The first World War might lack the good-versus-evil narrative of its successor, but it was so brutal and complex that it's a wonder more games haven't dealt with it. It only makes sense that a narrative-driven game like Valiant Hearts: The Great War would attempt to plumb the moral grays of the conflict. Though it has suffers tonal inconsistency and dips into video game cliche, I found the story more than enough to pull me through.
The Serious and the Silly
Valiant Hearts follows the struggles of four interconnected characters involved in The Great War in various ways. Emile and Karl are the two most closely related, an old man and his son-in-law who find themselves on opposite sides of the war. They meet and befriend Anna, a war nurse, and Freddie, a vengeance-seeking American. A German war dog accompanies all of them at different points. By showing so many different characters with their own motivations, it does an admirable job exploring how the nature of war is rarely black-and-white.
The four characters weave together a compelling portrait of the war, but their individual stories didn't often grab me as much as the larger whole. I wasn't particularly taken by the specific struggles of Emile's family or Freddie's revenge. The stories are full of heartbreak and catharsis, losses and reunions, deaths and near-death experiences. These moments were often a little too overwrought and melodramatic for me to care about them on an individual level. As a patchwork quilt in a story about the Great War on the whole, though, it works much better than its component parts.
It is also, unfortunately, filled with moments that are outright goofy. The comic style is a nice counterpoint to the serious subject matter, but it also makes for slapstick gags. The chief antagonist of Freddie's story, Baron Von Dorf, is a silly clown. Moments of levity are well and good to balance this dire subject matter, but something felt distinctly off about constantly switching between the serious and the silly.
Artistry and Music
Most of the time, though, the art style serves its story well. The 2D art is well animated and expressive, and usually the minimalist presentation works well. It can be occasionally difficult to understand instructions, since characters speak in visualized cartoons instead of words. More often, the lack of a user interface shines, since it gives the art such a nice showcase.
This is also the rare game that so perfectly uses its music. Thanks in part to the time period, the arrangements mix together classical music and the game seems to sense when to hit just the right chord for emotional weight or the excitement of battle.
The journey through this story is less exciting. Valiant Hearts is, at its core, a fairly simple puzzle game. The puzzles aren't particularly difficult, but they are plentiful and feel repetitive by the end. Rarely do they inform the narrative with any kind of emotional weight.
I found a handful of them were smartly designed in such a way that it served as metaphor or accented the point of a story beat, but more often they felt like simple time-wasting obstacles blocking story progression. Of course it needed a mechanical underpinning to be a video game, but this approach could have been much more interesting if it hadn't felt so separated from the narrative strengths.
Those strengths were certainly enough to pull me through, though. Valiant Hearts may get repetitive at times, and struggles to find its tone, but I'd be hard-pressed to name a game that better explores the complexities of war. In the end, we're reminded that lives are valuable regardless of their banner. It's rare to see a video game explore conflict with such nuance, and this one deserves commendation for that.
Final Score: 7 out of 10.
This review is based on a digital Xbox One copy provided by the publisher. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available now for PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One for $14.99. The game is rated T.