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‘Valiant Hearts’ brings a comic-book sensibility to the trenches

There’s an unrelenting grimness to most video games about war. On the one hand, this makes sense — war is, well, grim. But on the other, all those first-person shooters, whether set in the 20th century or the 26th, start to blend together into one sludgy, violent morass of chisel-jawed heroes marching through endless browns and grays.

That’s part of the reason I enjoy “Valiant Hearts: The Great War,” a new sidescrolling “animated comic book adventure,” as the publisher puts it, released by Ubisoft Montpellier and available for PC and the XBox and PlayStation consoles. It tells the story of four characters’ (and a dog’s) attempts to survive on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918, and it does so in a colorful, quirky manner one wouldn’t necessarily associate with the war and era in question.

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It’s a very, very pretty game. The sharply drawn comic book style works and is taken to interesting lengths. When “Valiant Hearts” needs to show you something off-screen without leaving the action, for example, a cutaway panel will appear, just like on a comic book page.

The story is told in a fun, interesting way. Yes, there are cut scenes and narration and characters reading letters, but usually things are more abstract. When a character wants something, he or she will inform you via a cute pictogram delivered in a word bubble — a heart next to a wine glass means the character wants wine, for example. When they speak, it’s in a whispery, gibberish version of their mother tongue, making everything a bit abstract. There’s very little speechifying here.

The puzzles themselves are entertaining and usually involve figuring out how to get past an obstacle or a guard or two. When you get shot or blown up, you simply start over a minute or two prior. There’s nothing really hard-core about the gameplay style, even if some of the segments require reflexes and quick thinking. For a war game, a surprising amount of time is spent admiring the nice scenery.

For those who don’t know a lot about World War I, the developers packed the game with a lot of history, offered up with a mini-in-game-encyclopedia of sorts and through objects you’ll find scattered along the way (a piece of embroidery, for example, comes with a brief excerpt about how male soldiers on the Front took up the hobby during the war). If you just want to play, you can ignore all this, but it’s a welcome bit of polish, and I learned a fair amount during my time with the game.

What stuck out the most in playing “Valiant Hearts,” though, was the striking contrast between what life was like in the real-life trenches of World War I and the imperatives of a “fair” video game. There’s order in “Valiant Hearts” that was demolished during the war it’s based on: That German machine-gunner fires in a predictable pattern; the deadly flow of chlorine gas can be cut off by turning the right valve, or commanding your faithful dog to do so.

A video game, in other words, generally demands that your character always be given a fair chance, unless the story line says otherwise. So there was a strangeness in leisurely solving the puzzles in “Valiant Hearts” while war raged in the background, in learning the aforementioned attack patterns, all while reading the game’s impressive amount of back story about a real war in which all notions of fairness and order were thrown out the window. This disjoint might be part of the reason the game works.

Overall, “Valiant Hearts” is a truly original war game — even if it’s more about puzzles than fighting — that defies direct comparisons. It’s worth checking out.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.

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