Valiant Hearts: The Great War review: a powerful story told through the horrors of war

War is not pretty. It’s full of death, sadness, emotion, and it corrupts the most noble and sincere of men. Valiant Hearts: The Great War depicts the horrors of war not by putting a gun in your hand but through an emotional story and an artistic style that highlights the gritty darkness that overshadowed the world between 1914-1918.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War puts players in the shoes of four brave souls and their canine companion. Although each character has their own story to tell their paths quickly intersect and unite them to a common goal; namely, to reunite a young German soldier with his wife and new born baby.

The game begins when a young man named Karl, who is working on his father-in-law’s farm in France, is soon drafted to serve in the German army and must leave his family to serve his country. Soon after, Emile, Karl’s father-in-law, is signed up as well to serve in the French army. During his first battle, Emile is shot, wounded, and taken as a prisoner of war. Emile then discovers that Karl was part of the squad that Emile had engaged in. After their heartwarming reunion the French army attacks and the two become separated.

Throughout the game Emile exchanges letters between his daughter and discovers that his grandson has fallen ill and his home town had been taken over by the German army. Emile sets out to find his son-in-law and return him to his family. On his journey Emile encounters Freddie, an American soldier after the general that attacked Paris and killed his wife, and Ana, a Belgian nurse searching for her scientist father kidnapped by the same general that killed Freddie’s wife.

The game’s story is presented through a narrator who details each character’s’ plight throughout the game as if he was narrating a documentary on the History Channel. Of the four characters, Emile’s voice is the only one that the player will hear when he reads the letters he receives and writes to his daughter. This carries great weight throughout the story as the game itself is inspired by the real letters written by soldiers during the war.

Throughout the game characters communicate through their animations and picture bubbles that appear over their head showing players what they need to do. I commend Ubisoft Montpellier for deviating from traditional character dialog and telling their story through the characters’ animations, and not once did I feel as if I never knew what any of them were trying to communicate. I would also like to point out that although characters scream and talk in the background, they do so in their native tongue and it’s no more than a few words. As most of the game is presented this way I was never bothered with the narration as he only came in before the start and end of each mission.

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The game’s incredible art design once again takes advantage of the great UbiART engine used in Ubisofts reimagining of Rayman and the fantastic Child of Light. Unlike the cartoony look of Rayman and the fantasy style of Child of Light, Valiant Hearts goes with a more hand-drawn, comic book style. Characters have an exaggerated look to them but it is done so to contrast the environments that players enter.

Throughout the game players see lush landscapes and cities torn apart by bombers. The Great War’s environments become more dark, gritty, and barren as the years go by, depicting the destruction that sees lush landscapes tuned to dark muddy trenches. But it is also a shame that at points the game’s art style clashes with the dark theme that it begins to shape into. Some characters including the German general that the players are after, felt to comical and was depicted in a way that people would see in a propaganda cartoon and I just couldn’t take him seriously.

Being a game based on the first World War, I was expecting to pick up a rifle and start shooting. However, I was surprised to find out that the game was not about killing but finding solutions to help your cause. Although I never felt like I wanted to pick up a gun and shoot I did find that some of the tasks become tiresome and boring. First and foremost Valiant Hearts is a cerebral-based adventure, and as such players will spend most of their time solving puzzles to get through various obstacles. Some of these worked just fine while others fell flat from repetition. For example, when controlling Ana, players will have to heal wounded soldiers by performing quick-time events on a heart beat monitor (which appears on a long bandage) that became annoying as I was doing it up to five times in a five minute span.

Other puzzles felt more satisfying. Emile found himself digging tunnels rescuing trapped soldiers as bombs fall over head, and avoiding mines while continuing to push on the front lines with Freddie and giving him support throughout the game. The companion dog also finds its uses throughout the adventure, such as hitting switches to distracting German soldiers as players sneak by during stealth missions.

Freddie on the other has some of the more fun missions, which are primarily based around action elements. Planting TNT behind enemy lines destroying anti-air guns and driving a tank on the front lines while shooting down German bombers and destroying bunkers were as close to any actual combat I experienced. Some of the more entertaining moments are called the "Taxi" missions. Here, players hop into a vehicle where they will have to avoid obstacles and gunfire. These missions reminded a lot of older arcade games, and are also wonderfully presented with licensed classical tracks that almost everyone will recognize.

Gamers will also find a plethora of collectables in the game, which represent items that people used during the war. Each item that players pick up give an interesting fact about the item and how it was used during the war, which I found extremely informative and sadly gave me a better history lesson then I got in high school. At the start of each mission players can read up on actual facts about the situation that the characters find themselves in, that actual soldiers experienced in the war. Although these facts were a great read some of them turned my stomach especially those about the Mustard Gas used during the war. The only issue I found with these historical facts were their use of actual photos taken during the war. I found these to clash with the game’s art-style, and although I didn’t mind that they were actual photos, I would have preferred them use a hand drawn representation in order to maintain visual parity with the rest of the game.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War left a very strong impression on me. When it was all said and done I couldn’t help but let the tears flow from the powerful ending, not because of the ending itself but the way it was presented and executed. This can be said for most of the game, and although shooter fans will wonder why in a war game there isn’t any shooting, Valiant Hearts decides to take a road less traveled. Telling an emotional story that took me from sadness, to happiness, back to sadness, to anger, and then eventually tears. Valiant Hearts: The Great War depicts the horrors of war not though statistics, or what battles were won, but through the human emotion.



The Final Word

Valiant Hearts: The Great War delivers a moving story that will surely leave an impression on you. The UbiART engine delivers another great artistic showpiece telling a story through animation, a powerful and harrowing musical score and documentary-like narration. Valiant Hearts doesn't depict what war may have been like, it makes you feel it.