Valiant Hearts: The Great War review
“We must strive to cherish their memory and never forget…”
Ubisoft has had a tough couple years, not with sales of course but with how they are now perceived within the gaming community. However, it’s remarkably easy to forget that they produced this little gem this year, using that achingly beautiful UbiArt engine as its template (seriously when can we get a Prince of Persia in this engine?). Valiant Hearts is based around the horrific events of World War I, but it largely forgoes the facts and figures that you were beaten over the head with in school and instead revolves around the personal struggles of its characters. The game really must be commended for achieving this delicate balance with regards to its subject material, its endearing art style successfully balances the grim truths of war so that players of all ages can experience its tale, whilst importantly making sure that the tremendous human cost is appropriately acknowledged.
Valiant Hearts begins with a stirring animated sequence focusing on German citizen Karl who is living in France with his wife and newborn son, as war arrives, Karl is forced to enlist in the German army, meanwhile his father-in-law, Emile is conscripted into the French forces. It’s refreshing to see that immediately the point is made that the war was no simple good vs evil matter, all sides were filled with ordinary people who did not want to fight, they were just caught up in events beyond their control. In addition, over the course of the game you will also play as a Belgian nurse named Anna who is looking for her kidnapped father and a French-based American called Freddie who fights for the French too after a tragic event. Overall, the narrative is great, I really did care about these characters and dearly hoped they would all be safe by the time the credits rolled, the emotional gut-punches were blended well with the few moments of triumph. It’s in-keeping with the presentation of the game, there is a real emotional warmth to the story and characters despite the unremitting misery of their circumstances.
Valiant Hearts plays out like a 2D side-scrolling, puzzle-adventure game, over the course of the game you’ll be taking control of the diverse cast to navigate environmental hazards and solve puzzles. Each character has their own specific skill with Emile being able to dig through trenches; Anna can heal people whereas Freddie can cut through barbed wire. The puzzles themselves are diverse in their presentation but they never really become challenging and honestly could do with a bit more depth. It largely focuses on pulling levers and issuing commands to Walt, your adorable canine companion. I don’t mean to be too down on the puzzles though, they’re fine for the most part and being able to solve them easily means that the momentum isn’t slowed.
What is fantastic though, is how the gameplay mechanics in regards to the puzzles are thematically-appropriate, so when you’re in the trenches with Emile, I needed to dig new paths while avoiding the submerged bombs. As Anna, you’ll be performing frantic life-saving aid after a gas attack in the city, Karl using stealth to evade the guards in a POW camp. There is a terrific connection between theme and structure in Valiant Hearts, and it becomes even more distinctive when the game makes a seamless transition to each character in a level.
Another point I wish to make is how Valiant Hearts really nails that biting sense of urgency, the trenches with Emile again is the prime example as one false move when digging could bring about an impromptu cave-in, Anna with her medical treatment and plenty of other examples that I don’t want to go on and spoil. Some scenarios are exaggerated, even under the extraordinary conditions of World War One, but the characterful animated art style makes it feel somewhat fitting all the same.
The selling point of the game though is how it looks, and my oh my is it just visually breathtaking. The UbiArt engine comes up trumps again, the First World War is brought to life through beautiful hand-drawn backdrops, action sequences are punctuated with comic-book transitions and characters are animated with a cartoon-like charm. It’s wonderful for the entire duration of the experience and the art style I’m sure will have made this game far more appealing to many players who might otherwise have been put off with its depressive subject material.
That’s not to say Valiant Hearts shirks away from the horrors of war but the art style does significantly help in a way so it’s not overwhelming in its despair. For instance, you’ll not be doing the killing, the most you’ll ever to do is clobber someone over the head from behind, you’re more of the problem-solver and helper rather than the aggressor in this conflict. The war itself is depicted to be an unending machine of death, you’ll see hundreds of men in the background slaughtered in futile charges and the distant screams of victims of bombing. The infamous Nivelle Offensive chapter is particularly intense. But it’s immeasurably important that Valiant Hearts didn’t shy away from it, this is how it should be remembered, the delightful art style is not intended to mask the atrocities that lay behind it.
Speaking of remembrance, Valiant Hearts maybe has the best collectables in any game I’ve played, neatly woven throughout the game, players have ability to pick up objects in the environment that told a real-life story about the war. Be it a letter from a demoralized French soldier, or a photo of an entire regiment, this is complemented with facts and figures about what happened at the location you’re traversing through. Details like these hit me hard I have to admit and it really opened up just how destructive and painful the war was. The intensely personal stories set it apart from other games based on the events.
Valiant Hearts is not only a beautiful-looking game, but it’s also significant in the sense that it accomplishes more than perhaps a standard history lesson on the subject could. It perhaps offers a tantalising glimpse at what this medium could achieve with regards to engaging players of all ages on historical events. The heart-breaking struggles of the characters are meshed expertly with real-life accounts to give the game an emotional intensity that few others could hope to achieve.
Rewarding, engaging and educating, that’s quite the game in my book.
+ Beautiful art direction and score
+ Respectful treatment of subject material
+ Meaningful collectables
– Puzzles don’t have much depth