World War One is sadly under represented in video games. It’s a war that – to steal from a film critic I follow – is simply not ‘sexy’. It’s a war without the same level of firepower or artillery as World War Two or subsequent wars. It also is a war that didn’t feature as much involvement from America – there was no ‘America came in and won the war’ moment to reference in World War One. For these reasons, Valiant Hearts is a more than commendable game that bucks the war genre trend.
Far too often, war games seem to be automatically represented within either the FPS or strategy genres. For this reason, it’s pleasing to note that Valiant Hearts is a platform puzzle game. The game opens with the disclaimer that it is ‘Freely inspired by the events unfolding on the Western front between 1914 and 1918’ and, by way of one of the finest narrations this side of Morgan Freeman, you are introduced to the characters whose journey you are to follow.
First there is Karl – a German, married to another character’s daughter, who is deported and drafted into the German army. His father in law – Emile – is drafted into the French army at the same time. Along their journeys, they meet Anna, a nurse, and Freddie, an American who volunteered to join the French army. To describe what paths their journeys take would be to spoil the wonder and emotional impact that embodies Valiant Hearts.
Throughout each chapter, players are given a glimpse into what occurred during WW1 — whether it be via the beautiful level design, which informs the player subtly, or through the many collectibles to be discovered within the levels. And what collectibles! It was upon finding a collectible during the second chapter that I knew that this was not only the best game released during 2014, but simply one of the finest games ever made.
To give a bit of background about myself for a moment – I was a terrible history student at school. I never understood the relevance of learning about a war that ended (at the time) eighty years prior. So when I found a pair of socks in the game and subsequently discovered the significance of those socks to the soldiers of WW1, all the history lessons I didn’t pay attention to suddenly felt wasted. Each collectible comes with notes about its relevance in WW1. They’re not just some random collectible added to give the game more content – they provide a purpose to educate the player.
Complimenting the collectibles are journal entries, which help explain the character’s motivations and how the war is impacting them. Alongside these are real photos from WW1 as well as real letters from the Western Front that were sent to families back home. Altogether, these items push the reality of the war and enforce a human element that is so often missing from war games.
Having all of this great information is useless without similarly great game mechanics to hang it on. Valiant Hearts was made using the same engine that the exceptionally beautiful Rayman Origins and Child of Light were created on, and was produced by Ubisoft Montpellier. This is different platforming than the fast-paced Rayman or the languid and thoughtful Child of Light. The characters in Valiant Hearts have a physical weight to them. This is explored wonderfully in later moments as the toll of the war weighs heavily down on them. There is no running or jumping, and given this is a war game, there’s surprisingly only a small amount of shooting or fighting.
It’s this lack of fighting that helps enforce the theme of reluctance – these characters (and you by extension) are fighting in a battle they don’t want to fight in. They are mostly forced to fight in these situations due to the circumstances placed upon them, and so it makes sense that they would in fact not want to fight if they can avoid it.
There are puzzles here, but they’re not illogical puzzles that exist just to lengthen the game – they are puzzles that in the context of the war make sense and progress the narrative. As Anna, the nurse, you sometimes have to partake in quick-time events that involve you bandaging or injecting a patient – and in some circumstances, performing CPR on a patient. It’s these quick time events and puzzles that help boost the narrative of Valiant Hearts and further educate the player about WW1.
I use the term educate and not inform because I feel that Valiant Hearts is an important game. I feel it’s important for education to remain progressive and that games such as this continue to be made. It’s a game that made me want to drag out the history books and discover more about WW1. It’s a game that, dare I say it, would be a great tool to use in schools. With its use of great character design and moments that feel genuine and earned, Valiant Hearts propels itself into the realm of great game literature.
As a film lover first and a gamer second, I’m proud to see that there is finally a game that I can utter in the same breath as Paths of Glory and Grand Illusion – two great WW1 films that are also referenced in Valiant Hearts. There is so much to recommend with Valiant Hearts that I haven’t even touched on the superb canine companion or even the beautiful score, but it’s also a game that I feel should be discovered. It’s a game that opens itself up to you as you progress – not with deep combat systems or showy graphics, but with a moving story. Valiant Hearts is a rare gem, a game that tells an impactful story through gameplay. I do hope that Ubisoft Montpellier turn their attention to similarly under-represented wars like the Boer War or the Korean War, as I feel the design that they have created with Valiant Hearts is a perfect way of exploring the subject of war without needing to resort to just being another FPS.