Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a fun history lesson

For the past decade or so, the video game industry has been enamored with World War II. Fighting against the Nazis always makes for an entertaining adventure. Games set during World War I, however, are few and far between, and most of the time they have been sub-par. Ubisoft is hoping to change that with Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

The art of war

The art of Valiant Hearts is one of the game’s first noticeable and standout features. Using Ubisoft’s in-house graphics engine, UbiArt Framework, Valiant Hearts has the look of a motion comic thanks to its hand-drawn characters, environments, and animation. The game looked gorgeous in HD on an Xbox 360, showcasing the variety of colors and the effort that went into the art design of the game.

Despite the game having comic-style art and endearing-looking characters, Valiant Hearts deals with some serious subjects. You play as four different characters and follow their journey through the early years of World War I, mostly 1914 to 1916. Inspired by found letters from soldiers to loved ones during the war, Valiant Hearts gets pretty detailed and specific about what fighting in World War I was like and how it affected not only soldiers but the people at home having to deal with their towns and cities being ravaged.

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Karl is a German living on a farm in France with a French wife, Marie, and young son. He gets deported from France for the duration of the war and is forced to fight for Germany.  Emile is Karl’s father-in-law who also lives on the farm and is tasked with taking care of his daughter and his grandson while Karl goes to war. That is until Emile is drafted to fight for France. Later on we meet Freddie, an American who joins France in the fight against Germany, mostly for revenge towards those responsible for the death of his wife. And Anna, a Belgian veterinarian student, who after not hearing from her father, sets off to the frontlines of war to find him. In the process, she becomes a war nurse. There's also Walt, our trusty, obedient war dog who joins each of the characters at different points in the game. The story does a solid job of showing how people from all walks of life were involved in the war in one way or another, willingly or unwillingly. And there are some great twists and turns throughout that will keep your attention and see you through to the end.

War puzzle

The gameplay, although simple, is pretty diverse. Valiant Hearts at its foundation is a 2D side-scrolling puzzle game. There are puzzles that require you to move pipes to get water to a shower, turn on or turn off machinery to meet a certain result, or get a band to play so that characters in your way would move. The solution of the puzzles usually gets you an item that’s needed for a task or to give to another character to move forward in a bigger task. For example, as Emile, to write a letter I needed ink and a feather. To get the ink from one guy, I had to find a dirty sock, find out where to wash it, find out where to dry it, and give it to him. To get the feather, I had to have Walt get some food, take the food from Walt, put it in a dish, wait for a pigeon to come down to eat the food, and grab the feather it left when it was finished. Sometimes these kinds of puzzles can get a bit tedious, but luckily there's a lot more going on in this game.

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My favorite parts of the game were on the battlefield. The moments where you and your battalion were running across the frontlines, shells raining down, forcing you to dodge left or right while watching comrades fall was an exhilarating and somber experience. Valiant Hearts puts everything in context with tidbits of information when you get to new areas reminding you that the game is based on true events. Everything from the type of lives soldiers lived in the muddy trenches to how Germans used poison gas and Zeppelins to drop bombs in their war efforts are elements straight from the grim reality of history.

To some players the history lessons throughout the game may be excessive. You have the narrator, you have the “More Info” icons popping up, plus there are various historical items laying around that you can collect, each of which have their own history lesson. I personally enjoyed learning about the intricacies of the war.

Another enjoyable aspect of the game is the vehicle missions. As Anna you drive through Paris avoiding traffic by moving left and right. Later on, you’re dodging grenades and gunfire. As Freddie you get to drive a tank and take out enemy encampments, planes, and structures. In addition to the driving there are also instances where you take control of cannons to take out enemy guns, which also breaks up any possible monotony.

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If there was anything that felt a bit off for the game, it was the narrative voices for Emile and Marie. Both characters are French, but their narrative voices were spoken with English accents. Ubisoft is headquartered in France and their development studio is based in Montreal, Canada. Couldn't they find anyone with authentic French accents?

There also isn't much replay incentive. There are four chapters in the game, each takes about 90 minutes or so to complete, and it’s one singular experience that’s only playable one way. Even if you want to go back to each chapter and pick up each of the historical items lying around the scenes, there really isn't a reward for collecting them all. Of course, if you’re an Achievement/Trophy fanatic, there are a handful of gamer points to earn if you complete tasks without any mistakes, damage to vehicles, or if you find a certain number of historical items. Other than that, there isn't much to bring you back to the game once you've finished.

My View

Here are the criteria I consider most important for judging Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

Presentation: 9/10

I'm a sucker for the look and style of comic books or graphic novels. Valiant Hearts looks fresh and goes beyond a motion comic.

Gameplay: 8/10

Some of the puzzles feel a bit tedious, but there's enough variety to keep the monotony at a minimum.

Story: 9/10

I grew to care about the characters and their journey, hoping for the best outcome in the end. Plus I enjoyed the plethora of historical facts throughout the game.

Price: 9/10

At $14.99 on Xbox Live, PlayStation Store, and for PC, the experience is worth the price.

Overall: 8.8

In the end, Valiant Hearts: The Great War was an enjoyable experience with a satisfying story. The game doesn't include the years when the United States joined World War I, but at the end of the game there's an opening to include that story for a possible sequel.

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