is, of course, a video game about war. But it approaches the topic of war in a way I have never encountered before in any video game about war. Ask Activision what the main selling point of Call of Duty games (which they publish) are and they are bound to tell you the multiplayer modes. The single player campaigns generally boil down to “Shoot these guys for these reasons! They are Bad!” Occasionally they throw a curveball at you (which sometimes goes way off base) but the Good/Bad line is set pretty much in stone.

Valiant Hearts is different. War itself is what’s Bad. This seems self-evident, but because the game puts you in the shoes of people fighting on both sides of the war, things go from black and white to completely grey. Though the main antagonist of the game is a German named Baron Von Dorf, he is far from being the only character (or circumstance) in the game portrayed as Bad. To delve deeper into this risks spoiling the game, and I’ll refrain from doing that because this is a game I want people to play.

Though the plot of the game itself is fictional, it was inspired by letters written to and from soldiers fighting in the trenches of World War I. Much of the game feels very real, primarily because of the great pains the developers took to ensure historical accuracy. In fact…I learned stuff about World War I while playing this game! Did you know that in the Battle of Vimy Ridge the Canadian Expeditionary Force defeated the Germans, a military victory that greatly contributed to Canada’s national identity? 7)Yes, if you’re from Canada, probably. Me, neither!

The game is packed with a great deal of historical information that is available to you should you choose to pursue it. Unlocked at the beginning of each segment of the game are photos paired with short descriptions that generally have to do with whatever that segment of the game is about. When my character aided the Canadians at the Battle of Vimy Ridge, one of the photos depicted Canadian troops and told me a bit more about their proud military victory. That was a cool feature and it gives me a lot of ideas for how a game like this can be used in the classroom as a teaching tool.

For the die-hards out there are additional collectibles in each segment of the game that are often hidden and take extra effort to find. They can range from anything to dog tags to broken bayonets to letters written by soldiers and so on. When you find one there are short descriptions or, for letters, transcripts of what was written. The one that sticks out to me is a telegram to a soldier that reads something like “It’s a boy STOP Bryan STOP Mother and son are well STOP Hope to see you soon.” Simple things like that that give the soldiers life.

Valiant Hearts isn’t structured like an educational game, but it still wants you very much to learn about World War I. It’s a war that, because of the very nature of the trench warfare that defined it, makes it difficult to translate into “fun games” like World War II. 8)I also read somewhere that WWII is more popular because of the ease in making Axis soldiers “Bad guys.” Then again, the very fact that a video game about war can be fun at all is a fucked up concept worthy of its own article. That’s not to say Valiant Hearts isn’t fun—it really is. There’s a variety of challenging puzzles, the characterization is immaculate, and the game itself is concise enough to stay fresh. But I never get excited when I have to go to the front lines. It feels just as serious as it should be.

It’s probably high time I talked about the gameplay! 9)Gameplay is an important part of video games. The main draw of the game is undoubtedly the puzzles you’re tasked with solving as the four characters you play as, plus Walt the dog on occasion. They range from rotating-pipe puzzles to Zelda-like trading sequences to geometry-based to stealth sequences. Now, in all honesty, if you’re anti-puzzle this game is not going to be very fun. But if you love puzzles, this game has a lot of variety to offer. Only a few times did I feel like a specific puzzle format had been done one too many times. And none at all stumped me. 10)A couple of times I did use the game’s useful hint feature, which never tells you outright what to do, instead simply nudging you in the right direction.

“Roger, what about the dog!! Where does the dog come in!!!!!” I’m very glad you asked! Walt isn’t always available, but when he is, he is such an important asset. Holding LB on Xbox 360 enables what I like to call “dog mode.” This highlights everything the dog can do with a button you can press to have the dog do it. This includes items the dog can crawl under barbed wire and pick up, holes the dog can crawl through to reach a new location, or enemy soldiers to distract so you can knock them out with a ladle. 11)Aside from firing a tank’s cannon at enemy planes, this is the only time you ever really attack an enemy soldier. They are importantly always depicted as running away and escaping grenades, artillery, etc. It’s a very intuitive and easy-to-understand system.

“Is the game ALL puzzles, Roger?” I’m very glad you asked that, too! There ARE, in fact, occasional breaks in the puzzle action. These fall into a few different categories. First, we have some of my favorite parts of the game where Anna is driving a vehicle and avoiding gunshots, obstacles in the road, etc. It’s essentially a “runner” minigame, but what makes it shine is the fact that the action happens to the tune of classical music playing in the background. Two examples you’d be familiar with are Flight of the Bumblebee and Ride of the Valkyries. The action/difficulty rises and falls with the tempo of the music. It’s great fun.

Anna is involved in another type of minigame, this one based on rhythm. Since she is a nurse, you will often be tasked with saving soldiers. This takes the form of a game where you time button presses with a visible heartbeat. A, A, A, X, X, X, A+X, stuff like that. Unfortunately the game doesn’t give you a heads-up the first time this happens so it’s trial by fire but the concept is simple enough to understand quickly. It also doesn’t get impossibly difficult at all—I maybe missed four beats the entire game and never lost a soldier entirely.

It's not only soldiers that Anna has to save.
It’s not only soldiers that Anna has to save.

There are also boss battles! They are essentially puzzles as well, as you have to find creative ways to break through the enemy’s defenses since most of the matchups are what is essentially David vs. Goliath. When you finally take your victory, it is just as satisfying as it should be, and these battles close the first three Parts of the game. Part Four, as the last part, is something different entirely.

I’ve saved the best for last. The voicework in the game is outstanding though there is essentially no dialogue at all. Cutscenes notwithstanding, the only words spoken during gameplay are small voice clips; Emile saying “merci,” Karl saying “danke,” Freddie yelling “help,” Anna cooing when she pets Walt, and so on. But the narration (which can be heard in the above trailer) is outstanding work from Dave Pettitt. Occasionally, a character will narrate a letter they are writing—this is saved for only a few moments in the game and rightfully so, as the work is still incredible and the impact is just as hard. James Barriscale does limited work as Emile but he absolutely deserves the shoutout. The title for this article is pulled from one of Emile’s letters to his daughter.

As you progress through the game, you also unlock diary entries from the four main characters and Emile’s daughter, Marie. These give the characters added depth and voice (not actually voiced, but you feel me) while serving to underscore just how painful all this war business was. Freddie’s brother wants to enlist when the US enters the war, but all Freddie can think of are the horrors he has experienced. Marie and Karl’s son Victor is a newborn when Karl is drafted into the German armed forces, and when he falls sick, will his father ever see him again? These characters have to take their baggage with them to the trenches.

This game offers a lot more to talk about. I was very hard-pressed to make this a spoiler-free review but I pulled it off. I have a few nitpicky things about the early plot but it’s a matter of personal preference. 12)Early on the game throws something unexpected at you but you see the twist that fixes it coming right away. The art style is markedly unique—very very few adult characters have visible eyes (obscured by hair, helmets, or something else) but the children all have visible eyes. Whether or not this was intentional may be grounds for another article entirely. 13)Personally, I think it has a lot to do with how desensitized adults have become to the horrors of war. It has already been written elsewhere that VH is a great potential teaching tool! 14)We are, of course, in the middle of the Centenary of World War I. The long and short of it is that this game deserves much more exposure than it got.

Like I said at the beginning, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a must-play if you like puzzle games and/or history. Even if you don’t like either of those, though, it’s still worth checking out. It does not demand as much from you, time-wise or money-wise, as a typical AAA game. If you have some spare money floating around and it goes on sale on Steam, PSN, or XBL, pick it up. You will learn, you will cry, and you will enjoy yourself while learning that the best way to make a video game about war is to make it an intimate, personal single-player experience. 15)I realize this sounds redundant but it is necessary redundancy. War is not fought with map packs and respawns—it is fought with pain and loss.

Notes   [ + ]

1. I picked the game up from XBL for 66% off.
2. This prediction was spot-on.
3. I was wrong here. The story isn’t really about the dog, though the dog is critical. I’ll get into that later.
4. Just so y’all know, the dog is safe. The dog does not die. That is the one spoiler I will say. Happy ending in that regard.
5. For the record, the dog’s name is Walt. I don’t recall his name being revealed in the game, though the official website lists it in his character bio.
6. It is crucial to note that this game came out almost exactly one hundred years after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated.
7. Yes, if you’re from Canada, probably.
8. I also read somewhere that WWII is more popular because of the ease in making Axis soldiers “Bad guys.”
9. Gameplay is an important part of video games.
10. A couple of times I did use the game’s useful hint feature, which never tells you outright what to do, instead simply nudging you in the right direction.
11. Aside from firing a tank’s cannon at enemy planes, this is the only time you ever really attack an enemy soldier. They are importantly always depicted as running away and escaping grenades, artillery, etc.
12. Early on the game throws something unexpected at you but you see the twist that fixes it coming right away.
13. Personally, I think it has a lot to do with how desensitized adults have become to the horrors of war.
14. We are, of course, in the middle of the Centenary of World War I.
15. I realize this sounds redundant but it is necessary redundancy.

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