“Valiant Hearts: The Great War” is one of the most human and sensitive games about war ever released. Set during World War I, the game is more about the personal struggles of its characters than it is about the larger historical details and political realities of the devastating conflict. It takes a few small missteps, but the game successfully catches grim truths in a story with endearing characters, gorgeous art, and moments of jubilance and adventure, making its tale about how war destroys lives accessible and appealing to players of all ages while still giving the war’s tremendous human cost the acknowledgment it deserves.
Video games are obsessed with warfare: ancient, covert, modern, futuristic. But Valiant Hearts is one of only a few to look at the first World War. It’s a studied depiction, but one in which you rarely shoot a gun. It’s a puzzle adventure that’s much more interested in how people are affected by such terrible events than recreating the violence. Overall it’s a stylish and sincere adventure with a big heart.
The game begins by making it clear that this isn’t a simple tale of good vs. evil. Karl is a German citizen living in France with his wife and newborn son, but as the war breaks out, Karl is forcibly separated from his family and sent back to Germany, where he must join the war effort. Meanwhile, his father-in-law, Emile, is conscripted into the French forces. Neither of them are motivated to enlist or fight; rather, as is so often the case in war, they are ordinary people who are swept up in conflicts beyond their control.
Over the course of the game, you play as both Emile and Karl, as well as a Belgian nurse named Anna and an American named Freddie who enlists with the French forces. These characters aren’t traditional action heroes; the older Emile, for instance, has to scramble and struggle a bit to hoist himself over obstacles, and instead of running and gunning their way through the game’s side-scrolling stages, characters solve a series of environmental puzzles to proceed.
The most striking aspect of Valiant Hearts is the splendid art direction. Playing it really feels like watching a wonderful piece of animation, and I was surprised at just how versatile the style is. Importantly, the cartoon style never conceals the horror of what is taking place.
Set along the border of France and Germany, the story tells the interlocking tales of five protagonists all touched by the war. You spend time with each one, and while the storytelling’s strong enough, it’s the animation which brilliantly reveals so much about each one.
Valiant Hearts focuses on how lives are torn apart, how strangers become saviors, and how madness thrives. It’s a small-scale human perspective of the war, which tries to salvage those little acts of love and heroism from a world overwhelmed by violence. There’s not much of a challenge or a reason to revisit once you’ve finished, but the story alone is worth experiencing. Ultimately, it’s a game about warfare that’s more interested in the people and their experiences, than bullets and their targets.
After downloading the game and playing it myself, I was quickly drawn by its touching story, the truths it holds and its animation characters. For me it was not just a game, but a time travel machine that took me right back to the World War I. I felt like I was living with the characters, experimenting their adventure, feeling their fear, emotion, longing and hope for the victory to be with each other again.
I recommend this game to anyone who desires to know the truth about war, have a sneak peek at the cruel reality man kind experienced in the past, and to anyone that loves history but never quite lived its pages. It is enough to go through the game once and it definitely is no waste of time, in fact it is one of the few games I promote.