We all know that war... war never changes. But can it be reinterpreted in video game form?
War is one of those easy tropes that video games tend to fall back on. Most games need some excuse for the main character to go on a no-consequences murderous rampage for eight to ten hours straight, and war provides the perfect backdrop. They're the enemy army, and therefore deserve to die.
The second World War has been often mined as a backdrop for realistic war games. The varied environments and technology involved in the war, along with the clear enemy and prominent role of the United States are probable causes for this focus.
Many games also focus on heroic feats carried out by lone soldiers, although the reality of war is that it is fought more by selfless groups of normal people rather than elite shock troops or solo superheroes. Even in the most clear conflicts, there are still real humans on both sides, often coerced into combat
Not all war games are this way, and in fact even Call of Duty started out bucking this trend, despite what most may think.
Having established what a "usual" war game is, Valiant Hearts is a very unusual war game by comparison. There's very little killing to be done, and most of it is in self defense. There aren't even clear "good guys" and "bad guys" - there is a villain, but he's not representative of the army he's part of.
Valiant Hearts follows a small group of people - mostly a family - separated and bonded by the suffering they endure during the war. The primary protagonist is Emile, a farmer drafted into the French army. His son-in-law is Karl, a German living in France who is quickly deported when the war starts. Although the two are technically in the same family, their ethnic diversity means that the two are fighting on opposite sides of the war.
Valiant Hearts expands out to encompass a few other people - an American soldier named Freddie, a Belgian medic named Anna, and a German rescue dog named Walt. The game takes the characters to various hotspots and major battles, as they all attempt to survive the war and save the people they love.
The tone of the game is probably its best feature. Consistently, it's shown that the war is not something that people want to be a part of. The cartoony art style and occasional lighthearted moment would seem to butt up against the seriousness of the content, but I think without these elements the game would just be miserable rather than somber.
The gameplay is very adventure game oriented, with simple inventory and environmental puzzles to overcome. There are also more action-oriented sections, which are mostly rhythm focused. The gameplay was kind of middle of the road for me. I don't hate it, but I wasn't really itching for more, either. The puzzles are generally pretty straightforward, and the rhythm sections boil down to either quick-time events or fast reaction challenges.
There's also one section that really bothered me. I was sneaking behind friendly lines as Anna, the medic. I had to club some French soldiers senseless, and then right afterwards I had to use my medical skills to aid an injured German soldier. The disconnect between the two activities really stuck with me.
While Valiant Hearts isn't a 100% authentic war game, it's certainly closer than most games get to an honest portrayal. If you enjoy story driven games, adventure games, or rhythm games, it's worth checking out.
(Cult of the Fiver is my monthly series on great games that can be had for cheap. Want to stay on top of all our recommendations? We have a Steam Curation Page! In Pre-Cult articles, I collect my thoughts about a game I plan to feature in this month's entry.)