Choosing one of the most devastating and destructive periods of recent history as its subject matter meant Valiant Hearts was never going to be a light-hearted affair, but managing to combine comic book visuals with a poignant message helps make it accessible. And this is a game that people really should experience.
It tells the tale of four core characters and how they lives are irrevocably linked by the pains of the Great War. Each of their quests involves them searching for loved ones or retribution – and it’s up to you to help them find it. It focuses on the futility and emotion of a conflict that tore the world apart 100 years ago and captures it perfectly.
With its historical narrative, Valiant Hearts manages to depict the harshness of war through an entertaining puzzle game that grips you from the very start. It’s a rare thing when games genuinely manage to tug at the heartstrings and arouse emotion but Valiant Hearts does just that.
The gameplay is undeniably simple, the puzzles are basic and the likelihood that you’ll revisit it after the credits roll is slim – but it doesn’t really matter; this is a game that deserves to be played. It’s powerful and memorable for all the right reasons.
In contrast to the usual approach of games based on war, progress is fairly sedate and slow-paced. This slightly more cerebral take on things makes its message far more effective than a typical gung-ho approach.
The story begins in 1914 shortly after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and takes us through war-torn Europe across some of the most significant periods of the conflict. It takes us on a journey to destroyed cities and rainsoaked trenches, along roads strewn with bodies and through freshly-made craters. Our heroes are fighting for their lives, all the while the world is crashing down around them. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won’t give away any more of the storyline but suffice to say there will be moments that you’ll find particularly touching.
Each segment sees you lead one of the four protagonists towards the front line and their objective, avoiding hazards such as gunfire, explosive shells, mustard gas or enemy soldiers. The only way to progress is to fathom a series of puzzles, ranging from the simple to the slightly obscure.
Make a mistake and wander into gunfire or towards gas and death is instantaneous, a sudden and shocking reminder that, despite its cartoony appearance, this isn’t a lighthearted affair. Checkpoints are plentiful, however, and there isn’t much need to retread your steps should you need to restart.
Whether you’re playing as Emile, the gruff yet loving father from France, young German Karl (Emile’s son-in-law) who’s whisked away from his family to return to fight for his homeland, American hardman Freddie reeling from the loss of his wife, or Belgian medic Anna who is trying to track down her father, you’re able to sympathise with their plight. Oh, and then there’s Walt the dog – the faithful hound on hand to help you in your quest.
Each character has a very distinct personality and different abilities. Anna, for example, is a dab hand with a bandage and is frequently called upon to patch up the wounded, whereas Freddie has a handy pair of wirecutters that allow you to traverse otherwise impassable barbed wire.
Much of the game is spent chasing Baron Von Dorf, the German antagonist, who in some way or another is responsible for most of their misery.
Besides the narrator introducing each stage, in-game dialogue is minimal and the characters merely mumble or grunt at one another, with small comic book style boxes appearing above their heads to convey their intentions, thoughts or objectives. Most of the time you’ll just hear music and subtle sound effects as you navigate your way through each stage, which really adds to the overall feel and sentiment of the game.
Looks-wise, the environments are nicely drawn, with the backgrounds animated and surprisingly detailed. As side-scrolling games go, it’s not bad looking at all.
There’s little by way of a tutorial and from the outset you’re only given a few visual guides as to solving each puzzle or reaching the next checkpoint. Every action is controlled via a few simple, intuitive, button presses – and it’s all very simple to grasp – which again helps with the accessibility factor.
Most of the action sees your character run from screen to screen, until a puzzle stands in your way. These include fetch quests and other rudimentary puzzles, mostly requiring pulleys, cogs and levers to be fixed and used in a certain sequence, or pipes to be fitted together to redirect harmful mustard gases. Often a vital bit of equipment will be in a hard to reach gap, and that’s where your trusty canine comes in, helping you to retrieve it. You’ll grow to love this mutt! In the unlikely event a conundrum proves too taxing, helpful hints are available to set you on your way.
By far the least appealing sections are the instant-death driving sequences where obstacles need to be avoided, and Anna’s rhythm-based healing games that need a button to be pushed in time with the scrolling display. These segments tend to grate a little and are slightly too commonplace in my opinion.
So considering there’s very little challenge to this puzzler and there’s little chance you’ll revisit it once you’re done, is Valiant Hearts worth your money? Certainly. It’s a fun little package, which looks great and is, largely, a joy to play. The historical context, especially relevant as we mark the conflict’s 100th anniversary, and the powerful interweaving storylines will leave you with lasting memories. It’s well worth the experience.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One.