Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: 6/24/14
We don’t really see a lot of games that take place during World War I, if you think about it. Not that it’s really a good idea to glorify any war in the strictest sense, but when it comes to making a game about a giant war, World War II far and away has more games based around it than World War I, even if you discount all of the major game franchises that use the war as a backdrop. Even then, the games that do use WWI as a backdrop, if the linked list is any indication, are a lot of “WWI but with Lovecraftian horrors,” “dog fighting games,” and in two cases, “Snoopy.” As such, when a game not only uses WWI as a backdrop, but actually tries to do something with the historical context of the war, it’s almost certainly going to have something original to say, especially when that idea is packed into an adventure game, as is the case with Valiant Hearts. The game isn’t just unique for the way it chooses to use WWI to frame its narrative, however; the game also does a lot to use its interesting aesthetics and characters to drive the game, and as weird as everything seems, a lot of it really works. It’s by no means a flawless experience, of course, but it’s almost certainly one that deserves to be experienced, if only because it does what it does very well, and is almost certainly unlike anything you’ve seen this year, if not ever.
Oh Valiant Hearts who to your glory came,
A big part of what makes Valiant Hearts what it is comes down to the presentation, and a lot of that starts and ends with its story and concept. The plot takes place during the first couple years of World War I, starting a few months into the conflict and ending shortly before the United States officially got involved in the war, and focuses almost exclusively on a small group of people and how their lives are affected by said war. It’s through these personal stories that the war is illustrated, and through this, the game manages to get across the salient points by way of giving you people to care about instead of setpieces and boring historical recaps (though you can unlock suck things for those who find this interesting). Put simply, Valiant Hearts makes you care about the protagonists, from the far too old to be seeing active combat Emile to his deported and drafted into a war that only serves to keep him from his wife and child Karl to nursemaid to both sides who only wants her father back Anna and beyond, you come to care about the characters as you see the war through their eyes. You also come to realize that, regardless of anything else, World War I was absolutely terrible and even though there are clearly good-guy/bad-guy sequences, such as the Freddie/Anna versus Baron Von Dorf subplot that takes up the first half of the game, the war itself was largely horrid for everyone and kind of without merit. That’s kind of important, though; World War II gets all the publicity anymore because of the Nazis and the Holocaust and the Atomic Bomb, which are historically important, but that doesn’t mean World War I was any less terrible with its forced deportation that caused family separation or its chlorine gas usage. Valiant Hearts absolutely makes that point, but in a way that’s more concerned with the individual rather than the whole, and it does so in a way that is painful, but in the ways it should be instead of in a hamfisted fashion.
The visual and audio presentation help the plot along quite a bit, though, and it wouldn’t be half the experience it is without them. The game uses the same engine used in Rayman Legends and Child of Light, meaning that everything is rendered in a fairly colorful 2D fashion, which creates an interesting contrast to the subject matter. That’s not to say that it’s a perfect fit; in moments that are somewhat less emotionally charged there can be a certain disconnect between what’s going on on-screen and what the game asks of you emotionally. However, in the more upbeat sequences the visuals match the game perfectly, and in the horrifying and depressing sequences the visuals do an excellent job of disarming you to give those moments a real sucker punch quality to them that makes them stick. Aurally, the game does a lot with what it has, and uses audio to great effect, but not in the way you’d expect. The game gets by mostly on its music over anything else, honestly, as the songs chosen for the different sequences are all very fitting, and little things, like choosing Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, or rather, the specific part we all associate with the Can-Can, for a driving sequence, are strokes of genius. The voice work is also very well done, almost entirely due to the fact that there’s very little of it. When the game requires a monologue for plot development it does its job fine, but it’s far more interesting when you hear the little snippets from characters during play, as it’s all appropriate to the language they should be speaking, and it gives the game life through that accuracy and minimalism. The sound effects are also well done, and while nothing in particular stands out, everything fits appropriately and compliments the game well.
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame,
At its core, Valiant Hearts is an adventure game with mini-games built into it at various points, though that perhaps oversimplifies the experience a bit. The game takes place across various parts of the war, both real and imagined, and puts you into the role of one of the various protagonists, each with their own specific missions to take on at the time. Many of the cast members have specific functions that will be brought into play while playing as them, so in Emile’s sections you’ll likely find yourself digging ditches to progress, while Freddie can cut barbed wire and Anna can heal the sick and injured, for example (Karl’s abilities are more circumstantial to the mission). How these abilities and the missions play out directly influences how you’ll be playing the next stage, so in one sequence you might be playing a straight adventure game sequence, in another you might be playing a stealth sequence, in another you might be playing a driving-rhythm game sequence, and so on. It’s that variance that keeps the game interesting beyond its simple concepts, as you’ll find that just as you’re getting tired of the current gameplay style the game tosses something new at you to break things up. Because of that consistent variance, between switching playable characters, mission objectives and play mechanics, you’ll find that Valiant Hearts is paced in a way that keeps you interested in playing just as much as the story does.
The majority of the game focuses on the adventure game sections, but even then, it handles them in different ways based on the sequence and the character you’re playing as. Some sections are purely puzzle-oriented, so you’ll have a core objective (write a letter, fix your car, change into a combat uniform) and a rough idea of the end goal, and from there you’ll have to puzzle out how to get to that end goal. These sections tend to be the most challenging, as the solutions almost always make sense, but figuring out what the solutions are in the first place can require a good bit of exploration, along with some old-fashioned puzzle solving, such as repositioning pipes or making shaped metal pieces in a certain way. There are also stealth adventure sequences, which ask you to sneak past enemies, using cover and distractions to your advantage, including some more novel ideas like hiding behind moving groups of sheep to get past spotlights at night, for instance. Finally, there are also “action” sequences, which mostly involve you dodging bullets and explosives as you move progressively forward, though you may also have to solve the odd puzzle here and there while doing so, such as how to get past a specific roadblock or how to dodge a specific gun turret.
To give the experience some variance, there are also some more atypical elements to the game to keep you guessing. Emile has the ability to dig into certain kinds of dirt, which will often be used to find specific items or bypass obstacles, while Freddie always has a pair of bolt cutters on him for bypassing barbed wire and similar obstacles, to give puzzles a bit more punch at times. Many of the characters will also find themselves with a canine companion, as a medical dog who Emile meets early on in the game follows your characters around at different points. When he’s in your group, he can retrieve various objects that are out of your reach, save injured people and perform other tasks that can help you get through the different puzzles. There are also a few random mini-game sections, such as when you have to dodge obstacles or attackers in a car in time to the background music, or when Anna patches people up in a Rock Band style mini-game, to keep you on your toes. There are also various knick-knacks to collect throughout each stage that fill in additional information about the war, as well as notes on the war that unlock as you progress, and diary entries from each character that explain their motives and feelings as the game progresses for you to follow along with.
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
If there are any significant downsides to Valiant Hearts, the biggest one is that the game is very limited in replayability, which may well be a trend in the genre, but certainly didn’t have to happen in this case. You can go back and pick up any collectibles you might have missed, true, but beyond that, there are no variable game elements, and nothing changes on subsequent playthroughs. Further, while much of the game is quite fun to play, the sequences that see you dodging bullets and obstacles, be they on foot or in a car, are not. Failure doesn’t send you back terribly far, to be fair, so it’s not that they’re especially punishing, but determining the timing of these sequences can be frustrating, and can cause far more repeated sequences than anything else. Also, Anna’s rhythm game medical sections are fine from a “the game had to do something” perspective, but they aren’t terribly fun or interesting, and the game could probably do without them. These are, admittedly, minor complaints, but taken together they take some notable shine off the product at points.
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
That all said, Valiant Hearts is one of those rare games people really need to play, as everything comes together in a way that makes it, honestly, one of the best games released so far this year. The presentation is amazing, between the excellent storyline and strong visuals and audio, and given how few games take place during World War I that aren’t flight simulators and Lovecraftian reimaginings, it’s cool to see a game that tries to show the war as it was rather than using it as a backdrop for other things. The gameplay is simple to understand and the game does a lot of interesting things with the standard adventure game concept that make it a surprisingly inventive and fun experience that offers a lot of variety to keep the game interesting along with the story and characters. There’s not a lot to bring you back to the game once its complete, sadly, unless you miss some collectibles and want to unlock them all for the WWI history, and some of the alternate gameplay mechanics, such as the dodging artillery sequences and the rhythm game sections, aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Minor issues aside, however, Valiant Hearts does something few games are capable of, in that it gives you characters and stories you can easily care about set over a backdrop that’s important and means something, and the overall package is one players absolutely should see, no matter who you are.
Short Attention Span Summary:
Valiant Hearts does a lot with what it’s given, and you shouldn’t be surprised if it ends up taking home a bunch of awards at the end of the year, because it’s honestly the kind of experience that’s well worth the price and sticks with you long after you’ve played it. Yeah, it lacks in replay, and yeah, not everything works as intended mechanically, but honestly, when the game works, which is often, it works, and very well at that. The plot is excellent, the characters are moving and powerful, the visuals are excellent and create a nice contrast to the story, and by and large the experience is expertly crafted from the ground up into a product that’s moving and memorable. Valiant Hearts is honestly one of the best games released so far this year, downloadable or otherwise, and is a game that everyone should take some time to play if given the chance, as it’s an excellent experience all around that’s well worth the asking price and then some.