Valiant Hearts is a puzzle-platforming game with a rather unique subject matter: World War I. Instead of shooting waves of enemies or commanding massive faceless armies as is the usual in most war games, Valiant Hearts instead decides to focus on the lives of several characters with WWI merely serving as the backdrop that changes their lives forever. The main cast of characters are Emile, a Frenchman getting on in his years who is conscripted into service despite his age; Karl, a German living in France who is married to Emile's daughter Marie; Freddie, an African American Creole who enlisted in the French military to avenge a loved one; Anna, a Belgian field medic who's father designs weapons for the Germans; and Marie, the daughter of Emile and wife of Karl who struggles to maintain her family farm as the war escalates.
This game is first and foremost about its story. Not just the written story per se; in fact there is very little spoken dialogue that isn't from the interlevel narrations and most of the in game diction is handled through speech bubbes with cartoonish graphics inside them along with body gestures. Rather, this game is about story in a much deeper and meaningful way, its about how these characters as well as the minor and even nameless NPCs are shaped and affected by the terrible war around them. It says so much with very little, letting the emotions and feelings of the situation grab ahold of you and fill it in itself. There's no egregious monologues or exposition or self-indulgent angst; just pure humanity in all of its forms, and it touches you in a very personal way because you really feel for what these characters are going through.
Now the game itself, as a game, is nothing too terrilbly spectacular: it is about a 10 or so hour game given or take a few more for finding all of the hidden items (it can't be an Ubisoft game without a hundred odd pickups, could it?) with basic sidescrolling and controls. You move left and right, can climb over ledges and sneak behind cover when permitted, perform context specific actions as well as character specific ones (such as using Emile's shovel to dig through tunnels), all while solving modest item based puzzles where you pull levels and turn wheels and blow up walls or unlock doors. It is honestly nothing groundbreaking or new, and the puzzle solving is broken up with a handful of obstacle course style driving levels (which are my personal favorite) and the occasional quicktime event. Nothing about the gameplay is truly spectacular, but it is adequate enough to serve its purpose and keep you interested in progressing.
However, while the gameplay might be standard fare, everything else does truly stand out. Along with the story, the game has a beautifully composed original soundtrack, as well as a few classical bits too (Brahms's Hungarian Dance no. 5, the French Cancan, Flight of the Bumblebee, and Night on Bald Mountain all play during the various driving segments). The art direction is simplistic and charming, but deceptively dark and grim when it needs to be (and given the subject matter, that is often). Backgrounds are beautifully illustrated and detailed, and character animations are smooth and well made. There are collectibles as said before, over 100 items spread throughout most of the game's 20+ levels which are divided into four chapters. These items are all historically researched and finding them adds an entry to the in-game "Wiki" describing what it is, what it was for, and why it came to be during WWI. There is also more history to be found every level with short articles about what is relevent to the current level: be it a battlefield history, an elaboration on colonial army units, or chemical warfare. The game goes the extra mile to really help you feel what it was like to live during this time and in turn that helps you better associate with the characters in the story.
Ultimately, Valiant Hearts is a simplistic and unassuming puzzle sidescroller that has a LOT of heart and soul in it. Beyond the so-so gameplay is a gripping and upsetting tale of one the 20th century's greatest catastrophes, uncensored and unabashed in a beautiful package that serves to keep the past alive and help us never forget the tragedies that were had. Forgive the underwhelming gameplay and let everything else engross you and I'm sure you'll love it as much as I have. It is a work of art.