There are countless games covering World War II, but very few, if any, take place during the first Great War. The most obvious reason is how easily WWII can be romanticized, where different countries came together to stop a rising madman. There are heroes, villains, and all sorts of amazing inspirational struggles. WWI was the opposite. There was no clear villain (not to the extent of Hitler at least) and it seemed every side was sitting in trenches or using outdated strategy tactics against modern weaponry. Every battle was a horrifying massacre that caused an entire Lost Generation afterwards. Not exactly triple AAA game material. Valiant Hearts takes on this challenge and does not pretend to be anything more than telling the story of a very tragic time in the history of the world.
Heading into Valiant Hearts you cannot expect it to play like a normal game. The most you do gameplay-wise is move back and forth across the screen solving puzzles. There were only a few puzzles that slowed me down for a minute or so, but a majority of the time they were pretty obvious. Besides the puzzles, you will do various other small tasks. Essentially, Valiant Hearts feels like playing a mini-game after a mini-game. I never truly enjoyed the gameplay where I thought how incredible something was. I did, however, understand the gameplay was only there to push the story along, and that’s why I wanted to experience Valiant Hearts in the first place.
You take on the roll of four characters: Emile, Karl, Anna, and Freddie. Every character has their own reason for taking place in the war, and from the first few minutes of the game you see the problems the War is already causing. You are thrust into the war very much like the characters and you take on their burden as well. This is a very character driven story and while there is a narrator doing voiceovers, everything you experience is from a characters’ perspective.
Following a character closely like this makes you care for the character, and that’s exactly what the developers want. Every struggle, injury, and (rare) success makes you boo or cheer along with the character. Without this connection to the characters Valiant Hearts would not be nearly as compelling. The setting of WWI may be too hard for some to form a serious connection to, but the character struggles carry all the pathos the game needs.
This goes without saying, but Valiant Hearts carries many meaningful experience with every level. There is always something going on that will draw out any feelings you have. Even if it is something in the background that catches your eye, there will undoubtedly be something you connect with. This doesn’t mean everything is sad. There were a few happy and lighthearted moments that are touching when they occur, but Valiant Hearts is clearly not a game to play if you’re looking for a warm-fuzzy feeling.
In truth, Valiant Hearts is targeting a very specific group of gamers. You need to care about history. The puzzles aren’t challenging, the gameplay isn’t groundbreaking, and the story isn’t a masterpiece by any means. The story is entertaining and enjoyable, but mainly because this all happened in real life. People really went through these experiences. This makes the most enjoyable aspect of Valiant Hearts not the gameplay, or even the characters, but all the history entwined within. Throughout the game you will be prompted with little bits and pieces of information regarding the war. Some things I knew, many things I didn’t.
Reading a little blurb about how horrible trench warfare is doesn’t nearly mean as much as playing through the horrible experience and seeing it play out in front of you (not to say a video game matches how a real war is). I was digging through the ground with German troops all around me and thought how over-the-top this was when a little message appeared saying that underground warfare really occurred. Engineers would dig under the other side to try to collapse their enemies’ tunnels. So I learned a cool fact and Valiant Hearts made me play through the experience so I could envision it better.
When you take away the historical significance, Valiant Hearts is a good story with decent gameplay. While the presentation is original in appearance, it wasn’t nearly as spectacular as Child of Light. I understand you can’t have vibrant colors in a gloomy setting, but the characters all looking the same couldn’t help take away some of the quality. The backgrounds did present the depth I was expecting and my eyes always focused on the background to see what was going on back there. Generally, it was horrific stuff.
The cartoon visuals were dramatic when they needed to be and really could nail the proper moment head-on. When they worked, they really sold the moment, but there were also other times when it made some moments less serious. Real words were uttered by the characters, but it was done in such a quick and quiet way it almost sounded like the Sims’ speech. The main way you get directions on what to do next is a bubble stick out of someone’s head with a picture on it. It’s creative, but not exactly a serious means of communication when bullets are flying around. I would pull a dying man out of a pile of rubble, but his little legs on his big body would cause a small smile, which breaks the serious tension of course. I was a fan of the visual style when its dramatic flare really inspired me, but there were times when it broke the serious mood that was being set.
Any immersion broken from cartoony characters was immediately saved with the incredible music. The musical score is nothing short of amazing. There were popular songs like the Can-Can used in various instances that made what would normally be a horribly annoying mini-game scenario far more entertaining. The original piano selections were the perfect somber melody to let you experience the sadness with the characters. The orchestral pieces were booming with dramatics to enhance any moment in the game, and nothing felt more empowering than charging an enemy’s front line with a roaring score in the background. There was never a point in Valiant Hearts when the music wasn’t perfectly supporting the story unfolding on screen.
There were never any major flaws that broke the game for me. There were a couple of moments when the controls weren’t as tight as I would have liked them to be, but I was expecting any spectacular controls in Valiant Hearts. The gameplay never really changes, the puzzles aren’t difficult, and as I keep saying everything outside of the puzzles felt like a mini-game. Some were entertaining at first, but they would grow old soon. Besides the story being told, Valiant Hearts only has a couple of tricks up its sleeve and they run out very quickly.
Valiant Hearts is a character driven narrative wrapped up in a historical lesson. It is not a game to pick up if you’re looking for addicting gameplay, and you aren’t going to find a lot of replay-ability here. I beat the story in around six hours, and I don’t plan on playing it anytime soon. However, I know down the line I will play through the story again and I will enjoy it as much as I did the first time. Not necessarily the gameplay, but the compelling character struggles, the amazing music, and all the interesting historical facts. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Valiant Hearts and I highly suggest you pick it up because it is well worth the experience.
This review is based off a retail copy of the Playstation 4 Version of Valiant Hearts: The Great War developed by Ubisoft Montpellier and published by Ubisoft.
- Great Atmosphere
- Emotionally Driven Characters
- Historically Inspiring
- Simplistic Puzzles
- Gameplay Often Felt Like Mini-Games
- Humorous Animation Could Distract From Serious Scenarios