In war, there are no victors as it breeds destruction, suffering, and grief off and on the battlefield, racking up dead bodies, devastating properties, depleting resources, and leaving the injured to fend for themselves. Such sights are pervasive, and at times emphasised, across various warfare-centric media, including video games, where the subject matter has long been rooted in the shooter genre, taking the form of popular franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the like.
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home represents a refreshing change in the formula, and in more ways than one. The Ubisoft title is a side-scrolling, puzzle-based affair set in the first World War (WWI), which generally doesn’t get as much coverage as WWII, or even the Cold War. But instead of showing soldiers leaving violence and apathy in their wake, the game puts them in situations where they help one another while navigating through conflicted loyalties and shared camaraderie.
It brings a sincere, human touch that defined its predecessor, The Great War, and it continues to charm in the sequel. Set after the events of the original game, Coming Home follows five characters as WWI enters its penultimate year, with each of their stories weaved into the overarching narrative. This time, the main party is made up of returning members Freddie, an American soldier, and Belgian nurse Anna, as well three new faces: fellow African-American soldier James, German navy sailor Ernst, and cockpit pilot George.
Despite being a direct follow-up, the game doesn’t require prior understanding of the first game to be enjoyed. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is coherent and fresh enough to stand on its own, even with its inheritance of the major features and gameplay elements from the first entry. Part of the magic lies in its less-is-more approach, which makes it very accessible for newcomers and ideal for playing on the go.
In fact, simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication here. Like before, the sequel strays from the traditional dialogue format and features minimal to no talking scenes, apart from the occasional grunt or monosyllabic response. Sure, there’s a narrator that lends his voice to the tapestry of unfolding events, but everything else is presented in a minimalist manner, from using speech bubbles to show character interactions to instructing players through gestures and images.
This lack of the spoken word should prove familiar for returning players, although newcomers might need some time to embrace the shift, especially those who would often misinterpret or be confused by visual cues. Once you get the hang of things, though, gameplay will be smooth sailing for the most part.
Complementing the show-not-tell presentation are straightforward controls that translate nicely to the smartphone medium: swipe in any direction to move accordingly, tap on objects or characters to interact with them, and hold down one part of the screen to throw projectiles. These mechanics remain the same, no matter the character – similar to its predecessor, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home lets players assume the roles of all members at different points in the narrative, each with unique traits to call their own.
The music-loving James, for instance, plays the clarinet in his downtime, which requires players to press on-screen buttons as they appear (not necessarily in rhythm, but before they fade away), whereas George’s sequences feature aircraft-flying and reconnaissance. Meanwhile, timing button presses will allow Anna to treat patients for injuries; her dog, Walt, can also be issued commands to squeeze into small areas, fetch items that are out of reach, or activate switches. Who’s the best boy? You are, Walt!
Beyond that, though, there are few differences between each character’s skill set, which is a slight downgrade from the first game. Where Emile and Freddie, two of the playable characters in the latter, could dig through soft ground and cut through barbed wire respectively, all five members here share the same action: tap to trigger a melee attack, with no leeway to execute other manoeuvres.
These experiences form a piece of the bigger puzzle, denoted by different sections that present an objective for players to clear. Valiant Hearts: Coming Home spans three chapters of five to seven episodes, with its focus largely set on solving puzzles by obtaining items needed for the situation. Fortunately, the process isn’t particularly challenging, as it often puts forth intuitive puzzles of reasonable difficulty levels.
It’s in these slower moments that the sidescroller shines. The lull allows room for introspection and leads players – subconsciously or otherwise – into examining the implications of warfare, but also primes the rare action scenes to be more dynamic and powerful. Although the sudden change in pace did evoke a greater sense of excitement and tension at the start, it fizzled out all too quickly, with some of these sequences either running too long, or becoming repetitive over the course of the story.
Still, the effort to introduce gameplay variety into a three-to-four-hour adventure is commendable, and the game presents its compensation in the form of visual prowess. In lieu of realism, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home features a striking, cartoonish aesthetic that melds well with the overall narrative. The hand-drawn art style, in particular, exudes a sense of warmth, lending a human touch to the defined, strong strokes of fine-tip bristles.
The addition of comic viewpoints and comic-infused elements further elevates the narrative experience, making it comparable to watching a sublime piece of animation unfold. The deceptively cheerful veneer works wonders in dishing out emotional whiplash as well, for it’s too easy to be taken in by the visuals and forget about the game’s war-focused storytelling, until devastation strikes out of the blue.
This attention to detail carries over to the historical backing on which the game is built upon. Like Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the sequel features optional collectible items hidden in each segment that unlock facts and detailed information about key events during the war, including battles at the Somme and Marne, the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and the Harlem Hellfighters, the first African-American infantry unit to fight in WWI. The edutainment (a portmanteau of ‘education’ and ‘entertainment’) element is a nifty tool that brings some context into the game, and serves as a nice little nod to its historical roots.
At its core, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a thoughtful, poignant adventure that oozes sincerity. It delights as much as it tugs on heartstrings, thrills as much as it slogs, and highlights how two ends of the spectrum can exist in the same space: carnage and salvation, violence and compassion, and death and human warmth. It’s not the perfect game, especially with its lack of replay value, but it has demonstrated that there’s value in history, simplicity, and emotionality.
Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is available exclusively on Netflix via mobile phones and tablets.
GEEK REVIEW SCORE
Amid a war-stricken backdrop of destruction, violence, and suffering, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home comes through as a ray of hope with a simple, yet sobering and heartfelt tale about humanity, compassion, love, and camaraderie.
Gameplay - 8/10
Story - 8.5/10
Presentation - 9.5/10
Value - 8.5/10