Valiant Hearts: The Great War was a special, memorable game. A narrative game set in World War 1, it didn’t focus on military tactics or the act of shooting your fellow man, but instead focused on the personal, emotional stories of individuals who are impacted by war. What was even more surprising is that it was released by one of the biggest game companies out there, Ubisoft, who in 2014 had seemingly dedicated itself to enormous action franchises. The fifth Assassin’s Creed. The fourth Far Cry game. Valiant Hearts was a nice indication that it still saw value in small, intimate games and stories.
Fast forward to 2023, and we’re treated to another surprise – the announcement and release of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, a follow-up to The Great War, to be released on Netflix as part of the streamer’s mobile game offerings. Again, it comes at a time when Ubisoft is accelerating its aforementioned franchises once more. Four new Assassin’s Creed games. Reports of two new Far Cry games. Perhaps Valiant Hearts is a centring exercise for the publisher, a nourishing treat. And a reminder of the other side of violent warfare.
Whatever the case, Coming Home serves as a direct sequel to The Great War, and it certainly feels that way too, in that it could have been pulled right out of 2014. An uncomplicated 2D side-scrolling adventure at its core, the game is filled with straightforward puzzles and activities – lots of fetch quests and a small variety of recurring mini-games – that make up the bulk of the interaction between brief bursts of narrative exposition.
But the interactive elements are not particularly compelling, unfortunately. While lightly themed and positioned as part of each character’s objectives, the puzzles and activities largely suffer from outstaying their welcome. Fetch and trade loops last a bit too long and are largely mundane – running around pushing, pulling, and climbing on boxes gets tiresome quickly. Dodging planes is fun for a bit (and it looks pretty), but gets old fast, despite the increasing difficulty. Instant-fail stealth sections are always a personal pet peeve of mine, especially when they drag on for multiple scenes.
Even though Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is a short game – a total of around 3 hours, roughly – it had difficulty keeping my attention for prolonged stretches because of these monotonous tasks.
The strength of Valiant Hearts is in the stories that it tells, placing personal struggles and misfortunes within the scope of a grand world-changing event, and contextualising it. The game’s clean and charming art style is also a star – cute enough to be immediately appealing, but expressive enough to convincingly portray tragedy when it needs to. Coming Home is an engaging history lesson filled with relatable, moving stories. But often, the uninteresting tasks you’re asked to plough through get in the way.
Of course, there’s certainly something to be said about the structure of the game when considering its medium. It’s a game designed exclusively for mobile devices (at least, at the time of writing), and published by Netflix, a service that streams films, and more pertinently, episodic television shows. It’s easy to see Valiant Hearts: Coming Home as something designed to be taken on in bite-sized, episodic chunks – in fact, it’s much better this way. 20 minutes to begin a new chapter, flit through some light puzzles, and take a break when the current story arc reaches its natural end, just as the interactions start to become too wearisome.
Despite shortcomings, the stories Coming Home tells are worth hearing and seeing. Freddie, an African American soldier assisting the French army, returns as a key supporting character, with the active focus turning to his younger brother James, who enlists to fight alongside him. They embody the story concerning the formation of the Harlem Hellfighters. Anna, a Belgian vet-turned-battlefield nurse also returns, as does her German Shepherd, Walt.
New characters like Ernst explore the experience of German nationals reluctant to participate in the war. There’s also the pilot George, who just seems to be very good at what he does, and is strangely immune to suffering. Themes of race, nationalism, friendship, and individual heroics are explored, and the end result mostly hits a lot of the same sorrowful, emotional notes of The Great War. It’s a tear-jerker.
But overall, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home doesn’t have quite the same devastating impact as The Great War first did. Maybe that’s down to the effects of a sequel. Or maybe it’s due to the smaller, bite-sized format it’s seemingly designed around. But who says emotional narrative games can’t be short-burst experiences? The heart of Valiant Hearts is still here, and I’m glad these characters and this style of historical storytelling live on to fight another day. Just don’t ask me to fetch another potato, or dodge another artillery shell.
3 stars: ★★★
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home
Platforms: iOS and Android, via a Netflix subscription
Developer: Old Skull Games, Ubisoft
Release Date: 31 January 2023
The iOS version of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home was reviewed on a sixth-generation iPad Mini.