Valiant Hearts: The Great War is one of the most human and sensitive games about war ever released. Set during World War I, the game is more about the personal struggles of its characters than it is about the larger historical details and political realities of the devastating conflict. It takes a few small missteps, but the game successfully couches grim truths in a story with endearing characters, gorgeous art, and moments of jubilance and adventure, making its tale about how war destroys lives accessible and appealing to players of all ages while still giving the war's tremendous human cost the acknowledgment it deserves.
The game begins by making it clear that this isn't a simple tale of good vs. evil. Karl is a German citizen living in France with his wife and newborn son, but as the war breaks out, Karl is forcibly separated from his family and sent back to Germany, where he must join the war effort. Meanwhile, his father-in-law, Emile, is conscripted into the French forces. Neither of them are motivated to enlist or fight; rather, as is so often the case in war, they are ordinary people who are swept up in conflicts beyond their control.
Over the course of the game, you play as both Emile and Karl, as well as a Belgian nurse named Anna and an American named Freddie who enlists with the French forces. These characters aren't traditional action heroes; the older Emile, for instance, has to scramble and struggle a bit to hoist himself over obstacles, and instead of running and gunning their way through the game's side-scrolling stages, characters solve a series of environmental puzzles to proceed.
These puzzles cleverly find many different ways to combine simple elements like tossing objects to distract enemies, pulling levers to activate machinery, and issuing commands to your devoted canine companion, Walt, and they're just challenging enough to be engaging and satisfying, without being so difficult as to interfere with the story's momentum. And throughout the stages, you can find collectibles that shed light on the historical realities of the war, illuminating the miserable conditions soldiers engaging in trench warfare had to live with, for instance, or the ways that the war affected the rights and workplace responsibilities of women.
There's a lot of death in Valiant Hearts, but very little direct violence. You do occasionally have to clobber an unsuspecting enemy soldier from behind, and you may blast a few planes out of the sky in one sequence, but most of your time is spent helping people rather than attacking them. You provide first aid to the wounded, rescue people trapped in buildings, and give a soldier a nice, clean pair of socks. In this game, you are not a killing machine. The war itself is. There's an appropriate feeling of futility that comes from charging into battle again and again and seeing soldiers on both sides fall in droves to artillery blasts and machine-gun fire. Things become increasingly grim as the game and the war progress, and a late-game stage set during the hopeless Nivelle Offensive is particularly hellish.
It's not all grimness and death, thankfully. There are scenes of beauty, too, like a sequence that takes place on a starry night in Paris just as the war is beginning. Here, you play as the headstrong and capable Anna, a wonderful character who is determined to do whatever she can to help people during the war. After performing some quick automotive repairs, you drive down the city's bustling streets in a joyous scene during which you avoid cars and other obstacles in keeping with the music.
Beautiful moments like this keep the tone of the game from falling into monotony, and make the devastation of the game's grimmer scenes more impactful. Not long after you leave the beauty of Paris behind, you're in the Belgian town of Ypres, where the sky is filled not with shimmering stars but with toxic gas. Reinforcing the fact that lives on one side aren't worth more or less than lives on the other, Anna rushes to assist any injured soul she comes across, no matter the uniform he might be wearing.
Though the mechanics are simple, Valiant Hearts admirably puts you in a wonderful variety of situations, having you do everything from cooking a meal for a high-ranking officer to fighting a boss battle against a zeppelin using a pipe organ as your weapon. No matter what you're doing, the game's art style pulls you in. There are always wonderful details in the background to give the scenarios life. In one scene set in a POW camp, for instance, you see a prisoner being intensely interrogated in the window of one building, while in a nearby structure, French soldiers carouse and listen to music as their prisoners suffer. Through it all, the endearing designs of the characters, with their eyes charmingly obscured by their hair, make it easy to care about them and their struggles.
The game's storytelling isn't always as cohesive as it should be. There's a jarring disconnect between the French-accented voice we hear Emile use during gameplay and the British-accented voice that speaks for him during between-level cutscenes. Freddie's storyline fits too neatly into the familiar narrative trope of a man out for revenge against the person responsible for the death of the woman he loved, making his arc feel more like something out of a generic action movie than a proper tale of war. And on multiple occasions, the game leads you to think a dire fate has befallen one or more characters, only to reveal, like the bad resolution of a TV cliff-hanger, that this wasn't the case. But these are minor blemishes on a visually beautiful game that deftly moves between moments of joy and moments of tragedy, and ultimately doesn't shy away from the fact that "great" is just about the last thing any war should be called.