In 2014, Ubisoft released Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a game that stood out by virtue of it being a smaller, more intimate tale amidst its many more action-oriented brethren. Instead of explosive set pieces and main characters that doubled as killing machines, the game focuses on the people who find themselves forever marked by war. Nine years later, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home continues the tale on mobile devices exclusively through Netflix, and it picks up right where the previous story left off. While a lack of challenging gameplay and a short lifespan could sink other games, brevity is used to its advantage to ensure the story hits just as hard as its predecessor..
Coming Home begins in 1917, just as American troops are entering the war for the first time. Familiar faces Freddie and Anna return, along with three new main characters: James, Freddie's younger brother; George, a fighter pilot; and Ernst, a German sailor who, through no fault of his own, finds himself an unwitting participant in the war effort.
The story is told across 19 scenes split into three chapters, which translates into about 2.5 hours of gameplay. On paper it sounds very short, but the story is efficiently told. None of the beats feel like they drag on; from the opening scene Coming Home does a remarkable job of being clear-cut with its narrative--even those designed to make the player feel uncomfortable. For example, the very first scene shows James's enlistment experience, which has him forced into racially segregated lines with one line receiving weapons and the other, James's line, being given brooms for custodial work. In another scene, the medic Ana frantically runs around a hospital healing wounded, putting the player in control as she removes shrapnel from limbs and administers bandages.
That's one of my favorite things about this game. There is neither glory nor glamour in its conflict, and triumph comes not from dominating, but merely surviving. Even when a scene lightens the mood, there's still a palpable sense of dread that something could go wrong at any given moment. Coming Home does just as well at portraying those horrors as its predecessor without reusing any major plot points.
While the story is another victory for Valiant Hearts, actually playing it doesn't always hold up. I don't think the game is poorly designed; the tasks asked of me during my playthrough, from a technical standpoint, work very well outside of the occasional misreading of a swipe or tap command. The problem is the game's 19 scenes are frequently simple and sometimes hardly interactive. Rather than obstacles, Coming Home often met me with speed bumps that require too little effort to feel engaging.
Part of that minimal effort is due to the basic control scheme. Most actions can be completed with either a swipe or a tap on the screen. When holding an item, pressing on the screen will allow you to aim and throw it. If there's a heavy object to be pushed, tapping it while the character is standing near it will have said character grab it. It usually works, albeit mindlessly. There are moments, however, where an upward swipe to climb onto an object is registered as a tap instead, which makes the character grab onto the object again. It's annoying, but it's certainly not game-breaking.
Some scenes involve walking through a small Metroidvania-style area looking for specific objectives or solving brief puzzles. Others are more linear, like the stealth missions where you must watch enemy movements and stay behind cover in order to avoid getting caught. Every once in a while the game shakes things up, either by making you pilot George's plane as he avoids obstacles like mortar shells and enemy planes--all of which attack George in sync with the game's classical music--or having you tap to the rhythm of the on-screen band like rudimentary Guitar Hero. None of these sequences is designed to hold players up for very long. In this way, it's simpler than its predecessor, but the pacing also helps the story, ultimately.
The game isn't totally linear, though it very nearly is. Each mission features hidden items that unlock journal entries depicting real-world events and items used during the war, which is a welcome returning feature from the 2014 game. However, the item placement is very obvious, which makes finding these trinkets much simpler than they could be. While the idea of hidden items fleshing out the story is nice, especially in a game dedicated to sharing a history lesson, I would have appreciated needing to work harder to find them.
I never expected to be playing a sequel to Valiant Hearts--much less playing it on mobile through Netflix--but after finishing Coming Home I realized that mobile, and by extension Netflix, does make a good place to revisit this franchise. The gameplay is simplified compared to its predecessor, which doesn't always work in the game's favor. However, the scene-based structure allows for bite-sized sessions while on the go, while the short total completion time allows for marathoning the entire game if the player chooses.
When viewed through that lens, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a success story. It tells an emotionally resonant story through multiple episodes, each with simple gameplay mechanics and a difficulty level that's welcoming to many players. That being said, seasoned video game veterans will notice the lack of substance in gameplay, even if they're moved by the story being told.