“Valiant Hearts: The Great War” thrusts its main characters into a game in which none of them, ultimately, wants to be a part.
A tale of World War I, inspired partly by letters exchanged by soldiers and loved ones, “Valiant Hearts” is the rare video game in which military action evokes sympathy rather than aggression. Combat and the regrettable ways it touches the lives of a middle-aged farmer, a teenage student, a new father and an American widower make for the game’s backdrop.
The emotional torture of warfare is the game’s center.
Helping a bruised and battered soldier simply find a clean sock is treated as an act of heroism, and puzzles are fashioned out of the daily drudgery of a soldier’s life on the supply-barren Western Front. “Valiant Hearts” can wring great drama from the task of helping a lonely heart snare a feather from a bird so he can write a letter to his daughter.
No, you cannot shoot the bird, despite a decade and a half of video games that have told us the opposite.
Although the first few minutes of “Valiant Hearts” is more “A Farewell to Arms” than “Call of Duty,” the game isn’t out simply to manipulate your heartstrings. A broadly drawn comic-book art style — as well as a helpful Doberman pinscher that loves belly rubs — temper the seriousness of the material, putting players in a setting that’s more akin to the scenes of Snoopy battling the Red Baron in “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” than it is the blood-drenched realism of modern video games.
Emile, a 42 year-old dairy farmer, has enjoyed a quiet life with his daughter and baby grandson in the French countryside. He’s drafted for war, a calling he must heed. The summons comes almost immediately after his son-in-law, Karl, is forced to leave France and fight for the opposing German army. Neither is fit to be a soldier.
As Emile and Karl attempt to reconnect, while hoping their battalions don’t destroy each other, their lives intersect with other unlikely warriors. Freddie is an American, born to a Creole family, who enlists in the war after his French wife is the casualty of a German bombing run. Soon realizing trench warfare won’t cure his anger, he comes to regret volunteering for the French Foreign Legion.
Anna, meanwhile, is a young Belgian living in Paris and training to be veterinarian, but she rushes home to be with her father, only to get caught in the chemical warfare that plagued Ypres. Her father, a scientist, was kidnapped to help the German cause, a tragedy Anna discovers after pulling women and children from a bombed church.
The stories of the improbable heroes twist and turn throughout the Western Front, and players will control each character, as well as the dog, at varying points throughout the game’s four chapters. There are action scenes, as players will throw bombs or drive tanks, but inhabitable characters in “Valiant Hearts” don’t brandish guns. Players, in fact, will spend as much time healing wounds as inflicting them.
Stylistically, the game smartly nods to the LucasArts and Sierra adventure games of yore. Challenges here are solved largely by hunting for an object and then discovering where it needs to be used — or to whom it needs to be given. Because items are naturally scattered in an active war zone, this tactic feels less random than it could, and it manages to encourage exploration and conversation.
Only there’s no dialogue, at least in the traditional sense. There are grunts and hops and comic-book-like dialogue bubbles. Grand gestures are used to convey player objectives but also to telegraph the helplessness of those stationed around the Western Front. One character needs a shower, another needs some meds, and sometimes the war-torn streets cause a flat tire.
Some puzzles take the form of screwball comedy, such as the moment when Karl has broken free from a French POW camp and needs to remain undetected by stealing the clothing of a high-ranking official. One must find some wine and then concoct a way for the general to spill it on his military fatigues.
Other times the game aims to illuminate more distressing elements of the Great War. A player can pause the game, which cues up the forlorn piano notes of Daniel Teper’s “Lonely Pebble,” and read historical notes about the settings depicted. At first they add an educational feeling to the proceedings, but they also bring a much greater understanding to the war.
Even those with a solid knowledge of World War I may find it nerve-wracking to read about the effects of chlorine gas or to receive a refresher on the elaborate tunnels dug by each side. Both play a heavy role in “Valiant Hearts,” and trusty grandpa Emile is often given the task of digging around planted bombs or running out of gas-flooded caverns.
The puzzles may not be incredibly taxing, but there is no easy win in “Valiant Hearts.” Each victory seems to get the players further from the goal. Break free from a POW camp and risk being branded a traitor. Help the Frenchmen win a battle and you struggle as your general marches your battalion to certain death. Drive to where your family is being held and stumble into an occupied city.
There’s a little silliness here and there, such as a crazed French general who drives a surprisingly fast-moving tank in his underwear, and credit goes to the cartoon-like art for making these moments work tonally. These largely serve to mix up the style of play, which changes relatively often throughout this 15-or-so-hour game.
Healing fallen soldiers or citizens is a challenge that will require quick thumbs, as one must rapidly follow a series of button prompts. (Depending on your game experience, these can be tedious, but they don’t overstay their welcome.) Better is the task of wrangling a cannon, as the game requires one to obtain coordinates rather than showcase reflexes for the few moments when “Valiant Hearts” necessitates large-scale destruction.
Often the game is more removed. A switch, for instance, will activate dynamite. We’re spared from watching the carnage, but the game also doesn’t pick sides, alternating between French and German battalions and placing our sometimes beloved characters in the tunnels beneath them.
It makes “Valiant Hearts” the most uncommon of militaristic video games, one in which we not only fear for a life but are also reminded of its value.
VALIANT HEARTS: THE GREAT WAR
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Platforms: Xbox One (reviewed), Xbox 360, PS3, PS4, PC