Back when the world was saturated with World War II first-person shooters, I remember more than one person clamoring for a game set during World War I. Instead we all moved onto modern military shooters, and that was honestly for the better.
Valiant Hearts is the second game from Ubisoft this year to take advantage of the company's lightweight UbiArt framework for a lower-budget, smaller-in-scope title--Child of Light being the first. The two games could not be more opposite. Where Child of Light adopted a pseudo-fairytale aesthetic, with its rhyming dialogue and generalized themes, Valiant Hearts leans into the relatively modern concept of "animation for adults."
In other words, don't be fooled by the cartoonish graphics. Valiant Hearts is as grim and emotionally devastating as a two-dimensional puzzle game can get.
World War I is dark. Like the Vietnam War, a lot of what was perpetrated was morally questionable at best. There's no clear-cut winner, nor "enemy." Most of the fighting took place amongst enormous trench systems, with thousands of soldiers sent out only to die seconds later. Medical conditions were horrific. Widespread use of chemical warfare (particularly mustard and chlorine gas) ruined armies without a single bullet fired. Battles were "successful" if fought to a draw.
Valiant Hearts softens these blows by couching everything in two dimensions and creating some larger-than-life enemies to propel the story forward, but it's like softening the blow of a 2x4 by wrapping it in a silk napkin first. There is a point in the game where you will literally climb over a pile of bodies to get to your next objective, and cartoon or not, it's depressing.
If you've ever read Johnny Got His Gun or All Quiet on the Western Front, you'll know what to expect from Valiant Hearts--that same depressed and world-weary tone permeates the game. Such meaningless death and destruction.
The game is presented through an ensemble cast: Freddie, the American who enlisted in the French Foreign Legion; Anna, the medic who fled Paris to join the war effort; Karl, the German ex-pat who was deported from his home in France when the war started and forced to enlist; and Emile, Karl's father-in-law who is conscripted early in the war.
While Child of Light was in love with its own rhyming dialogue, Valiant Hearts is silent. None of these characters says anything outside of a few meaningless pleasantries ("Ah, mon ami!") and some narrative interludes. It's a lot like the 2010 French animated film, L'Illusionniste.
Far from a detriment, the silent-film nature of Valiant Hearts is one of its greatest strengths. The game is able to support a multicultural cast--French, German, American, Canadian--without any one culture dominating. And still, these are some of the best characters I've played in recent memory, thanks to some strong archetyping and brilliant animated cutscenes.
You also fall in with a trained war dog early in the game, and it's this dog that most of the game revolves around. The story is the primary draw here, but play revolves around solving a cadre of puzzles more than actual combat. You'll occasionally knock out a guard or shoot an artillery round, but most of the time you're collecting items from the environment a la a point-and-click adventure game. Sometimes your path is blocked and you'll hold down a button to control the dog indirectly (cleverly signified by the screen turning black-and-white). You never move the dog with the analog stick, but instead order the dog towards labeled objectives.
The entire puzzle aspect is occasionally repetitive, but that feeling was somewhat mitigated by the game's constantly-shifting locales. Over the course of the game's six or seven hour runtime you explore the pastoral landscape of pre-war Saint-Mihiel, the gas-ridden fields at Ypres, the never-ending trenches of Verdun--it's a grand tour. While you're essentially fetch-questing your way through the same actions in every environ, the frames are packed with so much detail and the action moves at such a clip I never really found myself resenting the game--it's simply the weakest part of what's clearly a (strong) story-driven experience.
There are also a few moments that are particularly well-realized: a haunting behind-enemy-lines escape sequence, and some action-synced-to-music car chases that are reminiscent of what Ubisoft did with a few of the Rayman Legends levels. These break up (and somewhat make up for) the uninspiring point-and-click sections.
Valiant Hearts has the trappings of a puzzle-adventure game, but it's not. The game is so easy, it's basically a showcase for the team's story and artwork, and that's absolutely fine. This is the only video game I've ever played that's adequately represented World War I--hell, it's one of the only recent pieces in any medium to take a look at World War I. It's an emotional, broken sort of war where a lot of people died for no good reason--hardly fodder for heroic legend and national pride.
The characters in Valiant Hearts are not GI Joe-types who wear American flag pajamas to bed and recite the Pledge of Allegiance upon waking each morning. These are average citizens from a variety of countries and backgrounds, cast against the backdrop of an enormous war effort. They adhere to personal convictions over that of the nation. They fight not to win, but to stay alive and return home to family.
This little, understated game says more about war in six or seven hours than any modern Call of Duty game says with all its explosions and bombast and "immersion," and Valiant Hearts does it by staying true to its cast of characters and honoring its setting.
It's a valiant effort.