For all its praise, it’s hard to not concede that the original Valiant Hearts is a bit of a niche title. It’s a game but not really, about a war that you’re not meant to look at with any kind of admiration. It deserves every ounce of praise it’s gotten, but at the same time it’s easy to empathize with anyone who might have given it a miss since it’s niche upon niche stacked into the rough shape of a game..
In that respect, Netflix’s co-publishing of its sequel, Valiant Hearts: Coming Home, makes sense. Netflix is a good platform for any topic to find its audience, meaning you can make a game that delivers as bleak a message as you want without worrying too much about making concessions.
But putting something out where everyone can see also means making sure it’s something that will actually draw those people in. How does Coming Home reconcile its bleak message with the more entertainment driven Netflix audience? Read on and find out.
A Great And Miserable War
Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is basically a glorified point-and-click, available to anyone with a mobile device and a Netflix account. Unlike the original Valiant Hearts, Coming Home follows an expanded cast- ranging from two African Americans and the first African American military unit, the Harlem Hellfighters, a French medic, an English pilot as well as an unwilling German soldier.
Very early on, I was pretty impressed with the stories the cast tell. The game’s narrator pulls no punches: Freddie and James, the Americans, both enlist in the army in the hopes that fighting a war will finally get them treated like people, something that just wasn’t happening in that era. The German soldier is a walking portrait of despair, with the war consuming his life more and more every time he thinks he has a way out.
Surprisingly, the characters of Coming Home are entirely fictitious. Their backdrops, however, aren’t. Everything from the Harlem Hellfighters to the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, the game’s happy to immediately share with you real facts about the situations filling your cast of characters with eternal dread.
And that to me is the brilliance of Valiant Hearts: Coming Home releasing the way it is: it’s going to be an accessible, immersive way to learn about an objectively horrifying part of human history. While the game does have fun collectibles that also teach you more about the era (usually in the form of tools, etc), the most important facts are accessible from the start of every episode. I stopped at the start of every episode obsessively opening the file, wanting to check what the game had to say about every situation it had thrown me in, complete with actual photos for illustration.
Of course, where it really starts to excel is where you start throwing gameplay into the mix. Coming Home is full of, so to speak, “minigame” segments, where you’ll be running around accomplishing some sort of task. A few of these feel extremely long by design- I can’t speak for the intentions of the developer, but they hit incredibly well explicitly because they seem to go on forever.
In one of them, we’re introduced to our medic, tending to injured soldiers in the French countryside. You have to run from bed to bed, doing minigames to fix up various soldiers. These include removing shrapnel, cleaning open wounds and bandaging them up (despite the game having a simple artstyle, these all look incredibly gruesome, good job). You’d expect after doing about three of them, you’d move on- but you don’t. It goes on for what feels like an eternity, and you realize that yeah, this was probably the kind of overwhelming feeling historians wish you’d get when reading about medics in World War 1.
You also get it in an early chapter of the German sailor, too- as you’re trying to save sailors who’d suddenly found themselves without a ship, the game just overloads you with things to do that it all starts getting a bit bleak. It’s an impressive display of game design at work, honestly.
Gameplay For Gameplay’s Sake
Of course, there’s some segments that don’t feel as well-intentioned. There’s another segment where you’re trailing a spy- giving it the Ubisoft classic “Follow them but not too close” gameplay and that drags on quite a bit too. Unlike the earlier two, this does feel an awful lot more like a gameplay decision, meant to help with the pacing of the game’s episodes rather than sell any emotional hits. Basically, any time the game focuses on anything but its core directive, you start to see the cracks.
I noticed it in the stories of the actual characters themselves, too. While the diary entries for them are all exceptional portraits of their inner monologues, their actual story beats can occasionally border on cliche. James, the younger brother, is a great sample of the kind of young idealism that gets sucked into a war, and his diary reflects that. But maybe him learning “not all Germans are bad” because he meets the German sailor by chance and has a jam session with him, leading said sailor to later recognize him and refuse to open fire on his boat, was a bit too cheesy. It just reminds me of other similar instances of what I like to describe as the Netflixization of stories- like Stone Ocean Part 2 needing to start with a fake out character death in a flash forward. You just start seeing some non storytelling reasoning behind certain decision, and it’s anyone’s guess how on the ball you really are.
I realize I might be in the minority for this- I’ll chalk it up to having to sex up the story for the Netflix audience, who probably need some more obvious morals in the story. I’m sure it’s bound to help a lot of people find the story a little bit more palatable, and if that means that more of them will experience the rest of the game then that’s a net win.
All in all, I think Valiant Hearts: Coming Home is an absolutely great example of leveraging your platform to tell your message. While it definitely was hit with a bit of the Netflix razzmatazz to get more mass appeal, I think the final product we got is still a surprisingly somber look into a human atrocity.
It’s best encapsulated, I feel, in a single gameplay section. In it, the Allied trenches are under fire. As James, you’re running up and down the trench helping your forces defend themselves. On one hand, this segment feels long and drawn out as you grab everything from water to ammo, conveniently on opposite ends of the trench and with spots where you need to stay still and wait for the gunfire to stop. On the other, you literally see all the corpses lining the trenches, some even partially submerged in the bomb-soaked dirt.
It’s hard to describe what exactly about this visual entrances me so. Maybe it’s the fact that you don’t see them heroically going down, like the cannon fodder of every FPS? They’re there, they’re dead. Things are going south all around you, and thanks to the power of the game’s minimal dialogue literally all you have is your older brother, desperately trying to keep you both alive.
If you’re looking at this as a Netflix user wondering if you should try Netflix games and start with this, my answer is an absolute yes. It’s an eye opening and beautiful game that deserves your time and attention.
Valiant Hearts Score
|A beautiful snapshot of World War 1||Some of the dramatizations are a bit much|
|Incredibly educational||The occasional weird gameplay segment|
Game reviewed on an iPhone 14 Plus. Early access provided by Netflix