My grandfather never talked about the war.
OK, that’s not entirely true. On the rare occasion it did come up, he’d refer to it using various curses and ethnic slurs, but he’d never discuss the details. Even half a century later, it was clear that it still left a deep scar on his psyche.
In the summer of 1942, he was a fresh-faced Marine enduring the brutality of Guadalcanal, a World War II campaign that’s gained some renewed prominence in recent years, thanks in part to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. For six brutal months, Allied and Japanese forces fought mercilessly to take various hills and landing strips and control this tiny strategic stronghold in the South Pacific. When the time came years later to tell my mother about what he’d experienced, my grandfather couldn’t. He had to write her a letter and give her a scrapbook. Words could simply not express the horror he’d endured.
War changes everyone, but when my grandfather returned home at war’s end in 1945, at least he could point to having made a difference: Guadalcanal marked the beginning of the end for Japanese dominance in the Pacific. The same couldn’t be said for many men 30 years earlier as the Great War raged across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa (with a skirmish or two in Asia for good measure).
For four years, countless soldiers were sent to the near-certain slaughter of “no man’s land” on the Western Front, where if the gunfire or explosives didn’t get you, the barbed wire or typhoid would. World War I has become particularly overlooked in the U.S. due to the late arrival of American forces to the conflict in April 1917, but that’s all the more reason it should never be forgotten—it was precisely because of this needless, heartless war and its disastrous consequences that so many of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers were shipped off to Europe and the Pacific three decades later in World War II.
This desire to not forget the countless fallen was part of the reason a small team at Ubisoft Montpellier (along with, according to the game’s credits, a helpful “nudge” from Rayman creator Michel Ancel) wanted to highlight the sacrifices of the real men and women who saw World War I firsthand. In typical fashion for the experimental studio, though, they didn’t go the easy route and make a paint-by-numbers shooter. Instead, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a puzzle-adventure game with action elements that focuses more on the psychological terrors of the trenches—and how they slowly drove good men mad.
As those who worked on Valiant Hearts have said, this a game about war—it’s not a war game. The two concepts are very different, and this is clear right from the start. Emile, the first soldier you meet, isn’t some bulked-up, sneering, gun-toting hulk ready to run roughshod over the Hun. He’s a simple middle-aged, gray-haired farmer from rural northeastern France who’s seen his German son-in-law go off and take up arms for the Fatherland. As the game progresses, the viewpoint rotates between several other main characters, each with their own reasons for fighting. The element that ties all of the protagonists together is Walt, a German war hound who plays a vital role in puzzle-solving and exploration. I’m not a dog person in the least, but Walt’s adorable presence really adds to the atmosphere and humanity, and this little medic mutt illustrates the senseless nature the of the conflict. Walt doesn’t see Frenchmen or Germans; he only sees humans who need help.
Outside of voiced cutscenes delivered by an unseen narrator, Valiant Hearts unfolds via illustrated thought bubbles and rapid-fire, nearly incomprehensible dialogue in a given character’s native tongue. No subtitles are given, but at the same time, none are necessary. It’s amazing how much French and German I came to “understand” simply based on intonation and facial expressions. The UbiArt Framework engine proves itself particularly versatile here. We’ve now seen Rayman, Child of Light, and Valiant Hearts—three distinct games with very different mindsets—deliver a trio of unique experiences, which has me excited for the potential of the engine going forward.
And despite the interminable nature of trench warfare, Ubisoft Montpellier manages to make the levels and objectives diverse enough so that they don’t feel like an exercise in repetition. Along with the fortifications, tunnels, and barbed wire you’d expected from a game set in the First World War, the characters explore city backdrops, military barracks, POW camps, and the (seemingly) tranquil countryside. Perhaps the only area of the war that gets short shrift is the work of the World War I flying aces (a British pilot was highlighted in the original launch trailer but plays a minimal, unplayable role in the game, so perhaps Ubisoft couldn’t make those planned segments work as intended).
While most of the puzzles and gameplay objectives succeed surprisingly well considering the lack of dialogue, a few segments aren’t clear or well thought-out, and the game sometimes does a poor job of highlighting what you can and can’t interact with as you explore. I also encountered one freeze and one apparent glitch that prevented me from advancing. In one particular instance, I needed to use a machine to create a specific shape in order to fix a broken tool. No matter how many times I stamped out the specific shape, the game said I’d made the wrong choice. Eventually, I reset the game, which seemed to fix the issue. Regardless of whether it was a bug or the game wasn’t clear enough about what it wanted, it was the one time I felt truly frustrated.
Playing through a game like Valiant Hearts would be a suffocating experience if it were all about suffering. Things aren’t always incomprehensibly bleak, however. In fact, at the start, the proceedings are downright jovial at times. Besides the silly, stereotypical characterizations of rank-and-file French and German soldiers, Valiant Hearts does try to inject some humor with one of the game’s primary antagonists, Baron von Dorf, who comes off more like a Teutonic, mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash type than anything to be taken seriously (and, in the interest of fairness, Ubisoft Montpellier does trot out a cartoony, wine-loving French “baddie” at one point, too).
As the game unfolds, however, you come to learn the true villain: the war itself. The numbers are staggering. Six-hundred thousand deaths a single battle. One death for every minute. And for what? World War I didn’t bring peace—only resentment. As the game begins, characters feel like they have a sense of purpose. By the end? They just want it to be over. They just want to survive. They’re sick of marching, sick of digging tunnels, and sick of killing. The abrupt shift in tone sabotages the narrative at times, though. During some moments, I literally laughed out loud at the silliness on display, and it was jarring at times to go from sneering, scheming Baron von Dorf to piles of dead bodies in the trenches.
There’s also a bit of incongruity in the gameplay itself. It’s affecting to see your comrades-in-arms mowed down as you make suicidal charges demanded by bloodthirsty generals who don’t give a damn if you live or die, but if you’re hit by gunfire yourself, you instantly respawn at a checkpoint. It’s difficult to reconcile that in a game, and Valiant Hearts is one more illustration that there isn’t an ideal solution to this issue right now. There has to be some semblance of challenge, after all, since this is a game at its core, but these elements can destroy the immersion at times.
However, I also think it’s vitally important to include those elements. If this were simply a cartoon, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective at illustrating the harsh realities of World War I. By putting the player directly in the trenches and having them act out the brutal nature of this sickening conflict, it personalizes their actions. I’m sure the battle between gameplay and narrative is something that Ubisoft Montpellier struggled with—especially coming from France, where World War I played such a central role for their ancestors in the early 20th century. While this gameplay-versus-narrative struggle isn’t entirely successful at all times here, that doesn’t mean Valiant Hearts isn’t worth playing for those interested in history or fans of classic PC adventure games.
The last World War I veteran died in 2012. The last one to fight in the trenches died in 2009. There are no more soldiers left to tell their stories. That’s why it’s even more imperative to commend Ubisoft Montpellier for taking a bold stand here—they didn’t have to make a game like this. They’ve tried to capture what common people really felt as their world came crashing down upon them. Real soldiers aren’t invincible Captain America types, despite our desire to paint them in that light at times. They’re normal people thrust into the horrors of combat who might be fueled by revenge, duty, or forced to participate in a conflict they don’t even believe in. And they don’t always come home.
Far from the played-out tales of clean-cut supersoldiers fighting impossible odds, Valiant Hearts: The Great War humanizes the First World War and delivers gameplay that focuses on the psychological toll of the war—not on the killing. While some puzzles and exploration elements succeed more than others, Valiant Hearts is worth seeing through for students of history and fans of classic PC adventure titles.
T – Teen
|Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 3. Code/hardware was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|