Developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. Published by Ubisoft. Released June 24, 2014. Available on PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One.
For all the World War II shooters out there, comparatively few games attempt to tackle the Great War of 1914-1918, and it's not hard to see why. While the Second World War has so many famous offensives, so many thrilling battles across land, sea, and air - all of which make great videogame material - the most famous aspect of World War I is trench warfare. This type of combat consisted mostly of sitting in the damp and the filth, feeling miserable, before being forced to run into a hail of machine gun fire where you will almost assuredly die.
War is often senseless, but the way in which 9 million people were marched to their deaths, often under threat of execution by their own superior officers, was particularly incongruous. Between the horrific conditions on both sides, the employment of poisonous gas, and the dehumanizing meat grinder tactics, it's not surprising many consider this war one of the most tragic in history, even if other conflicts claimed more lives.
So, not exactly prime meat for a videogame, but that is the world in which Valiant Hearts: The Great War absorbs itself, amid the muddy trenches and burning chlorine of the European front. What is truly shocking about this game, however, is that it manages to do with its cartoon visuals and cute gibberish voices what a decade of dark, gritty combat games have failed to do - make war horrific, frightening, sad, and even a little inspiring.
I was having a bad week when I played Valiant Hearts, so whether the game in its entirety can claim credit is tough to say, but I had tears in my eyes as the end titles rolled. It may provide Ubisoft - a company I've more than criticized in the past - a little bit of satisfaction that it was able to make me cry, but it is certainly commendable that this game was able to draw such a reaction from me, regardless of any other circumstances at play. In the end, a perfect combination of narrative building, poignant dialog, beautiful music, and heartrending voice acting drew an extreme and rare reaction from me, and ensured Valiant Hearts' place as an unforgettable personal experience.
The animations are sublime, and the voice acting, led wonderfully by Dave Pettitt, lends a relatable quality to what is a very human story. It's a story that crosses sides, and on more than one occasion explores just how meaningless the idea of a "side" can be to those soldiers sacrificing everything for their countries. It is a story of losing everything, but finding things to gain in that same loss.
Revolving around four playable characters and inspired by actual letters sent during the Great War itself, Valiant Hearts' main story is propelled by Emile, a French farmer called to fight for his country, and his son-in-law Karl, a German who has to battle for the opposing side. Tied into their tale is Freddie, an American soldier who wants to avenge his wife, and Ana, a Belgian nurse who wants to save lives regardless of nation. Crossing all their paths is a dog (named Walt out of game), whose training and loyalty makes him invaluable to each of the cast members throughout their interwoven stories.
For all its effective storytelling, Ubisoft Montpellier has produced a rather mundane experience from a gameplay standpoint. A standard adventure game primarily comprised of the "give item A to character X to get item B for character Y," variety, this sidescrolling title relies on simple puzzles and fetch quests for the bulk of its gameplay. Each of the characters will interact with the world in a slightly different way, giving a different flavor to things, but for the most part, this is a very familiar little adventure.