Valiant Hearts: The Great War

I can’t resist these little games with 2D side-scrolling cartoon art. My wife certainly agrees that this is one of the most appealing looking games she’s seen in a while. Naturally I’d also heard that it manages to tell a moving story about the First World War and I’m always interested in games which try to tell decent stories in a new format.

As it turned out, the game doesn’t really have a terribly innovative format. It’s basically a side-scrolling game with some very light puzzle and combat elements. There’s no shooting involved here but there are scenes in which you have to toss grenades and avoid enemy fire. In between, you push / pull scenery elements, pull levers, and bring the right objects to the right people. Standard stuff really. The only really cool thing is that on many stages, you have a cute dog accompanying you and you can order the dog to go places that are inaccessible to you and thereby solve puzzles that way.

As for the story, I was skeptical at first. Using a dog to win the player’s affection seems like such an easy and cheap trick, you know. But I have to admit that it works and the game gradually wins you over. I don’t think that the game is emotionally moving, exactly. The characters and especially the villain are too cartoonish for that. What it does do is paint a reasonably complete portrait of the First World War from a ground-level view and including such events that I didn’t know about, such as the story behind the taxis of the Marne. Combined with the notes about historical facts that are illustrated with real photographs, it really brings home the horrors of the war.

The game achieves this by having the story built around a family in which the husband is German and the wife is French. The husband, Karl, is kicked out of France and is conscripted in Germany. The wife’s father, Emile, too is conscripted on the French side. Emile befriends an American Freddie who has volunteered to fight out of his desire to enact vengeance against the German leader Baron Von Dorf. There’s also a French nurse Anna and the German dog Walt. This allows them to cover an impressive number of topics: chemical weapons, prisoner of war camps, famous battles, the first appearance of tanks and so on.

The gameplay is generally pretty easy, with the biggest difficulty often being knowing what you’re trying to do in a particular scene. If you really get stuck, there’s an in-game hint system that lays out everything for you. Most of the action sequences are pretty easy as well and in any case even if you fail you lose very little progress. One thing I didn’t like was the rhythm-based mini-game that is used to represent Anna attempting to heal patients. I played this using a keyboard however and I only realized much later that the game was probably designed to work with a controller.

Overall this probably isn’t a game that will knock your socks off, but I found it to be a very pleasing, very well put together game. I especially appreciated the 2D art and all of the thought that must have gone into the characters and the animations. My favorite scene must be the rendition of the streets of besieged Paris with all manner of people due to all of the detail. All that plus it’s really kind of educational as well!

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