It surprises me that World War I has largely escaped the capture of the public’s imagination. I can only name a handful of WWI movies, and there are even fewer games to speak of. Even my fourth grade teacher, a public official paid to educate children, wasn’t able to tell me how or why it got started. For most Americans, WWI is a gaping hole in history with a beginning and an end and a lot violence in the middle. Spoiler alert: The Allies won.
This sort of discussion over drinks one night prompted Randall to buy me Valient Hearts: The Great War for my birthday. As a point-and-click puzzle adventure, Valiant Hearts is unique as a game that tells a war story without hiding behind an iron sight. You play four different soldiers (plus a loyal Doberman Pinscher named Walt) from both sides of the conflict, whose lives become entangled as the game takes you through some of the most defining moments of the war.
At its core, Valiant Hearts is a two dimensional point-and-click click adventure with a handful of puzzle elements thrown in. Most of the time you will be sneaking behind enemy lines, tossing grenades in machine gun nests, and finding levers to advance to the next section. Don’t expect a whole lot of difficulty – there is usually only one direction to follow and most puzzles can be solved without too much backtracking. You will only ever retry on a handful of bosses. This allows you to consume the game’s six hours of content at an enjoyable pace, although there’s not much replay value to speak of once you are done.
What makes Valiant Hearts stand out, however, is its setting. Although it receives less attention than its later counterpart, World War I was still downright brutal. It was the first war where PTSD became a recognizable disorder. It saw the widespread introduction of chemical warfare, aerial combat, flamethrowers, automatic weaponry, and mechanized units. And oh yeah, people dropped bombs on each other in zeppelins. That was actually a thing at one point.
It’s no surprise, then, that Valiant Hearts nails its historical accuracy, to the point that one could almost consider it an educational game. Your battalion will be slaughtered in a front-line charge during the Battle of the Marne. The Battle of Ypres will show you the world’s first glimpse of chlorine gas. And yes, you’ll get to see just how shitty trench warfare could be. Along the way, mission briefings will explain the historical significance about each battle. Items hidden throughout the level (like a pee-soaked rag) will offer additional glimpses into the daily lives of soldiers and civilians.
In spite of this brutality, however, Valiant Hearts tackles its subject matter rather whimsically. For starters, the artwork is downright charming. Although much of the game takes place on burnt-out battlefields, the hand-drawn artwork makes each scene extraordinarily vibrant. The husky characters themselves all communicate using comical speech bubbles and grunting noises which give them a playful vibe.
All of this gives the game a cartoon-like innocence, allowing it to portray the horrors of WWI while it still tells an uplifting story. During one mission you dodge traffic in Paris to the tune of the Can Can. At another point you defeat an enemy zeppelin by throwing its grenades back using a broken organ in the cathedral at Reims. Your primary antagonist is even a schnitzel-loving baron wearing a pickelhaube.
Overall, Valiant Hearts does not outstay its short length and wraps up nicely just before the point of tedium. After all, there are only so many ways you can pull levers, operate valves, and toss grenades before it gets too old. What truly impressed me was not the game’s story, but its sense of historical drama and they way it was able to portray the Great War in a way I had not yet experienced. It even prompted me to read All Quiet on the Western Front (which I have since finished). Even I can admit that I learned a lot by playing this game.
The Bottom Line: A decent casual indie game with excellent production values. Don’t expect a lot of challenge, but its guaranteed fun for history buffs.