Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Set to a somber score performed by a single piano, and various renditions of classical European pieces, Valiant Hearts: The Great War sought to be more than just a puzzle game with a history buff behind the narrative. Touching, brilliant, and perfectly crafted for the casual gamer; a must- play in summer arcade releases for history buffs and appreciators of simplified gameplay in what's becoming a montage of bright lights and flashy colors.

The title begins in France, 1914, on the cusp of what would soon be referred to as "The War To End All Wars." It's attention to historic details of France and Germany clashing on the borders throughout the seemingly endless conflict is furthered by hidden collectibles which not only unlock certain challenges and achievements, but also offer insight to how the war was fought on the individual basis; both from the eyes of the civilians living in-between battlefields and the soldiers trudging through life in the trenches, the tunnels, through chlorine gas, and prisoner-of-war camps.

While the "hints" the game offers after an allotted amount of time passes when dealing with the many puzzles-which get increasingly difficult as you progress-is a little generous, it does help to get you through some of the tougher spots where the obvious answer isn't always obvious. This way, you don't end up spending 10 minutes bogged down trying to figure one complex task and don't become frustrated and stagnated. The story and the gameplay are given the chance to breathe and naturally move towards the climactic ending.

You're given the chance to play as four-or five if you count the dog-individuals living through the conflict; Emile, an older Frenchman conscripted into the army; Karl, a German and Emile's son-in-law who is deported at the beginning of the war and conscripted on the opposing side; Anna, a Belgian medical student turned field medic seeking her kidnapped father, and Freddie, an American in the French Foreign Legion. And of course, there's the unnamed dog; a rescue doberman pinscher that accompanies each of the characters sporadically, and can be used to provide strategic assistance when required.

Throughout the game we're exposed to the horrors of combat from both sides at battles like Verdun and the Chermin des Dames Mutinies. We're shown that, in war, there is little black and white, and the line between good and evil is often blurred past the point of recognition. And what's more, we get to see it through the eyes of non-combatants, never holding a rifle ourselves, and instead just trying to make it through each chapter using intellect, not brute force.

The game is illustrated in a way that reminds gamers of Castle Crashers or a similar cartoonish title. Purposely unrefined, the illustrations take us to a place where the gruesome brutality of war is not portrayed as gory hyper-realism and violent for the sake of shock value, but instead, shows us the humanity, or inhumanity of war, through a true artist's interpretation of the unfolding events.

The most important part of the game is its ending, which we'll tip-toe around spoilers by saying that it was both beautiful, and sad. Sending a message that though the fallen of the past have already returned to dust, we must never forget the importance of their sacrifice. One last time, Valiant Hearts reminds us that there were very few happy endings, following with the historic importance that the game tried its darndest to represent.

With the grit of warfare, the intellectual challenges that are neither predictable nor seemingly impossible to work around, a solid and compelling narrative, a beautiful score, and an ending that brought a grown man to tears, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is more than worth the $15 download, and a few hours of straight-through play.