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Ubisoft took on a huge responsibility when deciding to set this new game in the era of the First World War. On one hand, a game is meant to be entertaining, and entertainment is a very dangerous mine field when dealing with actual history—and possible the men and women who previously lived it. I’ll never forget playing Medal of Honor: Allied Assault with my Grandfather, who watched me gleefully play through the attack on Normandy Beach, only to say, “Why would they make a game out of this?”
Real men with real lives died in very real, often unspeakable ways, and it takes a very skilled and respectful hand to give a voice to that era in the form of modern entertainment. Luckily, by teaming up with Mission Centenaire and Apocalypse: World War I, the depth and severity of the real world takes a front seat to the entertaining puzzles and side-scrolling action of the game. As you explore the stunningly animated, comic-esque representations of the German-French front, you will uncover fragments of real history, teaching you about WWI in relevance to exactly where you are in the game at that moment.
Perhaps the reason WWI is not widely represented in modern war games is because it lacks easily determined lines of good and evil. Unlike Hitler and the Nazi regime in WWII, WWI was more a battle of revenge that became a battle of attrition. Yes, Germany had to be stopped from overtaking all of Western Europe, but it was Russian miltants that fired the shot that killed Archduke Ferdinand and let loose the dogs of war.
First-person shooters, while appealing to a wide audience, begin to lack appeal when you find yourself unable to really relate to the side you are fighting for—a great example being Halo 2, and the rest of Master Chief’s campaign against the Covenant, after the rise of the Arbiter as a playable character. However, to paint the French as the sole heroes, or the Germans as the sole enemies would be a failure in world history. So, how do you approach such a largely recognized, real gray area?
Valiant Hearts manages to paint compassion on both sides through its absolutely heart-gripping narrative. Karl, a young German married to, and father of a child by a French woman, Marie, has been exiled from St. Mihiele after Germany declares war. Not long after, Karl is conscripted into the German forces against France, and Marie’s father, Emile, has been drafted into the French army as well. Both men long for the day they can return home to their family—a family who harbors no bad blood towards the other’s home country—and have no idea they will soon have bayonets poised in each other’s direction.
Meanwhile Anna, a Belgian girl away from her hometown of Ypres (which, I learned courtesy of the game is pronounced “Eep”) to learn to become a vet, discovers the German forces and their leader, Baron Von Dorf, have kidnapped her father, a well-known scientist. In her effort to retrieve him, she must cross both German and French lines, helping as best she can as a neutral nurse along the way.
These are only three of the five major characters Valiant Hearts offers, but in all of their cases you will find instances where each must help both French and German soldiers who find themselves in harm’s way. Anna will find it in her heart to heal the wounded regardless of uniform, Emile will make friends on both fronts who will save his life in return for him saving theirs and Karl will do anything it takes to get back home to Marie and his ailing son.
But, you might ask, is it actually possible to portray a war—let alone a real war—without any semblance of violence? To be fair, it may be, but that doesn’t mean that Valiant Hearts avoids violence at all costs.
Freddie, another of our heroes is an American living in Paris at the time of Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. While he may have his own motives, which you’ll discover as you play, he agrees willingly to join the French forces against the Germans. Not long after he meets Emile, and the two become steadfast friends and allies in a world torn apart.
Serving as what may be a commentary on the current state of America in world affairs, or perhaps entirely unintentional, Ubisoft seems to have chosen Freddie’s segments as those featuring the most, if any, cartoonish violence. Bullet-Bill size bombs and missiles fly through the air from tanks and cannons shooting down soldiers and planes in huge clouds of dust. Occasionally other characters will have to use weapons to achieve a goal, but it is usually either to clear a debris-blocked path, or to free Freddie from some kind of attempted capture.
Beyond all of this, however, it is important to remember that a game is still a game, and if it doesn’t play well, or fails to entertain, it will ultimately fail. Luckily, Valiant Hearts offers ingenious puzzles, a stunning soundtrack and innovative controls with a heart-warming twist.