Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a side scrolling puzzle game set during World War I. It follows four main characters—Karl, Emile, Freddie, and Anna— and a dog named Walt as their lives intersect across the Western Front. The comic book art style presents a level of whimsy between the audience and the very somber subject matter, which could be a little jarring at times, alongside an Amélie-esque soundtrack. This game surprised me. At first glance, I thought it’s cartoonish and sometimes campy presentation detracted from its serious subject matter. And then I met Cassie.
Spoilers follow. Continue at your discretion.
Cassie is a dog—a different dog than Walt, the one from the main portion of the game. I encountered her in one of the bonus features, a short comic called “Valiant Hearts: Dogs of War.” Walt and Cassie were litter mates before the war. They helped save a drowning soldier near their farm and, due to their acts of bravery, are eventually taken to the army to be trained as war dogs. They are separated, one training to be a medic and the other a messenger. The war rages on, life in the trenches remains bleak, and eventually Cassie is killed in an artillery barrage. This was the first time Valiant Hearts made me cry.
After that, I approached the game with a new level of respect. Perhaps the camp was a warranted approach to a story about the First World War. Upon further reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the game mirrors the popular sentiments of the early days of the war: the idea that the war would be finished by Christmas of 1914 and the notion that war was an adventurous means for young men to gain honor and make a name for themselves. The execution may not be perfect—I would have encouraged the developers to make all of the educational historical data available after completing a level rather than tying some of it to hidden collectibles strewn about the landscape—but knowing this could help some players who are on the fence take the plunge. These days, the price point isn’t terribly restrictive, but I would still encourage players to seek it out on sale due to how short the game is.
The game slowly increases in brutality, pulling away the veneer of adventurous honor. At one point, players find themselves crawling up a mountain of the dead to reach a higher portion of a trench during a push called the Nivelle Offensive. This is when I caught myself thinking it was a good decision to separate the audience from the brutal reality via cartoonish graphics. By this point in the game, players have taken out the main antagonist, a slightly over-the-top villain by the name of Baron Von Dorf, leaving an even greater antagonist: The war itself and those forcing the soldiers to fight it.
We play as Emile when climbing the hill of bodies. A bombastic commanding officer keeps popping up along the way, pressing the men onwards with his whistle and pointed finger while doing apparently zero leg work. Eventually, we reach a point where we can go no farther. Venturing forth means guaranteed death by machine gun. The characters around us refuse to move despite the commander’s blustering attempts. The only way to progress the story is to hit the commanding officer. Though not Emile’s intent, the officer dies. He is court-martialed and executed, thus ending the game.
Players spend the final moments of the game walking Emile toward the inevitable as he narrates his final letter to his daughter. It’s an emotionally poignant moment, especially considering we were driving past obstacles to the Can-Can a few gameplay hours before. And then they show the dog…. One of the final images of the game is Karl next to his wife, Emile’s daughter, Marie with their son, Victor, and Walt the courageous dog standing over Emile’s grave. Nothing even happens to the dog; merely his presence was enough: This was the second time Valiant Hearts made me cry.
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