Valiant Hearts: The Great War treads surely and lightly through the grimmest of places. It sends you digging into the trenches of World War 1, but knows that leaving you to wallow in the mud and blood forever does not grant it emotional maturity. For every dour moment in Valiant Hearts, for every uphill struggle, there is a moment of warmth, of return, and reunion between old friends.
Gallery: Valiant Hearts: The Great War | 13 Photos
This lilting story, "freely inspired" by the events of World War 1, begins in 1914 just as Germany hollers in Russia's direction. Karl, a German civilian living in France, is torn out of the country, far away from his wife and young son. Soon after, his stout father-in-law, Emile, is marched into the French army. Emile's training with bayonet in hand is presented as a hastened vignette, rushing him from the barracks to the front line in a few screens – and getting your tutorial over with.
You play as both Emile and Karl on either side of the ugly war, as well as Anna, a Belgian-born nurse stationed in Paris, and Freddie, an American who enlists with a personal vengeance at heart. Over the course of several years, these regulars meet, separate, survive bombshells of all sorts and perhaps meet again. For you, this means collecting relevant objects, using them to solve a variety of mechanical puzzles (some clichéd) and becoming hopelessly attached to one more important companion: a loyal Doberman Pinscher that will happily fetch whatever you can't. It's Adventure Game Lite, with communication reduced to a powerful minimum of illustrated word bubbles and spoken gibberish.
The cartoonish approach should soften the blows of war, what with the entire game taking to World War 1 with inky outlines and the sunset colorings of a graphic novel. And yet there is something inescapably heartfelt here, even with the eyes of all but the dog obscured by hairs and hats. Only in the curve of their lips can you sense what these characters are feeling, and even then you imagine and empathize more than if they were realistic, perfectly motion-captured dolls.
Valiant Hearts doesn't simply use comic portraits as a stylistic crutch. There are smart details in the art that connect to the story, sometimes in a simple foreground photo that tells you something about Anna's only family, and other times in a cutaway panel filled with peril – Freddie screaming for Emile to save him and quickly. Valiant Hearts won't always let you pass through its puzzles at a tranquil pace, and death can happen in an instant.
It's not the horrible, lingering sort of death we're used to in war games. In fact, Emile, who briefly serves as chef in a hole of a kitchen, knocks people out with a big spoon. Freddie's grenades are used to blow up obstacles more than people. Anna triggers a rhythm minigame as she amputates a leg, as if the visual heartbeat and button prompts are meant to draw your eyes away from her upsetting work. She also drives a taxi through the lively streets of Paris, dodging barrels as they fall to Jacques Offenbach's "The Infernal Galop" (you might know it better as accompaniment to the can-can). You battle the evil Baron von Dorf in a bombed chapel in Reims, pitting his blimp against the blasts from frayed organ pipes. The moments of inspired levity and creative action give Valiant Hearts a charm it would have lost, had it only dealt in doom and gloom.
But be warned: When Valiant Hearts decides to remove the pleasant varnish, it sends you wading through choking trenches, mangled bodies and deadly machine gun nests. These moments of tension still rely on well-timed movements and puzzles, but there's a worrying outcome to them. Emile digs his own trenches around and under shells, Karl hides from burning spotlights in a breathtaking escape, and Anna must find survivors in a town cloaked in chlorine gas. For a change, there is so much war and so little shooting.
By the time you perform one of the game's final acts, a moment so brilliantly orchestrated as to be instinctual, you might wonder what it is you've learned in this sometimes sanitized, sometimes upsetting war. There's not really a preaching, obvious message. There is no obsession with the grim minutiae of killing. Valiant Hearts is a war game that recalls, in memories both cheerful and sad, that there is a person first, then a soldier, and then - if you're lucky – a hero.
This review is based on a pre-release PC download of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, provided by Ubisoft. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. Images: Ubisoft.
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