War is profitable for the video game industry. The Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises earn hundreds of millions in sales each year, inspiring other developers to attempt to replicate the success of these cash cows with their own “realistic” warfare games. Many of these titles, however, do not justify the commercial success they’ve garnered. True, they boast competent mechanics and impressive graphics, but the majority fail in their narratives, which are more and more becoming an afterthought. Studios aren’t interested in examining the harsher realities of international conflict, the grievances that drive people to take up arms against another nation, the trauma endured by soldiers stuck in brutal conditions or the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. All too often these games are just 80s action movies with a first-person presentation; chains of hyper-aggressive shootouts against endless swarms of enemies with a flimsy connecting plot that paints the battle as one between clearly defined good and evil forces, with some occasional jingoistic or xenophobic undercurrents. I can only think of three games from the last console generation that actually looked at the pain of war rather than glorifying it: Valkyria Chronicles, Spec Ops: The Line, and the first Modern Warfare. Ubisoft Montpellier is the latest studio to approach the subject in a mature, serious manner with Valiant Hearts: The Great War, available for download on Playstation Network, Xbox Live Arcade and PC. It’s a game which not only focuses on a period few other titles touch, but conveys the horror, heartache and hope of that time in a way few other titles could.

 

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist seeking regional independence for the southern Slavic territories of Austria-Hungary. Following the murder, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia, adamant about retaining their influence in the Balkan states, mobilized its military to support Serbia. German forces standing with the Austro-Hungarian Empire issued their own declaration of war against Russia in response, then began a campaign to occupy western nations that would provide logistic advantages. As major powers like France and Great Britain were drawn into the conflict through diplomatic alliances, the nations of Europe set the stage for years of carnage and bloodshed. Millions of lives were torn apart, while millions of bonds were forged on the frontlines. Four individuals would be brought together in the wake of the chaos – Emile, a farmer from Lorraine called into service after the French government joined in the battle; his son-in-law Karl, forcibly deported from France due to his German heritage only to be drafted by his homeland’s army; Freddie, an American expatriate who joined the French Foreign Legion for revenge against the Germans after an aerial raid on Paris killed his wife; and Anna, a Belgian medic seeking the whereabouts of her father while offering aid to wounded soldiers. Paths connected by fate, the strength and sanity of this quartet will be pushed to their limits as they fight for survival in the “war to end all wars.”

 

Only a small number of games have been set during the First World War, most of them being nothing more than standard flying simulators showcasing epic dogfights or fairly generic first person shooters. When development began on Valiant Hearts, lead designer Simon Chocquet-Bottani and his team wanted to approach the war from a new perspective. One of the greatest deviations from the majority of military-themed games is the absence of black-and-white morality. Neither the Allied or Central powers are portrayed as completely monstrous or as a noble force defending everything that is good in the world; instead we see that both factions are capable of committing heinous acts for the sake of victory. Player characters aren’t invulnerable killing machines powered by patriotism, but ordinary people drawn into the war by forces beyond their control. We see how combat affects them first hand: their disgust at the brutality seen on a daily basis, living with a constant fear that they will die on the front line, holding out hope that they will survive to see the end of the battle so they can return to their old lives and loved ones. It brings a sense of realism that most other military games marketed as “realistic” never come close to achieving.

 

Aside from occasional expository narration, there’s no spoken dialogue. Instead, the game relies on its locations and non-verbal interactions to convey the intended emotional sensations, and it succeeds. Joyful and somber moments are effectively balanced by shifting between the perspectives of each central character as necessary. During the introduction we watch as Karl is forced by the gendarmes to leave France while his wife Marie, infant son Victor and father-in-law Emile can only tearfully look on as he departs. There are no words, but their faces tell us that this is but the first of many sorrowful stories we’ll bear witness to. When Emile is drafted into the 150th Infantry Regiment the tone is romanticized; the soldiers are so confident they’ll triumph in their first battle against the Germans that they merrily drink and cavort. Once on the field, however, the unit is all but wiped out by an endless rain of bullets and mortars. While I’m not a history expert, I would imagine this reflects the general attitude of the nations involved in the First World War – assured victory would come swiftly as their enemies fell before them, only to watch the casualties mount and hard-fought achievements undone in a bloodbath that would seemingly never end. Admittedly there are a few clichés that have their emotional impact diminished due to overuse, most notably cliffhangers which suggest a character was killed only to have them show up alive and well later, or are simply predictable because it was the simplest way to achieve dramatic irony, as seen when it transpires that Karl was present at the Battle of the Marne where his father-in-law was taken prisoner.

 

Another quality that makes Valiant Hearts so rare among military-themed games is how it doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war that both soldiers and civilians are subjected to. Battlefields are littered with mounds of corpses, medics carrying off the dying in droves. Families grieve in the aftermath of a bombing, mourning their loved ones who were crushed under rubble or succumbed to the smoke. Chapter segments are introduced with a brusque declaration of the atrocities currently taking place – such as the first use of chemical weapons, German forces using innocents from the territories they’ve claimed as human shields, average casualty rates – accompanied by a still image or brief animation. Without context this narration would be nothing more than a bridge between sections of gameplay, instead it reinforces the weight and severity of the actions on screen. Even lighthearted moments like a victory party being thrown by the brass of the French military to celebrate another victory are tainted when we see the weary countenance of the soldiers under their command, knowing that it’s just a temporary reprieve before they risk their lives once again.

 

For all the death and destruction, the display of humanity at its most brutal, there is still a sense of hope. The protagonists aren’t killers; they’re ordinary people sickened by the suffering around them and desperate for the war to end. Until that day comes, though, they’re willing to fight death rather than cause more. When Emile and a German officer work together to free themselves from the Vaquois mines without ever considering the other an enemy, when Anna heals a wounded soldier or at the very least makes their final moments peaceful, when Karl receives letters telling him about his son, we see the best of the human spirit even in the most hellish situations. It’s truly inspiring. I desperately wanted each of the characters to survive to the end simply because they deserved peace and happiness after all they endured.

 

A strong adherence to historical authenticity further imbues the game with a more grounded human quality. The development team was diligent in researching the time period, compiling information from personal accounts of those who lived through the war. Letters sent between soldiers and the loved ones they left behind, some of which were never delivered, directly inspired the diary entries kept by the main characters as well as the missives you can find in each location. Each letter is a short portrayal of the person who wrote it, revealing the naiveté of troops who felt the war would be over quickly, the longing to return to their simple lives, friendships forged with soldiers from other nations, and the fear that they may not live to see another day. As you progress through the story and obtain collectibles, historical facts relevant to the events around you become available in your journal. These range from descriptions of the new weapons and technologies being developed and the harsh conditions soldiers endured to topics that are more frequently overshadowed, like the role colonial forces from Canada, Tunisia and India played while fighting for the Allied powers. This is one of the most effective forms of tangential learning since additional information is never forced onto the player. Reading up on the true nature of the war is optional, but the compelling gameplay drives you to educate yourself so you have a firm grasp on the events of the game.

 

Valiant Hearts has an ensemble cast of four to present the war from different perspectives, but the game focuses on Emile’s exploits most frequently. While this does result in uneven character development for the others, I can understand why Emile got the most attention. He’s one of the most atypical protagonists in a military game – a middle-aged farmer and staunch pacifist. Emile is forced to fight by his government, thrown about from the front lines to prison camps as the battle rages on. It’s clear he views the endless killing as a repulsive waste of life that will achieve nothing, which is why he never carries a gun. He understands that the French forces can be just as cowardly and monstrous as they portray their enemies to be, disgusted when his regiment bombs an underground German base, killing everyone including a soldier that had previously assisted Emile. The longer Emile endures, the more pain he sees inflicted on his family and comrades in the field, until it pushes him to the breaking point. He is the embodiment of war and violence corrupting the good in humanity, a tragic fate he did not deserve.

 

As compelling and moving as Emile’s tale is, the remaining characters regretfully aren’t as thoroughly fleshed out. Freddie is driven by vengeance, determined to kill the German officer responsible for his wife’s death. This need for retribution is emphasized by making him the only character whose default actions are punching down obstacles and expertise in demolitions, destructive actions which channel his fury. Yet after he confronts the murderous Baron responsible for his loss, his character arc is essentially over and the remaining sections he’s in don’t add any new personal drama. Anna suffers the same fate. Like Freddie she has a personal motivation for taking an active role in the war when her hometown of Ypres is bombed and her father, a prominent scientist, is kidnapped by German forces who want to exploit his genius for their advantage. Again, once she manages to free her father, there’s no further development. Thankfully Anna does receive a stronger backstory in a chapter segment where it’s shown that she intended to pursue a career as a veterinarian until she saw the casualties on the battlefield, convincing her to use her medical knowledge to heal wounded soldiers. A similar section could have benefitted Freddie. If we had been able to control Freddie as he and his wife tried to escape the bombers rather than simply seeing still images of the attack and its aftermath, we could empathize with him more.

 

Karl’s story arc suffers the most from wasted potential. A German-born citizen of France, he was forced to return to his homeland, leaving his wife and child behind, and drafted into the German military. Karl could have been burdened with a massive internal conflict concerning which nation he shows loyalty to. Would he seek revenge against the French for exiling him, or try to sabotage his country’s military efforts? What if both sides viewed him with distrust, uncertain where his allegiances lie? So many intriguing possibilities are never addressed. Karl’s only objective is to get away from the war and back to his family. It’s a drive players can understand, and one that’s bolstered when he receives letters from Marie about how she and Victor are faring. But it isn’t enough when compared to the missed opportunities. Thankfully he fares better than the other prominent German in the game, Baron von Dorf. The Baron is the only antagonistic figure with a name and face, and the only character who could be considered truly evil rather than having any depth. He’s responsible for kidnapping Anna’s father and the attacks that killed Freddie’s wife. Despite this vile reputation, he only appears briefly in cutscenes and for a few boss fights. After his defeat halfway through the game, he’s anticlimactically removed from the front lines and never heard from again. It made no sense to build the Baron up as a menacing figure who had direct involvement in making the protagonists suffer if he was never going to be used for anything significant.

 

As mentioned earlier, none of the characters take up arms against others. The team at Ubisoft Montpellier felt that if players could kill, it would sever the bond between them and the protagonists as well as conflict with their intended message. So rather than becoming another fast-paced shooter, Valiant Hearts is instead a side-scrolling adventure game. Much of the gameplay involves locating a specific object necessary to complete a task or move to the next link in a chain of events (obtaining every part of a superior officer’s uniform, bringing water to an injured soldier, finding dynamite and a detonator to break through rubble, etc.) You’re only allowed to carry one object with you at any given time which is swapped with whatever new object you pick up, so tracking down all the items you need can involve repeatedly going back and forth between some areas, but since the levels are all fairly small it never becomes a chore. The majority of the puzzles fit into the environments organically, suited to the time period and current situation rather than simply being arbitrary tests of abstract logic. Pipe puzzles are encountered twice, once to destroy a pump producing chlorine gas and once to reroute the water to showers in a P.O.W. camp. Near the end of the game you need to navigate through a barn filling with chlorine gas, the fumes obscuring everything around you except for a small circle of vision provided by a gas mask, requiring you to remember where platforms and objects are located. The control system is simple and intuitive. Most of your actions are executed with a button press while mechanical actions like turning valves, pressing down on dynamite plungers, and aiming projectiles are performed by using the left analog stick to replicate the movements displayed on screen.

 

Each character has their own unique abilities based on their personalities. Emile carries a shovel to tunnels through loose terrain, allowing him and his fellow soldiers to escape from dangerous situations. Freddie’s anger displays itself through a powerful punch that can break down small obstacles and knock out enemy troops with one punch. Anna’s medical treatments are accompanied by a mini-game where she heals injuries requiring timed button prompts displayed on a scrolling ECG graph, a rhythm game appropriately based on heart rhythm. Karl is again shortchanged as he only has two opportunities to show his specialty in disguise, while the rest of his missions rely on standard stealth mechanics.

 

Incredibly, the most versatile character in the game isn’t even human. The development team drew from records detailing how dogs were used for various purposes in the war, including guard duty, message delivery, and simply brightening the spirits of the troops, to create the Doberman Pincher Walt. This canine companion is used to accomplish a number of tasks that would be impossible for any of the main four cast members. Walt can carry out simple commands like pushing levers or retrieving items, hold an additional item in its mouth to cut down on backtracking, distract enemies, move through holes in walls and trenches to perform an action in the background or on a platform you can’t reach, even crawl under deadly smoke. His loyalty in following your orders, and the affection you can show Walt when near him, create an incredibly strong bond that puts the barely existent relationship between the Ghosts and Riley the German Shepard from Call of Duty: Ghosts to shame.

 

Since the player characters are prohibited from killing others, and they die after only one hit, the action sequences are based around survival. Dodging enemy fire, freeing yourself and others from burning buildings before the smoke overtakes you, and using a mortar cannon to destroy tanks that are prepared to wipe out your allies are just a few of the trials you’ll endure as you fight to stay alive. They aren’t incredibly challenging, but they require quick reaction times and accuracy, which can be difficult to pull off in some of the more demanding situations. I found this out in a section where I had to toss grenades through the wreckage of a building, angling them so they bounced off walls and landed on a tank during the moments when its hatches were open, to destroy it before it broke down the barricade my teammates had taken refuge behind. The auto-scrolling segments are some of the most engaging, as you constantly run or drive while dodging gunfire, shells, and land mines. They’re short and simple, but they create tension incredibly well.

 

There were a few parts that seemed out of place as they conflicted with the game’s intended message. After Freddie commandeers a German tank, he has two scenes where he uses it to blow away entrenched enemies and incoming biplanes. The player characters have been deprived of guns for the entire game, yet now one of them is piloting a machine built for mass destruction. It seems like it was added simply because the developers felt they needed more traditional action for greater appeal, as do the four boss fights against Baron von Dorf. Thankfully the first three encounters do require some strategy; the aforementioned battle where you bank grenades into his tank, and two fights where you destroy his zeppelin by using the Baron’s own explosives against him. After these, it’s a disappointment to find the final battle is nothing more than a fistfight driven by quick-time events.

 

Valiant Hearts honors not only to the military history of the region, but also its artistic history. The visual style was heavily inspired by the style atome popularized by André Franquin and Jijé, displaying stylized character models, a wide color palette, strong contrasts between light and shadow, and fluid movement animation. Much like a comic book characters speak using pictogram word balloons, while important events occurring in the background or off-screen are depicted in panels. Art director Paul Tumelaire also added several personal touches to give the game a truly original aesthetic. While much of the architecture and technology is designed to be as accurate to the 1910s as possible, certain vehicles like tanks and zeppelins show elements of dieselpunk, behemoths made of dingy metal bellowing massive clouds of smoke. Whenever you take control of Walt, the screen transitions to grayscale to represent the world from a dog’s perspective (which is inaccurate, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief because of how well it works). Almost every character has his or her eyes covered by either hair, headgear, or thick glasses. If this has a symbolic interpretation, I assume it represents how so many of the participants in the war are willingly blinding themselves. Generals refuse to see the waste of life because they’re obsessed with victory, while our heroes want to block out the horrific visions encountered on the battlefield to retain hope in humanity. The only issue I had with the art was how some African soldiers were depicted. Freddie and troops from Africa were given a gray skin tone, but some were given large noses and lips which evoke old racially-insensitive caricatures. I doubt it was intentional, but it’s still uncomfortable to see.

Sound design shows further adherence to historic authenticity. Audio director Yoan Fanise brought several items from the period to record the noises they made in the studio, like the sound of a grenade hitting stone or barbed wire being cut, and actual recordings of firefights and explosions from the war. They even visited the sites of major battles like Verdun and the Somme River to capture the ambient sounds native to those areas. The original soundtrack evokes the popular music styles of the time: music hall, folk, jazz and orchestral, which adapt to best suit the current tone. A massive assault is accompanied by an epic symphony, while soft piano and violins create a melancholy atmosphere as you survey the remains of a city that was bombed. Several classical pieces including Hungarian Concerto #5, Flight of the Bumblebee and The Infernal Canon were integrated into the automatic driving sections, shots and explosions occurring in synchrony with the chords to create a truly intense experience.

 

Valiant Hearts is the very antithesis of the generic, mindless, testosterone-laden military games that dominate the market. The team at Ubisoft Montpellier put their hearts into this title because they respected those who fought and died in the First World War, and they wanted their audience to understand that reverence. While it can be completed in less than six hours, it perfectly explores themes and concepts that triple-A titles with dozens of hours of playtime still have difficulty grasping: gray morality, a poignant, thought-provoking storyline, and appealing gameplay that isn’t based on killing everything you see. There’s no denying it has some flaws that keep it from being greater, but it’s still by far one of the best downloadable games of 2014. I suggest buying it if you’re interested in the history of World War I, enjoy puzzles, or are simply looking for a game that knows how to be truly mature without wallowing in sex and violence.

 

O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.

-          John Stanhope Arkwright

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