Not many video games have made me cry, but by god Valiant Hearts set me off. That finale – there will be spoilers here – where you think everything will be okay, but then it’s suddenly not. It’s a sucker punch to the gut. You’ve struggled to keep everyone alive, Karl is safe, you’ve resuscitated him three times, and he’s reunited with his wife and son. It all seems to be okay. It should be okay.
But that’s not how war works. War isn’t okay. War doesn’t have a happy ending for most. The fact that Emile is executed by his own country, for an action that he had no other option than to commit, is all the more galling.
Valiant Hearts story works so well because it takes the massive scope of the First World War and channels it through a small cast of characters. It’s more personable, more empathetic, while still maintaining the sense of scale, showing you the map of the Western front and where each protagonist is in relation to it. You’re only seeing a small part of the whole picture, but there’s a sense that every other character has the same weight of backstory hidden behind them, and mostly you see those stories end as they are cut down in front of your eyes.
Underpinning the story are mechanics that leave you feeling powerless in the face of war. Rarely does Valiant Hearts have you kill. For the most part you play the support, digging holes and cutting wires. When you are forced to attack an enemy soldier, lamping him over the head with your ladle is accompanied by a discordant note – killing someone isn’t a pleasant thing to have to do.
Aside from the inventive puzzles, you’ll spend large parts of the game running for your life. Running from a prison camp, running from cover to cover – simply running.
Completing the atmosphere are the graphics and sound. Built in the UbiArt engine, Valiant Hearts has a minimalist look that suits the subject matter much better than perfect realism would, while the score captures both the heroic ideals of war perpetuated as millions of men marched to their doom as well as the emotional turbulence of dealing with death on that scale.
In a world where the Call of Dutys and Battlefields glorify war, where extra guns as DLC is an incentive to buy the latest AAA shooter, having a game like Valiant Hearts is incredibly important. An emotional, thought-provoking title, Valiant Hearts makes war a harrowing experience, a message that not a lot of media tends to give off in the post-9/11 world. This alone would merit it a place in our top 10 list this year, but that it also functions as an enjoyable game underneath all the messages means that Valiant Hearts: The Great War is simply unmissable.
How did we decide our top 10 games of the year? Come back on Christmas Eve for our four hour podcast-extravaganza, featuring this, and multiple other categories.