Countless video games draw their inspiration from warfare, although it’s surprising that very few draw on the conflict of World War I like Valiant Hears: The Great War does. Neither do they deal with the true horrors of war and its devastating emotional fallout as well like this puzzle adventure game does, which is as equally charming as it is horrifying.
A lot of this charm comes in the form of the game’s gorgeous art direction. Valiant Hearts has surprising depth for a 2D game — every screen is filled with detail, whether that be scores of soldier charging against backdrops of bellowing smoke or the sprawling fields of rural France. Along with great character and background art, it also packs splendid animation that brings its characters touchingly to life. At times, it feels like you’re watching a beautifully drawn animation rather than playing a video game. Despite its cartoon-like style, it doesn’t shy away from the true horrors of war, as bodies are piled high and trench warfare resemble scenes from Hell.
This sense of depth in the game’s depiction of war carries over to the characters; it’s a touching story of five lives interwoven from all sides of the conflict, including the most personable canine since Dogmeat from Fallout 3. Each character is given clear motivations for their involvement in the war and we really connect with their dilemmas and anxieties through their actions. For example, Anna, a Belgian student who is looking for her missing father, becomes a medic and her tale is particularly enlightening. As she searches endlessly for her father, she patches up soldiers from both sides of the conflict to really gives us a sense of Anna’s exasperation at how pointless she feels the whole war is.
The beauty of the character depictions is that most of this is done through action and non-verbal communication. Through inaudible dialogue and interactions, characters are made incredibly believable and a lot is communicated often through very little. In some ways, it says a lot about the universally shared language of war. Unfortunately, some of this work is undone by snippets from a narrator whose script can be a little on-the-nose at times. The delivery can add gravitas to proceedings at times, but the narration is just plain not needed.
Also not needed is a caricature of a villain in the shape of Baron Von Dorf, who lacks the depth of the other well-drawn characters. I understand the need for a common goal for the game’s protagonists, but making the villain out to be somewhat of a buffoon undoes some of its earlier good work in establishing a believable sense of war. For example, a battle in a cathedral against the Baron sees you playing a church organ to blast him out of the air. Whilst fun and amusing, it feels a little at odds with the more harrowing scenes.
In regards to gameplay, Valiant Hearts is an adventure game that is more enamoured with charming puzzles than firing guns. Whilst these puzzles are never too taxing, they do bring a smile to your face with some of their ingenious solutions. There’s also great variety in them, as new elements are introduced just as the puzzles start feeling repetitive. Never are you tasked with unimportant or obscure objectives; these puzzles serve to progress the story and even develop characters. In one section, you task your canine companion to trek across no-man’s land to retrieve dynamite, helping to build the bonds between characters.
As well as depicting the true nature of war through drama and gameplay, Valiant Hearts also sets out to educate by regularly presenting genuine facts from World War I, which cover almost every aspect of the conflict — from chemical warfare to how letters were delivered to the trenches. Personally, I found these facts enlightening but for those not keen on a history lesson, these don’t need to be read and don’t obtrusively pop up. However, I would argue that they could have been presented in a more interesting way than just a series of simple pictures with some text, especially considering that a lot of these facts form part of the actual gameplay. However, this is a minor quibble and the facts are merely optional extras that, if anything, add to the experience.
Overall through its four- to six-hour run time, Valiant Hearts: The Great War offers a human perspective on a harrowing war that focuses on the small acts of love, friendship, and heroism, delivering an experience that is gripping from beginning to end. There are some collectables to go back for upon completion but other than that, there’s little reason to revisit the game. However, the story alone is well worth experiencing, despite a few missteps in its execution. More importantly, it is more interested in depicting the realities of war rather than glorifying them. Whilst that alone would make it stand out in a video game culture preoccupied with guns and violence, its charming yet harrowing approach to art and game design make it an unforgettable experience.