I spend a lot of time fighting the Germans lately. In Wolfenstein: The New Order, for instance, I’ve inhabited Army Ranger B.J. Blazkowicz, a hulking American soldier who wakes up to a nightmare reality in which the Nazis won the second World War and enslaved the free world through superior Nazi war-making technology. Blazkowicz is mostly not okay with this dystopic Deutschland, and he runs up a sizable body count teaching Hitler’s Teutonic minions about the lethal power of freedom.
Then there’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It’s a much quieter sort of war game that’s rooted in actual history. It begins in the opening days of World War I, when Europe’s great powers were mobilizing for a war that most believed wouldn’t last longer than a few months. Surprise!
France calls up all able-bodied men for the army and simultaneously expels ethnic Germans from the country. One family is suddenly broken up, as a wife’s father is drafted into the French forces, and her husband is sent back to his home country of Germany. This feels a whole lot like foreshadowing.
All of these characters—plus a lovable dog, and a few others—are sucked into the maelstrom, and their paths link together through the game’s four non-linear chapters. Not to belabor the comparison, but the wonderful, lovingly animated art of Valiant Hearts makes Wolfenstein look like total schiesse. This game is gorgeous, even—or, rather, especially—in scenes depicting the horrors of trench and chemical warfare or the bombed-out ruins of fin-de-siècle Europe.
Rather than shooting your way through the Western Front, you rely primarily on puzzle-solving to advance, with obstacles not unlike the kind you’d find in adventure games like The Cave or Limbo. (In fact, outside of briefly seizing control of a few large gun emplacements, I’m not sure you shoot any firearms at all.) You might have to dig through the trenches to shut off a deadly gas valve, make sausage for your German captors, knock out guards with your kitchen spoon, treat wounded soldiers, or dodge the strafing Luftwaffe in a Model T. These tasks offer just the right level of challenge, hard enough to give one pause but not overly frustrating.
Throughout, Valiant Hearts makes a spirited attempt to sprinkle in historical tidbits that fill out the period’s background, such as journal entries offering pithy expositional essays to detail life before, during, and after the war. The effort is laudable, but it’s not an altogether successful execution. While the subject matter is endlessly, morbidly fascinating, these documentarian scraps aren’t folded seamlessly into the game. They exist more as a separate instructional that takes you out of the story.
Even within the main quest, Valiant Hearts shows seams in its storytelling. The initial plot requires the player to chase down a German, wine-sipping Snidely Whiplash—a villain who, of course, rides around in a zeppelin, raining misery down on the haggard refugees below. It’s a surprisingly unsubtle caricature for a game that in other aspects successfully explores the period’s usual Manichean assumptions. This jerk would be right at home in the world of Wolfenstein, drinking pinot noir with Dr. Strasse in his Nazi laboratory of horrors.
But every story needs a bad guy, I guess, and Valiant Hearts gets most of it right. In the end, it’s just an incredible relief—if a decidedly un-American sentiment—to play a memorable war game that isn’t some Rambo-inspired revenge fantasy. Well, that’s not exactly right. It’s a memorable game that just happens to be set during a war. And that makes all the difference.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4