A video game that takes World War I as its backdrop is a rare thing in these halcyon days of modern-warfare titles. As such, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, a WWI title that isn’t a first-person shooter, but a linear puzzle-adventure with the visual aesthetic of a 1920s comic strip, is almost an act of insanity simply for existing—and an act of insanity further exacerbated by being tonally schizophrenic.
The game follows the point of view of three soldiers, a Belgian field nurse, and a loyal dog during the height of Germany’s occupation of France during WWI. Each character has unique problems and plot threads, but ultimately the endgame for all of them is trying to reunite with fallen loved ones on both sides of enemy lines. The tales told in each chapter range from the mundane, such as helping a laid-up commanding officer wash his socks since he can’t get away from his desk, to the heroic, such as infiltrating enemy lines in futile death marches across the trenches to rescue one beloved POW. Each storyline is performed with a strange but satisfying mix of linear side-scrolling stealth and puzzle solving, with a few fun breaks in between that will have you occasionally racing away from battle in a French taxi, dodging bombs being dropped to the tune of a can-can dance, or driving a tank through a French street. None of the puzzles are terribly difficult or high examples of puzzle-driven gameplay, but they’re satisfying and, with only a couple of overly obtuse exceptions, fun.
Valiant Hearts does its best work when it’s sticking to its melancholy guns. The running thread through each of its stories is the sheer emotional exhaustion inflicted on the characters throughout the war’s course, and the smaller moments of levity and joy serve to accentuate that exhaustion and the ever-decreasing possibility of our heroes going home. The game makes quick work getting the player invested, but it’s unfortunately even more effective at breaking the mood. Yes, the game is using the same UbiArt engine that powered Rayman Legends, Rayman Origins, and Child of Light, but once the player is presented with the starkest-of-stark wartime realities, there’s a baseline of solemnity the game needs to uphold, and it’s frustratingly inconsistent at doing so. The worst example is possibly Baron Von Dorf, a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash of a villain whose puzzles are the closest the game comes to traditional boss fights, and whose every appearance reminds us that we’re still ultimately interacting with a silly cartoon, oftentimes when the game teeters close to something much more refined and powerful.
Meanwhile, aiming too high is also what sobers Valiant Hearts when at its most lighthearted, where every major event in the story has a “Historical Fact” placed in the options menu, complete with a reproduction of a real photograph from the front lines during WWI. The factoids are often fascinating, but they betray the game’s mirth more often than they provide insight. Fortunately, these are optional. Dealing with the game’s cartoon logic when soldiers just died from exposure to chlorine gas not 30 seconds prior is unavoidable, and it hurts the gaming experience.
Valiant Hearts isn’t necessarily lacking in quality or polish, just that perhaps we’re looking at one game that feels like it wants to be three: a gentle, lilting wartime yarn where the puzzles are more personal and commonsense than the flights of fancy that Valiant Hearts is currently prone to; a quirky, inventive adventure across the countryside, where Ubisoft Montpellier’s imaginations can run a little wilder; and a grim story of the real war and the people who died fighting it. If the game was content being one of those first two, and leaving the third to Infinity Ward or Treyarch, we’d have a richer, more cohesive experience that might mean a step forward for exploring wartime in this medium in more than just the language of bullets and bombs. And yet, even in its current state, you still have a game that aims to be more than just a jingoistic, us-versus-them shooter, and Valiant Hearts comes off as a blessed gasp of fresh air as a result.