More adventure game in the old style than war game, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is nonetheless a game about war, and specifically the toll it takes on those involved. It’s also a game about hilarious shenanigans, though, as Ubisoft Montpellier’s obligatory insertions of video game nonsense undercuts the emotional impact of the game as a whole. At times, Valiant Hearts seems on the verge of becoming something great, but Ubi, once again, is unwilling to fully commit.
Valiant Hearts tells the story of a few folks whose paths cross in France and Belgium over several years of the First World War. It begins with Emile, a French farmer, and his German son-in-law Karl, who is deported when the war starts. They both end up on the front lines, Karl as a soldier and Emile as a cook since he’s beyond optimal soldiering age. As the war continues, they meet some other pals: Freddy, an American resident of France who joined up; Ana, a Belgian medic who also drives a taxi; and a cool little dog who always seems to be around when needed.
The hook is that being primarily an adventure rather than a straight up action game is that it’s not really about committing violence, though you will do some of that. It’s more about working in support roles. You fix machines, patch up the wounded, find stuff that needs found. Other times you’ll run around the battlefield trying not to get murdered, or sneak around trying not to get murdered, or drive a car trying not to get murdered, and “not getting murdered” tends to involved avoidance rather than shooting guns — but, again, there is some of that as well.
But Valiant Hearts is, first and foremost, a story game, and so it’s light on difficulty. If you do manage to get stuck on something, hints will offer themselves to you every couple minutes to keep the momentum going. But you’re more likely to get stuck on the rare cartoon-ish action sequences than puzzles.
And that’s where Valiant Hearts breaks. What this game really wishes to be is a melodrama in the style of French comics and 2D animated films, and about two-thirds of the time it hits that angle perfectly. It’s very emotional, and I truly felt for all our protagonists — all of whom are miserable because of the war. It paints a picture of a purposeless conflict, which WWI absolutely was, with all the Regular Joes on both sides being sympathetic and unwitting participants. Like War Horse, it’s a sad story that contains glimmers of hope that maybe not everyone’s lives will be ruined by the time it ends.
But in the middle of that comes a lot of video game crap like boss fights and mustache-twirling villains like the Baron von Dorff, flying around in his zeppelin while laughing maniacally — situations like one in which you drive a taxi while being chased by an enormous armored vehicle that you must chuck bundles of dynamite at, or even a puzzle scenario that involves changing clothes a hundred times in ten minutes.
This is the very definition of going off message. Yes, war is bad and makes everyone feel bad, but also it’s full of fun and entertaining hijinks and shenanigans and antics and capers and other monkey business. It’s totally miserable, but also it’s a grand ole time.
This is very emotionally confusing, but not in the good way. Because all this stuff feels like obligations that scream “SEE, THIS IS A REAL VIDEO GAME BECAUSE IT HAS BOSS FIGHTS!” Ubi took a story that is at time very resonant and watered it down significantly.
And so it’s a good try, Ubisoft Montpellier, but ultimately in your failure to commit to your high concept, Valiant Hearts is ultimately the same as every other pretty good game: flashes of brilliance countered by nonsense tropes that are inserted just because these are the things you do in video games.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War was developed by Ubisoft Montpellier and published by Ubisoft. It was released on June 25,2014, at the MSRP of $14.99. A copy of the game was purchased for the purposes of this review.