"Although I cannot write these words, and the time has come to part, your stories will always remain... as will your Valiant Hearts."
This is the last line of Valiant Hearts' E3 trailer, and the accuracy of these words is uncanny. I've written and re-written this review countless times, unable to find the right words to describe it. Emotional? Yes. Heart-wrenching? At times, unbearably so. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a fantastic tale grounded deep in actual and awful history, history the game has no problem sharing with you as you play. Is it a fantastic game? That's where my problem lies.
The main selling point of Valiant Hearts is undeniably its narrative, but Ubisoft Montpelier seems so focused on telling you its story that it forgot some of the key elements of being a game. Most of the actions you perform in each chapter center around finding an item, then using that item in the environment to solve puzzles in order to progress. Even when the puzzles do involve some form of combat, like fighting a tank about halfway through, it's more of a "throw the grenade into the weak point" mini-game than a true battle. I don't think I fired a single rifle shot my playthrough, and while I know it's not that type of war game, I still expected at least one bullet to come from my character's gun.
Because of this, crucial moments in the story don't have the impact they would if I had more complete control of the game. Whenever I prompt Anna the medic to save a soldier's life, her success depends on a button-tapping mini-game. Car chase scenes consist of me wildly driving from side to side avoiding bombs and other obstacles coming at me to the rhythm of famous classical music.
There are some cool moments, like when you have to lead one of the characters through his escape of a P.O.W. camp, moving only in complete darkness and staying hidden when a flare shoots up in the background. Also, Walt the dog medic might be the the most helpful dog in all of gaming; commanding him is simple and he always does as he's told. Valiant Hearts does sport some really unique and fun situations to play, but most of the gameplay had me wanting to just get through to the next story beat.
After all of that the question then becomes: can a game's story be strong enough that subpar gameplay can save it from ruin? The answer in Valiant Hearts' case is a bonafide yes. Very few games make me stare at the screen in awe and introspection the way I was when the credits rolled. The last action you perform is agonizing, in length and content, and I'll never forget it for as long as I play games. It solidified the character in the scene as one of my favorite new characters in gaming, but at the risk of spoilers I won't say more.
What makes Valiant Hearts all the more emotional is that every scene is taken straight from real World War I history that the game will share with you at the press of a button. Photos, descriptions, and more can be found in these menus, including some things that no human being should ever have to experience. Many times in the game I'd see something and think, "There's no way this really happened, there's some creative license here," only to check the facts and see it there, too. It's nice to play a game that doesn't mind teaching its players as they progress; more games should attempt the same.
Many people wondered how a World War I video game could possibly work, now that the industry has shifted to more advanced modern warfare, but Valiant Hearts: The Great War dropped us right in the middle of it and ordered us to march. We saw the trench-filled fields of France and Belgium and all of their horrors, and we followed the tragic and emotional story of four people trapped right in the center of it. Those looking for an advanced, state-of-the-art gameplay experience need look elsewhere, but those who love a strong story and can forgive a few lackluster segments will truly appreciate this Great War.
Now I've finally written these words and I can finally part, but Ubisoft take pride in this work, for I won't forget these Valiant Hearts.
This review is based on a purchased download of Valiant Hearts: The Great War for the Xbox One.