An Essential Journey
With a World War I setting, Valiant Hearts: The Great War explores relatively unfamiliar ground for gaming, or even movies to be honest, as it was generally WWII that inspired so many films and games. It’s hard to believe that the human race had the capacity for war again after the events of WWI and Valiant Hearts plays an important role in showing us that this was one of the darkest moments of humanity’s very chequered past.
Unlike most war games though, Valiant Hearts isn’t another one-man-army first-person shooter or a strategic tactical sim. It’s a heavily story-driven experience with puzzling and old-school adventuring at the core of the gameplay.
The hand-drawn visuals ensure that you’ll fall in love with the game early on and they certainly helped open a few doors for the game in terms of coverage when it was first announced. LikeRayman Legends and Child of Light, the game uses Ubisoft’s fantastic UbiArt engine that brings hand-drawn images to life in a way that other engines can only dream of. Valiant Hearts goes for the solid colours and thick black lines of a comic book style instead of the moving watercolours we saw with Child of Light, proving for any doubters the versatility of the engine.
The game is set in France on the Western Front against the German forces. This sees many stages with you charging across battlefields or no man’s land. Quieter moments might have you exploring nearby towns between battles, sneaking through trenches or helping to build sapper tunnel beneath enemy lines.
The aesthetic detail really adds to the atmosphere of the game and things are suitably grim, but without the need for gore. Up until the last quarter of the game, I’d even made a note that this was something of a PG-friendly take on the war. I had to scribble that out though after the Nivelle Offensive as I clambered over huge piles of corpses. Lighter details to alleviate the grim despair of it all pop up occasionally though such as the carrier pigeons wearing little metal helmets or the way most faces are drawn with hats covering their eyes and flamboyant moustaches dominating the rest of their faces.
Diary updates, fact pages and hidden items all help to inform and build a picture of what life may have been like for the soldiers and citizens. Everything is so well written and never comes across as dry, ensuring I was keen to read anything new. This is exactly the sort of thing that would spark life into a dull classroom.
The story explores the war from various perspectives via multiple characters. The narrative bounces around between them, with paths frequently connecting to form a rich tapestry of their common purpose. The first character we’re introduced to sets the game up nicely by indicating that what lies ahead won’t be simply black and white. Karl is a German, living in France and when war breaks out he is told to leave France and forced to leave his French wife and child behind. Then the Germans force him to enlist in the army to fight against the country he calls home.
Karl’s wife Marie, barely has time to dry her tears over his departure before her father Emile, is told he must fight for the French. Eddie, an American living in France is also pulled into the war after the death of his wife. Finally we have Anna, a veterinarian/taxi driver whose skills are used as a field medic and to deliver soldiers to the battles in a vicious, unrepentant circle.
Tying the characters together is Walt, a German field medic’s dog that has been separated from his owner, who joins each of the main characters at some point during their journey along the Western Front. Walt is used mainly to fetch out of reach items by crawling through narrow gaps. He can even be told to pull levers or distract guards you wish to sneak past. In all honesty, there isn’t much effort on Ubi Montpellier’s part to form a real bond with him. Despite the cute animations, he never really feels more than an item fetcher. Thankfully the bond towards the main characters is much stronger as you witness them suffer throughout the war for years with the common goal of just making it through.
In the game itself you’ll use unique character skills like cutting barbed wire fences or digging through mud to clear a path around sensitive unexploded artillery shells. There are some intense action scenes that don’t give you a gun, you just have to survive a suicidal dash and avoid artillery fire by looking out for their shadows before they strike. It’s a relentlessly harrowing experience and you will die a lot as it’s hard work keeping your eye on the ground and looking out for gun nests in the background cutting down anything that runs in front of them between reloads. Further grim authenticity is added by your superiors executing you if you slow down too much or dare to turn back.
Some driving missions see you hurtling towards the front of the screen and steering left and right to avoid obstacles and bombardment. There’s a bit of trial and error here that can become a little frustrating, but the integration of the music to each explosion does well to keep you smiling through it all. You even get to play with a tank at one point and shoot diving biplanes.
More sedate sections see you doing a lot of item hunting and trading objects with other soldiers to get what you need. Some items are hidden in plain sight while others may have to be dug up or accessed by freeing trapped citizens. Puzzles often involve thing like looking for numbers for a safe code or moving pipes around to fix a shower or blow up a machine pumping chlorine gas onto the battlefield. Anna’s QTE-inspired healing sections feel out of place though to be honest and are at odds with the rest of the game – but they’re mercifully brief.
This blend of gameplay styles is finely balanced throughout and you’ll find it hard to put the game down over the course of its four chapters and roughly eight-hour runtime. There’s nothing else likeValiant Hearts out there and with any luck, more developers will try this novel approach to war games by focussing more on characters than action.
- Visuals are beautifully designed
- Adds a human side to war like no other game before
- Educational depth offered by hidden items is relevant and enriches the experience
- Driving sections can be a bit tough
- QTE parts are an odd design choice
- Had to reload a few times due to glitches
The Short Version: Valiant Hearts is a breakthrough title that attempts to show the gamer the impact the First World War had on regular people. Instead of being given a bag of guns, you’re simply tasked with surviving by getting through each area so you can get the protagonists home. This is the game that proves war games don’t have to be all about mowing down waves of enemies and the emphasis on the characters and atmosphere outshines the basic puzzling and item gathering.
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