One hundred years ago, a shot heard round the world kicked off the bloody conflict then known as the Great War—a war that would go on to involve more than thirty countries, kill 16 million soldiers and civilians, and wound 20 million while devastating much of Europe. These now-distant events are the focus of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a game firmly entrenched in history but with universal themes and a message that, as violent conflicts rage in the Middle East and unrest simmers around the world, are still painfully relevant a century later.
Not usually attracted to stories about war, I was drawn to Valiant Hearts for an admittedly superficial reason: it has a dog in it. Of five playable characters, one is a scruffy Red Cross dog named Walt. I have a weird affinity for games that make me cry, and as Ubisoft’s marketing suggested, dog plus war would inevitably end in tears.
Set during 1914-1917 in Western Europe, Valiant Hearts is a side-scrolling game that looks an awful lot like a puzzle-platformer, but has all the elements of a great adventure game once you dig in. Its playable characters represent different perspectives on the global conflict, with their intertwined stories informed by real letters sent to and from the fronts. It turns out Walt is not as central as I expected; this is a game about war and the people caught up in it, that happens to have a dog in a prominent supporting role. Even so, Walt’s presence—from the clever co-op puzzles he facilitates to his unfailing loyalty to the people he befriends—has a lot to do with what makes Valiant Hearts special.
In a narrated opening sequence accompanied by stills and sparse animation, Valiant Hearts begins with the fateful assassination of Austria’s Archduke Ferdinand. As you may remember from history class, this assassination leads to unrest throughout Europe, including Germany declaring war on Russia. Because France is aligned with Russia, all Germans living in France are asked to leave. As a result, Karl, one of the game’s playable characters, is led away from his farm by soldiers, forced to leave his French wife Marie and baby Victor behind. Soon after, his father-in-law Emile meets a similar fate when he’s drafted into the French army. These two men—related by marriage, separated by nationality—will spend much of Valiant Hearts trying to find each other on the front and to make it home to their family in Saint Mihiel.
Meanwhile, Freddie, an African American, has voluntarily enlisted to fight for the French so he can seek revenge against a German commander who ruined his life (the United States didn’t get mixed up in WWI until 1917). His character is loosely based on Freddie Stowers, the only African American to receive a Medal of Honor for duty in this conflict. Fighting together and saving each other’s lives more than once, Freddie and Emile forge a friendship that lasts the duration of the war. The final playable human is Anna, a Belgian veterinarian-turned-Red Cross nurse who’s looking for her abducted father, a scientist whose expertise is in demand by the German army. Though each of these backstories drive the characters’ motivations and come into play in various ways during the game, Valiant Hearts’ story is more about the war itself and how it impacts these four people moment to moment—their attempts to survive, their triumphant victories, their harrowing near misses.
Then there’s Walt, who travels with each of them at some point. We first meet him in the company of the Germans, but when he and his handler are separated during battle, Walt and Emile quickly bond. Gameplay-wise, Walt’s best moments are as a co-op partner of sorts, assisting with puzzle solutions that require more than one set of hands, squeezing into tight spaces, or distracting enemy soldiers so his human companion can sneak past. (No matter what uniform they’re in, everyone likes to stop and pet a dog!) From a story perspective, Walt is the common thread that links these characters throughout the war.
The simple, almost allegorical storytelling keeps an otherwise heavy plotline entertaining and at times incredibly moving, telling us just what we need to know and letting our emotions fill in the blanks. Most of the big story beats are communicated via narration between scenes, with playable sequences presenting logic puzzles and other gameplay in the context of a specific battle, barracks, POW camp, or other area somehow related to the war. Spanning three years in its four chapters, with many historical events playing into its narrative, much of Valiant Hearts’ story is necessarily told through shorthand. In the game’s first playable scene, for example, Emile enters the barracks—now he’s in his underwear being sized up with all the other new recruits—he exits the barracks and now he’s in uniform—a bugle plays and the walk becomes a run as he and the other soldiers rush to the front.
Another example of narrative shorthand comes in the rebus-style exchanges that take place between the multi-national cast of characters. When two characters talk to each other, speech bubbles appear over their heads with pictograms representing their conversation (often a simple command the character must follow such as “go find this item”). Besides simplifying the localization task, this format reinforces the culture clash experienced by soldiers fighting among men with whom they can barely communicate. Appropriately, this stripped-down depiction of language also symbolizes our tenuous communication with dogs.
Valiant Hearts’ graphic novel aesthetic supports the storytelling well, showing us only what we need to see with simple hand-drawn artwork and animations that leave much to the imagination. Backgrounds are mostly muted browns, grays, and tans, with primary colors used to emphasize people and objects in the foreground (e.g. yellow gunfire, Anna’s red car). The characters are consistently designed with hair or hats that hide their eyes and jerky limbs that behave like paper cutouts hinged to their torsos. In many scenes, you’ll find yourself in a group of soldiers all wearing the same uniforms, but the game does a good job of visually differentiating the protagonists from supporting characters and also of distinguishing important supporting characters from the rest of the crowd, with features like a different helmet, big glasses, or a beard. Important historical tidbits are sometimes tucked into the artwork, too, like in one scene where Freddie leads a regiment of Black soldiers.
The artwork and storytelling may be intentionally sparse, but the soundtrack and particularly the ambient sound effects do a great job of bringing this two-dimensional world to life. The music is a mix of original, often quiet piano themes and recognizable classical music that blends perfectly with the action happening on screen. Sound effects range from collective cheers as the regiment advances to the groans of the dying, from phrases the player characters utter in their native tongues to dog sounds so spot-on my own dog was running around looking for Walt in our house.
Unlike many adventure games where you wander unsure how to proceed, Valiant Hearts keeps you moving forward most of the time. The characters walk only right and left across a 2D plane. At points you go through a door to emerge in another side-scrolling scene, but you never walk toward or away from the camera. On a gamepad, character movement is intuitively handled with the left stick, while face buttons are used to hit an opponent, knock down obstacles in the way, and pick up items. Some combo controls mimic contextual movements, such as pressing a button while simultaneously rotating the left stick to turn a gear. You learn all of this during a tutorial as Emile goes through basic training, and though there’s much more to remember than with a point-and-click control scheme, for the most part I found Valiant Hearts’ controls easy to master. (I played on PlayStation 3; keyboard controls are available on PC as well as gamepad support.)
I did consistently have trouble with digging, however, which requires holding down the PS3 controller’s Square button while pushing the left stick in the direction you want to dig. It’s not always clear when you can dig and when you can’t, so sometimes I’d try it only to have Emile flail his arms around in “hit” mode. Other times I’d try to dig by pushing left when the game wanted me to push down, and my character wouldn’t advance. This wasn’t a show-stopping problem and may well have been due to human error, but I never felt like I got the hang of it, and this pulled me out of the game whenever digging was required.
The game dictates which human character you control when, but when Walt is in the scene you can switch to him at will with the press of a button. Playing off the myth that dogs can’t see colors, the screen turns black and white when you’re in Walt’s shoes—err, paws. Though Walt’s presence is crucial to much of this game, he’s more of a sidekick than a distinct player character, with far less freedom than the humans. If he can do anything for you in the immediate area, icons appear near certain hotspots (a doorway, a lever, etc.) to indicate which button you should push to make Walt interact. He can also carry an item in his mouth, which is handy for avoiding backtracking when you’re not sure what you’ll need up ahead.Continued on the next page...