The 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I has been relatively subdued, without much of the ceremony one would expect around such a historic date. Oddly enough, the most stirring tribute I've seen has come in the form of a video game -- one that fully appreciates the grim ironies of "the war to end all wars."
"Valiant Hearts: The Great War" (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, $14.99) is a bracing antidote to the gung-ho violence of popular combat games like "Call of Duty." There's little joy to be found in its depiction of the destruction that overwhelmed Europe from 1914 to 1919. Instead, it follows the struggles of four ordinary people to simply survive.
The protagonists are Emile, a French farmer called up to fight shortly after the war begins; Karl, Emile's German son-in-law, who is forced to leave France; Anna, a Belgian student who becomes a battlefield medic; and Freddie, an American expatriate with a personal grudge against the German army.
All four are well drawn, but the most memorable hero is Walt, a sad-eyed Doberman pinscher that helps each of the humans survive. Walt can fetch supplies, distract enemy guards and drag unconscious soldiers out of harm's way. As Anna says, he's a "bon chien."
None of these characters are the type to run screaming into combat against an enemy army. Indeed, if you're the type of gamer who enjoys wielding a machine gun or a sniper rifle to blow the heads off your opponents, you've come to the wrong place.
Instead, "Valiant Hearts" more closely resembles the classic "graphic adventures" of the 1980s and `90s. In most of the scenarios, you're presented with a puzzle, like figuring out how to crack a safe or disperse the tear gas in a house. You may need to dig tunnels under enemy forts, or just run as fast as you can to escape bombardment. In Anna's case, you need to use rhythmically timed button presses to bandage wounded soldiers. There isn't a single instance in which you have to pull the trigger of a gun, although you are asked to drive a tank and shoot down German warplanes.
There are a few instances where the gameplay detracts from the storytelling, most notably a ridiculous episode where you fight a zeppelin with a pipe organ. For the most part, though, the puzzles are just challenging enough to be satisfying -- and hints abound if you get stuck and just want to move on with the story.
"Valiant Hearts" effectively communicates the melancholy of likable characters that have little control of the apocalypse unfolding around them. Even though they're hand-painted and two-dimensional, they're more sympathetic than the "realistic" 3-D soldiers in, say, "Gears of War." Not everyone makes it out alive, and the final scenes left a lump in my throat. Three stars out of four.