About Us | Game Reviews | Feature Articles | Podcast | Best Work | Forums | Shop | Review Game

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

Honors The Fallen

Valiant Hearts Review Screenshot

HIGH Bringing down a German zeppelin on the roof of a bombed-out cathedral.

LOW An anticlimactic escape from a P.O.W. camp.

WTF Emile's fate.

War is profitable for the video game industry. The Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises earn hundreds of millions in sales each year, inspiring others to replicate this success with their own "realistic" warfare games. Many of these titles, however, do not justify the commercial success they've garnered.  The majority fail in their narratives, and studios aren't interested in examining the grievances that drive people to take up arms against another nation, the trauma endured by soldiers in brutal conditions, or the reality of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Ubisoft Montpellier is the rare studio that approaches war in a mature, serious manner with Valiant Hearts. It's a game which not only focuses on a period few others touch, but conveys the horror, heartache and hope of that time in a way few others could.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist. This murder was the event that began World War I, and millions of lives were torn apart. Valiant Hearts is set during this real-world period and features four individuals brought together in the wake of the chaos. Emile is a French farmer called into service. His German son-in-law Karl is forcibly deported to fight for the other side. Freddie is an American expatriate who joined the French Foreign Legion, and Anna is a Belgian medic. As their paths are connected by fate, their strength and sanity will be pushed to the limit as they fight for survival.

Interestingly, none of the characters take up arms against others. The team at Ubisoft Montpellier felt that if players could kill, it would sever the bond between them and the protagonists, as well as conflict with their intended message. So, rather than becoming another fast-paced shooter, Valiant Hearts is instead a side-scrolling adventure game.

Much of the gameplay involves locating a specific object necessary to complete a task or move to the next link in a chain of events (obtaining every part of a superior officer's uniform, bringing water to an injured soldier, etc.) Characters can only carry one object at any given time, so tracking down all the items needed to progress can involve going back and forth between some areas repeatedly, but since the levels are all fairly small it never becomes a chore. The majority of the puzzles fit into the environments organically, and suit the time period and current situation rather than simply being arbitrary tests of abstract logic.

Since the player characters are prohibited from killing others and they die after only one hit, the action in Valiant Hearts is based around survival. Dodging enemy fire, escaping from burning buildings before the smoke becomes deadly, and using a mortar cannon to destroy tanks are just a few of the trials players will endure as they fight to stay alive. These sequences aren't incredibly challenging, but they do require quick reaction times and accuracy, which can be difficult to pull off in some of the more demanding situations. I found this out in a section where I had to toss grenades through the wreckage of a building, angling them so they bounced off walls and landed on a tank during the moments when its hatches were open. There are also some auto-scrolling segments where players constantly run or drive while dodging gunfire, shells, and land mines. They're short and simple, but they create tension incredibly well.

The gameplay I've described satisfies, but it's really the narrative that makes Valiant Hearts stand out.

Aside from occasional expository narration, there's no spoken dialogue. Instead, the game relies on its locations and non-verbal interactions to convey the intended emotions, and it succeeds.  Neither the Allied or Central powers are portrayed as completely monstrous or noble. The characters aren't invulnerable killing machines powered by patriotism, but ordinary people drawn into the war by forces beyond their control. The player sees how combat affects them first hand—their disgust at the brutality seen on a daily basis, living with a constant fear that they will die on the front line, holding out hope that they will survive so they can return to their old lives and loved ones. It brings a sense of realism that most other military games marketed as "realistic" never come close to achieving.

Joyful and somber moments are effectively balanced by shifting between the perspectives of each central character as necessary. During the introduction I watched as Karl was forced by the gendarmes to leave France while his family tearfully looked on as he departed.  When Emile is drafted, the tone is romanticized; the soldiers are so confident they'll triumph against the Germans that they drink and cavort. Once on the field, however, the unit is all but wiped out by an endless rain of bullets and mortars.

Admittedly there are a few clichés that have their emotional impact diminished due to overuse—most notably cliffhangers which suggest a character was killed only to have them show up alive and well later. Other events are predictable because they were the simplest way to achieve dramatic irony, as seen when it transpires that Karl was present at the battle where his father-in-law was taken prisoner.

Another quality that makes Valiant Hearts so rare among military-themed games is how it doesn't shy away from depicting the horrors of war that both soldiers and civilians are subjected to. Battlefields are littered with mounds of corpses, and medics carry off the dying in droves. Families grieve in the aftermath of a bombing, mourning their loved ones crushed under rubble. Chapter segments are introduced with a brusque declaration of the atrocities currently taking place—such as the first use of chemical weapons—and are accompanied by a still image or brief animation. Without context this narration would be nothing more than a bridge between sections of gameplay, but instead it reinforces the weight and severity of the action on screen.

For all the death and destruction, and the display of humanity at its most brutal, there is still a sense of hope. The protagonists aren't killers; they're ordinary people sickened by the suffering around them and desperate for the war to end. Until that day comes, though, they're willing to fight death rather than cause more. It's truly inspiring. I desperately wanted each of the characters to survive to the end simply because they deserved peace and happiness after all they endured.

Valiant Hearts is the very antithesis of the generic, mindless, testosterone-laden military games that dominate the market.   While it can be completed in less than six hours, it perfectly explores themes and concepts that triple-A titles still have difficulty grasping: gray morality, a poignant, thought-provoking storyline, and appealing gameplay that isn't based on killing everything in sight. There's no denying it has some flaws that keep it from being greater, but it's still one of the best downloadable games of 2014. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys puzzles, is interested in the history of World War I, or is simply looking for a game that knows how to be truly mature without wallowing in sex and violence. Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 6 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains violence, blood, and use of alcohol and tobacco. Soldiers are seen getting shot, stabbed, and caught in explosions. Their pained expressions make it clear that they're dying in agony. Seeing corpses piling up on the battlefield drives the point home even more. Even with the cartoonish art style, this isn't a game for kids or the squeamish.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Subtitles are provided, and any potential dangers are accompanied by both visual and audio cues, so players who are deaf or hard of hearing won't have any problems completing the game.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox One   Xbox 360   PS4   PS3   PC  
Developer(s): Ubisoft Montpellier  
Publisher: Ubisoft  
Genre(s): Puzzle  
ESRB Rating: Teen (13+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

I bought this game on a

I bought this game on a recommendation.

This game is not a game. It's an interactive movie. You don't really make decisions, you're never in control of the narrative. And yes, about 40% of your playtime will be watching rather than interacting.

Do you like the Walking Dead games? This is the same thing, just a more cartoony art style.

The style of this game doesn't offend me, per se. On-the-rails games can succeed. Portal suffers no input or deviation from the player, but that game flows around you. Control of your character is rarely taken from you. In Valiant Hearts, like I said, almost half the time, you're waiting for the game to give you control so you can play it.

And what there is to play is about on the intellectual level and challenge of grade school patterns and shapes. Like the Walking Dead.

The difference is, the Walking Dead is an on-going tragedy, a trainwreck of human catastrophe played out in slow motion. This game isn't any more instructive than "All Quiet on the Western front", and I enjoyed reading that more.

...I just couldn't empathize with these characters. The childish cartoony art style was a tremendous distraction. The Walking Dead never tried for realism, but the art style they used retained aspects of grit and horror.

When soldiers died, I was half expecting them to flash transparent and then fade after 2-3 seconds, ala Metal Slug. And that brings me to the combat.

I didn't notice it at first. The first level of combat (after a basic training) has your character trade his rifle for a flag. He will carry the company standard, a big honor. But subsequent levels, when you play the American looking for revenge or the daughter questing to rescue her father or the uncle trying to hold onto his soul, you never pick up another gun.

And you never do it because the game doesn't want to dirty the morality of these characters. I saw it for what it was, cowardly and manipulative. An anti-war war-game enacted with dolls, using ketchup for blood.

I put three hours into it before I gave up. Having the German boy be pulled from France to fight was good writing. Having him be the Zepplin pilot to keep the cast together was a ridiculous contrivance.

And to keep the heroes being the heroes, they never fire a shot in the whole of the Great War?

Whatever. Have the confidence to let your characters get dirty, or don't write about World War 1. OBVIOUSLY the game has a strong "war is hell" message. Ridiculous then that the main characters are pacifist angels and the villain is a mustached German.

To Jim Bevan:
I follow what you're saying in your review. Not all games need to have sex or violence, you're correct. However, excluding violence, especially on the agency of the player's character, in a game on and about WORLD WAR ONE, is tremendously inappropriate.

That's like having a cooking game but you don't ever chop vegetables, mix ingredients, or boil water. The game is asking for it.

You are right that violence is over-used. However, it can be done well. In this game, it was needed. They didn't even try.

The game is on sale so I

The game is on sale so I came here for a recommendation, and the commentator above successfully turned me off to this game.

There is a recent push among one faction of people who play video games to decry violence, yet I don't see how you get away with a World War I game without depicting extreme violence. A lot of people died, and while the popular first-person-shooters don't necessarily honor them with their Jerry Bruckheimer set pieces and press F to salute nonsense, going to the opposite extreme doesn't honor them either.

good game

At least the Save Game functionality works correctly, something The Walking Dead didn't manage ;)

I'd recommend the game; it's not a shooter, it's a puzzle platformer, so maybe the comments about violence make more sense in that context. There is plenty of killing going on.

It has it's flaws, plenty of them. But if it looks interesting to you, doesn't a sale let you try it at low risk? I think it's worth a go, even if you hate it. It's different enough and good looking enough to deserve that.

Gameplay

All that being said, gameplay is definitely not its strong point so do bear that in mind.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Code of Conduct

Comments are subject to approval/deletion based on the following criteria:
1) Treat all users with respect.
2) Post with an open-mind.
3) Do not insult and/or harass users.
4) Do not incite flame wars.
5) Do not troll and/or feed the trolls.
6) No excessive whining and/or complaining.

Please report any offensive posts here.

For more video game discussion with the our online community, become a member of our forum.

Our Game Review Philosophy and Ratings Explanations.

About Us | Privacy Policy | Review Game | Contact Us | Twitter | Facebook |  RSS
Copyright 1999–2010 GameCritics.com. All rights reserved.