I was led to believe that this game was about a sad puppy.
Imagine my disappointment, then, when the game’s dog was not the main character of this thoughtful, sidescrolling puzzle adventure game set in the First World War. The game’s focus is instead on four other people, each of whom played a role in a kind of combat that the world had never seen before.
I got over my disappointment about the puppy pretty quickly, mostly because Valiant Hearts: The Great War is an unusually sensitive treatment of war, particularly in an industry that frequently glorifies war and vilifies whichever side happened to be fighting against the USA. Sure, the story sometimes got a bit ludicrous - a character near death in the french countryside would just happen to come across a friend of theirs who saves them - but I can forgive that as the rest of the story is one worth telling.
The game revolves around Emile, a Frenchman, whose German son-in-law Karl is forcibly removed from France at the beginning of the conflict and winds up fighting for Germany, despite marrying into a French family.
As the war goes on, Emile and Karl are introduced to two additional characters, an American named Freddie and Belgian student named Anna.
You can’t switch between these characters manually - the story is linear, and as you progress you’ll find yourself playing different ones, never stuck with one for too long.
Sometimes the character will be on their lonesome, solving puzzles by finding objects in the environment, and sometimes their friendly pal, the nameless dog, will be there to sneak under fences and pull switches. He is a very good boy.
The puzzles in Valiant Hearts range between straightforward and challenging, and they’re always relatively logical. I felt satisfied when I managed to think through a puzzle and solve it without help. You can, however, access hints when you get stuck - I probably had to do this four or fives times throughout the six hour campaign.
The most interesting thing about Valiant Hearts is that as you progress through the conflict with these characters, you learn a lot about the history of the war and why it was so significant. Chiefly, the military technology developed between 1914 and 1918 was significantly more destructive than existing weaponry. As I played, I learned about the invention of the Mark I Tank and the first machine turrets to fire 200 shots without cooling.
The art is also nice - Ubisoft Montreal creates a cartoonish but grimly-coloured 2D world that’s both familiar to those who regularly play indie games, and unfamiliar given the subject matter of war, which is in games usually typified by hyper-realism.
I wish that I could stop right there and declare that I loved Valiant Hearts (10/10! Best game ever!) but alas, I can’t. There are a lot of pros to Valiant Hearts, but there’s also one very big con: the action sequences.
Most of the action sequences require you to either outrun something while dodging something else, or to stealth your way through an environment without being shot to pieces. The stealth sequences aren’t so bad - you usually just hide behind a wall until the shooter is forced to reload - but the chase sequences are not so straightforward.
They drove me to insanity. I mean, I was literally muttering angrily to myself.
It isn’t that they’re difficult. I’m fine with difficult. What I’m not fine with is when a game doesn’t give you any hints about what to do, and simply expects you to figure it out by replaying the same five to ten seconds of the game, dying repeatedly until you either figure it out or fluke your way through it. There’s nothing more annoying than being both bored and frustrated, unable to progress.
Then there were the weird sequences where Anna, the medic, would give someone an injection or set someone’s broken bone. Given the gruesome nature of being a medic, it was a bit strange to be thrown into a Guitar Hero-style minigame where you press the right buttons at the right time. While you’re focused on achieving, the person on the doctor’s table is groaning and screaming with pain. It’s more than a little jarring.
Much of Valiant Hearts’ foibles can be looked over if you’re interested in the history or simply prefer games that tell stories to ones that have robust, well thought-out mechanics. To me, the game was worth playing out of interest - but I wouldn’t play it again. Judge for yourself whether that makes it worth paying for.