There are, as I hope to demonstrate here, many reasons to give Valiant Hearts: The Great War a try, but one of them is undoubtedly the fact that it’s currently free for PS+ members in March, and to be honest, you can’t really argue with free. That being said though, and perhaps in testament to just how good it really is, that’s possibly not even the most compelling reason to play Valiant Hearts.
Make no mistake, this is an absolute gem of a game, and there are many, many reasons to love it. It’s highly original, visually stunning, hugely addictive, often genuinely poignant, and quite impressively, it achieves all of that and manages to be pretty educational too. Yeah, you read that right – educational.
And, even more impressively, Valiant Hearts made me actually want to learn even more stuff! I’ll come to the specifics of that in a bit, but for now, suffice it to say that any game that manages to silence the little Homer Simpson in me (“How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain“) has already played a blinder.
Anyways, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, as you may’ve guessed from the title, is set during the First World War, and focuses on the experiences of a few different characters whose lives and fates intersect and overlap at certain points, and in fairly interesting ways.
Right off the bat, this device is used to great effect, as two of our main characters (from the same family) find themselves on different sides of the war. Almost immediately, this tells us that Valiant Hearts is resisting the age-old, black and white, Goodie vs Baddie narrative in favour of something altogether more subtle, and it’s an approach that Ubisoft Montpellier pull-off admirably throughout the entire game. Oftentimes the greatest threat isn’t the enemy, but rather the decisions of your superiors, and Valiant Hearts doesn’t shy away from highlighting that either.
Indeed, the general consensus nowadays is that The “Great” War was, essentially, millions of ordinary people dying needlessly for other, more powerful people’s squabbles, and it’s a motif that Valiant Hearts deals with expertly. With one possible exception, this isn’t a story of square-jawed heroes patriotically gunning down Johnny Foreigner for shits and giggles, but rather a more realistic (and ultimately tragic) one of average people caught-up in events beyond their control. The differing perspectives, either during the actual gameplay, or through the use of ‘letters from home’ type devices, offer a much more rounded and enlightening sense of war’s impact, and one that goes far beyond the scope of most war themed games I’ve played. This is augmented by the game’s collectibles, which offer yet more glimpses of life in wartime, as well as genuinely informative historical snapshots.
This is the educational bit I referred to earlier, but it’s worth pointing out that, as opposed to other games where collectibles are just something to be ticked off a list, in Valiant Hearts I really, really wanted to find them because I actually found them interesting, or emotionally resonant, or both. I’ve actually read quite a bit about The First World War, so the fact that there was still stuff I wasn’t aware of was both impressive, and ultimately very rewarding.
In terms of gameplay, Valiant Hearts is very much a puzzle-solving game, and, despite its setting, it often eschews the use of weaponry altogether. Again, this is unusual, but actually works rather well, particularly within the context of the game’s narrative. Rather than focusing on shooting, or indiscriminately killing the enemy, Valiant Hearts instead has you trying to survive a conflict using your brain. And I say survive because, much like the First World War itself, there’s a sense of futility and hopelessness about the situations you find yourself in, and I found that I too felt no desire to join in with the senseless violence.
That’s an important point, and can’t really be emphasised enough. I like FPSing as much as the next guy, but given this was a real conflict, and a hugely tragic period in our history, it was genuinely commendable that I was both aware and respectful of that within a game. Although it might seem trite, or even unrealistic, that the emphasis in a game about War is placed on helping other people (rather than killing them), the game is made in such a way as to make you really want to do just that. At no point was I itching to get my hands on a big gun, and although there are times when you are on the ‘offensive’, I never really looked forward to these sections. In fact (and without wanting to give too much away), the few times that you do get a “confirmed kill”, it’s usually the lesser of two evils, and done to save lives, rather than for the thrill of taking one.
If I was being overly harsh on the gameplay, I’d maybe point out that the puzzles (and solutions) don’t really vary a great deal – and there’s a lot of going backwards and forwards in a particular scenario to get x, y and z in a particular order. However, going back to the narrative element once more, I felt that I didn’t mind so much because that sense of repetition was easily overridden by my desire to move the story on. It’s a cliché, I know, but I’d come to genuinely care about the characters, “helping” them, and finding out what would happen next.
Which brings me to the actual production of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which is truly, truly excellent. Yes, it’s cartoon-ey, and yes, it’s about a million miles away from the photo-realism of, say, The Order, but don’t let that fool you, because Valiant Hearts is exceptionally well-made. In a way, the comic-ey/cartoon-ey element of Valiant Hearts is not a weakness at all, but one of its greatest strengths. The juxtaposition between the horrors of some of the photos, letters, diary entries etc., and the relative ‘brightness’ of the gameplay is important. Whilst it would be easy for them both to undermine each other, in Valiant Hearts, the contrast actually manages to mutually emphasise and reinforce both elements – and it’s a brilliant and powerful little technique.
Elsewhere, the joining of the different narrative strands is also done brilliantly – and in a way that could teach any number of Triple-A games a thing or two. The use of Voice-over to set events in historical and geographical context is superb, as is cutscene animation. Often in games, I feel that scenarios are overly contrived for our hero to be in such a place, at such a time, but it often feels like Valiant Hearts takes the opposite approach; essentially, using the characters to highlight real events and the broader themes of the First World War. There’s a real danger that the game could’ve become too “preachy” choosing this approach, but at no point did I ever feel they’d crossed that line.
The general narrative pacing is also excellent, and it all culminates superlatively in the game’s final moments. Avoiding spoilers, I’d be very, very surprised if the last few minutes of the game don’t give you a lump in the throat, knot in your stomach, or ‘something in your eye’ (for the record, I had all three – and I totally don’t mind admitting that). And, not for nothing, the game had also succeeded in making an important point, and in making me think, and objectively – that makes it a great gaming experience.
And, in essence, this is objectively a great gaming experience. We all know how games (and gamers) are tarnished by all manner of accusations and innuendo, and Valiant Hearts is a great, almost indisputable refutation of many of those very accusations. It will make you think, it will very likely teach you stuff, and, in the end, rather than encouraging violence, it will make you question it, and the limits of what it can achieve. This is a game, sure, but it’s also a documentary, a historical record, and a valuable contribution to a much greater debate about warfare, the value of human life, and how, ultimately, we choose to treat each other. If you just want to shoot people in the face, give Valiant Hearts: The Great War a miss, but, if you want to experience what games can do, or be, beyond that, then definitely, definitely give it a try.