To me, the adventure game genre too often comes down to needing to pick between the gameplay merits of the experience, and how effective the narrative aspect of the game is. That’s because this genre as a whole has had questionable evolution at best over the years. Puzzle solving too often feels like it comes down to ridiculous logic or pixel hunting, and other moments of interactivity just feel meaningless as a whole.

On the flip side, there is no genre in gaming that offers better plots than the adventure game genre, if just for sheer variety of settings, tones, and concepts depicted in the adventure game space that simply cannot be done in the more action-oriented genres found in AAA gaming. Even their take on war can be more expressive, and less dependent on player violence to get their point across. And it’s exactly that which makes Valiant Hearts: The Great War a special story in this medium.

War games are a dime a dozen in gaming, but few of them actually tackle the more human tragedy of war. Valiant Hearts focuses more on individuals. As the war breaks out, the game opens with Karl, a German citizen living in France with his wife and newborn son, taken away from his family to join the war effort. Likewise, his father-in-law Emile gets enlisted into the French army. Neither are going of their own accord; they are thrown into battle because of events larger than them.

Beyond just Emile and Karl, the game also has Freddie, an American who joins up with the French army to avenge a fallen loved one. You also have the Belgian nurse Anna who moves from battlefield to battlefield helping wounded individuals from both sides of the conflict. There is also a support character: the dog Walt, who is awesome, because dogs are awesome.

These characters separate themselves from other war game characters by being the antithesis of the protagonists in other war games. These aren’t action heroes who respond to the call of duty with a cavalier spirit, and unquestioned bravado. Instead, you see them struggle with the most basic of tasks, managing to survive from one onslaught to the next. You get the sense that like the millions of soldiers that would lose their lives to this war, these characters were in over their heads.

It’s the way the plot is told that might be what makes this feeling most effective. The only moments of dialogue in the game are through narration, and anytime Emile’s daughter is reading a letter he sent. Beyond that, the game uses its beautiful hand drawn art direction to convey its plot.  

The game relies more on facial expressions to give you a character's mindset. These characters will laugh, be afraid, struggle, and grow weary of the conflict of day to day life in World War 1. It’s the attention to detail in not only its characters, but the game's rich backgrounds that shape why this story resonated with me. It’s something you simply couldn’t do with a more realistic look for the game, as the game is often dependent on subtleties to convey its message, as opposed to spelling it out for the player.

It not only demands that the player pay more attention to the look of the game, but it also trusts the player to put two and two together. It trusts that you will empathize with these people, even if you’re only given the basic details of what is going on. That’s not to say these characters are underdeveloped, though. There are in-game diaries you can read that do a great job of fleshing out the cast.

To avoid being one-note and grim all the way through, the game does have moments of excitement and levity. Such instances include chase sequences where you play as Anna behind the wheel of a taxi driving away from enemies. In these instances you need to dodge and weave, avoiding projectiles to the rhythm of the background music.

These songs are rarely anything grim or “exciting” the way you would associate a segment like this in an action game. In contrast they are more upbeat and energetic, and if anything, comical in spots. In fact, little instances with Walt are meant more to be pleasing to the senses than the onslaught of war.

What unfortunately lets the game down for me is the environmental puzzle solving in Valiant Hearts. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather do this than a lot of my interactions with Telltale’s The Walking Dead (2012), as I prefer this to pixel hunting. And some of these puzzles are rather clever takes on basic game ideas that revolve around you throwing objects, cooperating with your sidekick Walt, or navigating mazes.

An area can have you needing to move around civilians, finding children for distraught parents. Once you have saved these children, the parents will help you move a larger object, and then you move forward to a new puzzle. None of this will stump you, but it’ll keep you engaged. Unfortunately a few too many gameplay segments fall into the realm of tedium. Some range from doing a series of chores to moving across a stage, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of Anna’s healing mini-game.

And while it’s not as unsatisfying, nor is it as vexatious as pixel hunting in point and click adventure games, it doesn’t exactly stay compelling on a gameplay level after a while. Too much of it just seems like passive interactions, and the later stages of the game just made me feel like I was going through the motions.

On the other hand the most poignant moments are made all the more powerful because of my interactions with the game. One of them is tied to the ending, but another does a great job of showing you exactly how it didn’t matter which side was losing bodies, as no loss of life is ever truly justified. There is a mid-game moment with Emile where you and another character cooperate to escape a caved-in mine.

A lot of that characters actions/reactions mirror what you do as Emile. It’s effective in its simplicity that the game can convey the idea of “hey, they are just like me” that most war shooters wouldn’t dare to convey. It’s when the game ties its story to what you are playing that makes the moments in Valiant Hearts poignant.

A grueling sequence where you take part in the Nivelle Offensive is made all the more hopeless not only from the imagery of the battle, but your constant fight for survival during this stretch. It’s an example of using what in other cases would be “mind numbing” or “rote” effectively to create a singular powerful moment.

That’s what makes Valiant Heart: The Great War worth playing. Because the endearing characters, touching ending, and beautiful art could certainly get it far. But when the game chooses to convey some powerful sequences through its gameplay, Valiant Hearts becomes a special adventure.

Too often there is a disconnect in the adventure games genre. Even someone like Telltale, whose quality story telling is in conflict with their gameplay, deal with this issue. Valiant Hearts on the flip side is more like Botanicula and Deponia. Where the plot is complimented with meaningful interactivity, albeit still tied to simplistic puzzle solving.

There were other inconsistencies along the way: as I thought things like Baron Von Dorf were odd additions to this games central plot. But, none of this made Valiant Hearts any less admirable. It’s a war story with some heart. It’s a plot that balances wonder with joy, sorrow, glee, and even hopelessness. It’s a war story less about piling on headshots, and more about the mindset of the people who had to experience such hopeless encounters. And for that it deserves respect.

Final Score: 7/10

 

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