- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 6, 2014

Gamers control the lives of individuals caught up in a worldwide conflict in the dramatic, side-scrolling adventure Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft, Rated Teen, reviewed with PlayStation 4, $14.99).

Taking place between the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 that triggered World War I and America’s entrance into the war in 1917, the two-dimensional, animated action mixes puzzles, simple combat, fantastic artistic visuals and one heck of an interactive history lesson for the patient player.

The narrative works hard to capture the human side of a terrible war by following the fallout of a couple torn apart simply because of their nationalities while blurring the lines between good and evil.

During the four chapters worth of action, a player meets and controls a quintet of characters:

• Karl, a German deported from France, who is forced to leave his wife Marie and child when the war breaks out and now reluctantly fights for the Central Powers.

Marie‘s father Emile, a soldier for the French army who is quickly captured and turned into a cook for the Germans (wielding a mean ladle) but has enough fortitude to turn the tide of his misfortune.

• The beefy American Freddie (looking a bit like the grey Hulk), a volunteer for the French army, who joined to take revenge on the evil Baron Von Dorf, the man who called an airstrike that killed Freddie‘s wife.

• Anna, a Belgium student with nursing skills who is also after the baron after he kidnapped her scientist father, forcing him to build advanced weapons.

• Walt, a friendly Doberman always looking for a pat on the belly. He takes commands from the four humans and is the key to stealthy success in many missions.

Each will have a role to play as this story of survival unfolds across France, Germany and Belgium — and within trenches, bombed cities, scorched forests and active battlefields.

What follows while controlling these heroes often requires exploration and using puzzle-solving skills rather than weapons.

A player finds a gantlet of challenges as simple as throwing a wine bottle to open a rope ladder to climb upon, but as equally complex as sabotaging an underground tank of poison gas by lining up pipes correctly and turning levers.

The varied missions further might require using barbed-wire cutters to open a hole in the front line, tossing grenades to scare troops, attaching dynamite to wires to blow a bridge, swerving a old jalopy back and forth to avoid machine gun fire from biplanes and directing Walt to sneak into German territory and steal a medical kit.

Speaking of the pooch, one of the most unusual but sympathetic moments of the game happens as he encounters German soldiers reflecting a human side to even the most terrible of enemies.

Based on actual locations and historical events throughout, including the second battle of Aisne and famous battle of the Marne, developers are not gun shy about embracing the horrors of war reaped up foot soldiers as well as civilians.

We see dead bodies all around, the choking effects of chlorine gas and rampart destruction to landmarks such as St. Martin’s Cathedral. In fact, nearly an entire level is devoted to Anna treating the wounded (including sawing off a limb) as a player uses a rhythm-style mini-game to help her succeed.

These moments mount and combine to a tear-jerking conclusion that Steven Spielberg would be proud of.

Despite the subject matter, I can’t gush enough about the animation. It expands upon the cell-shaded universe of motion comics (complete with illustrated panels popping out and dialogue bubble) and offers touches of Japanese anime in its graphic depiction of atrocities.

A sad and classical musical score enhances all of the uncomfortable beauty.

I was also never bored with the tasks at hand (reference an epic boss battle between Freddie and the Baron tossing grenade sticks at him from within a zeppelin) — each leading to opening up more knowledge about the world wars.

These revelations came to light by either collecting around 100 scattered items hidden around areas or reading facts unlocked through each level.

For example, after finding a pointy German helmet, I learned it was called the Pickelhaube and used by soldiers until 1916.

Unlocked facts, illustrated with photos from the war, taught me that 530 British cannons fired over 216,000 shells at the German trenches during the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. The Belgian town of Ypres was reduced to ruins due to sustained bombings and chemical warfare.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War offers a beautifully designed, interactive educational experience with the type of action and resources that a History Channel fan will more than appreciate.

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