There are hundreds upon hundreds of games about war. Yet despite the subject matter’s ubiquity, there is a distinct lack of variety in the way it’s handled: you shoot people, you sneak behind people so you can stab them in the back, or you slaughter countless people with the press of a single button. These gleeful and fetishized acts of violence are the hallmarks of a pervasively popular genre. But Valiant Hearts: The Great War isn’t about any of these things. It doesn’t care about headshots or kill-streaks, and it certainly has no interest in making you feel like an efficient and well-oiled killing machine. Instead, it focusses solely on the tangible human impact of such brutal conflict. And it’s for this reason that, despite its slightly unadventurous gameplay, Ubisoft Montpellier’s latest is one of the most moving and unforgettable experiences in recent memory.
The title follows four main characters: Karl, a farm-boy drafted to the frontline; Emile, Karl’s father; Freddie, an American solider with nothing to lose, and Anna, a Belgian medic attempting to save her father. Connecting them all is Riley the dog, a painfully adorable — and astoundingly cunning — pup who’ll help you solve puzzles, at least when he isn’t stealing your heart.
From the outset, this puzzler’s main goal is historical accuracy. Whenever you encounter a noteworthy set piece, you’ll also be offered a quick factsheet to read, providing context for what’s about to unfold. This focus is compounded by an authoritative voice-over, who clearly spends his weekends narrating documentaries for The History Channel.
The whole experience is structured like a TV show, with constant perspective shifts allowing for numerous nail-biting cliff-hangers. Furthermore, bouncing between characters in this way ensures a brisk pace, meaning that the narrative never dwells on any idea for longer than is necessary. Needless to say, this expert storytelling makes the story heartbreaking and rich, but also incredibly accessible. And without spoiling anything, the plot’s many twists and turns are likely to leave you a blubbering mess.
That isn’t to say that the title is an entirely gloomy affair. Indeed, its moments of humour are just as frequent and expertly handled as its moments of depravity. An overzealous comrade with a lust for explosives, or pompous generals made out to be bumbling buffoons. These types of tender and humorous situations are given just as much screen time as their dour counterparts, and act as a welcome relief from the emotional intensity. What’s more, they also provide tonal contrast, making the darker moments even more powerful.
From a gameplay standpoint, this historical outing is an adventure game in the classic style. You’ll wander through lush environments collecting items and solving puzzles. Some of these are as simple as finding a particular item for a particular character, while others are much more involved, requiring you to manage multiple screens at once.
Thankfully, with only one inventory slot, there’s no need to deploy the age-old ‘try everything with everything’ strategy. Furthermore, the puzzles all make logical sense, and can be solved using a combination of ingenuity and subtle context clues. You’ll never find yourself staring at a locked door for hours on end, only to realise that you should have used the fish carcass from two screens ago to jimmy the lock.
However, the title isn’t entirely puzzle based, with action and stealth sections peppered liberally throughout. You might have to charge through the trenches while dodging hostile fire, or infiltrate an enemy base without being spotted. Most captivating of all, though, is a rhythm based mini-game which makes several appearances, and serves a critical role in the title’s finale. These diversions are never terribly involved or challenging, but make for a nice contrast to the otherwise slow and methodical gameplay.
In truth, the only problem with the gameplay is an overriding lack of ambition. The puzzles are all pleasantly satisfying to solve, and the other sections are equally competent, but none of it is particularly vexing. Indeed, the game is arguably just a little too easy for its own good, meaning its challenges are never allowed the freedom to truly stand out.
But this unadventurous design is nowhere to be found in the game’s presentation. The gorgeous visuals obviously recall popular comic books, but are also reminiscent of the sorts of doodles soldiers might have made while on the frontline. Backgrounds have an alarming level of depth, often providing clues and clever nods to the main action. Overall, it’s a highly expressive style, which allows complex emotions to be conveyed through purely visual means.
This impeccable graphical style is joined by a pitch-perfect soundtrack. Between rousing militaristic marches, and stark piano solos, the score perfectly encapsulates and embodies the title’s thematic aims. It also features a selection of period-appropriate songs that play during pivotal scenes. You might hear a bawdy music hall number blasting from a distant enemy barracks, or The Flight of the Bumblebee accompanying a particularly hairy car chase. All of this music meshes to create a soundtrack that manages effortlessly carry out a vast majority of the emotional legwork.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a poignant and powerful reminder of the significant human toll borne of the wars that we so often act out in our favourite video games. It doesn’t exaggerate or embellish its subject matter, but rather tells a story rooted in historical accuracy and human emotion. And while the puzzler’s gameplay isn’t revolutionary by any means, its awe-inspiring visual design, clever soundtrack, and thoughtful plot will break your heart in the best possible way.