Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War – Down in the Trenches
Like the global conflict of World War I itself, Valiant Hearts: The Great War represents a massive triumph as well as a test of the human spirit. In the duration of its 6-7 hours, Valiant Hearts shows a wartime tale that brings out the best and worst in humanity under the struggles of battle: our capacity for kindness, cruelty, and adversity in the face of danger, but also doing so through a story that is beautifully told in both its writing and its visual presentation.
Between the dozens of titles from Call of Duty, Battlefield, Medal of Honor, Spec Ops, and the numerous other series that have focused almost exclusively on the horrors of war, Valiant Hearts presents a different kind of game about war than many will be prepared for. While World War II has been the focus of many of these titles, Valiant Hearts’ focus on the horrors of World War I is both a refreshing change of pace, and at the same time a reminder of the horrors of war in a very different setting than the overly-utilized setting of World War II. This not only provides a refreshing focus on a very different kind of war, but also thankfully takes guns out of the equation (most of the time) in an adventure that tests players’ heartstrings much more than their trigger fingers.
Developed by Ubisoft Montpelier with the UbiArt Framework, already 4-for-4 between crafting excellent (and beautiful) titles (like Rayman Origins, Rayman Legends and this year’s Child of Light), Valiant Hearts: The Great War takes players through the trenches and terror of World War I, as the plot weaves in between the lives of four characters bound to others and, inevitably, to the Great War itself.
Taking players along through France, Germany, Belgium, and other locales all in between, Valiant Hearts is a notable achievement on many levels for Ubisoft, both as a dedicated retelling of one of history’s greatest conflicts, and for its unique gameplay experience that crafts (already) one of this year’s most emotionally compelling stories – one that feels epic in scope, but surprisingly is far more intimate under closer examination.
The cast of Valiant Hearts have all been touched by the Great War in some way, and in the game’s opening hours it manages to succinctly, but effectively, make them all victims of the war in some form or another, whether physically or emotionally, but most importantly make them relatable and human.
German-born Karl is forced to leave his home in France to help support the war effort in the name of Germany, leading him into inevitable conflict against his also-enlisted father-in-law Emile, fighting on the side of France. All-American hero Freddie is back in the fight not only to support his country, but also acts on a mission for personal vengeance in the name of his family. Belgian nurse Anna also joins in the war effort on the altruistic side to help heal ailing soldiers and treat deadly, festering wounds on the battlefield.
Throughout the story of Valiant Hearts, Karl, Emile, Anna, and Freddie (along with an instantly adorable canine companion) come and go into each others’ lives, whether by choice or by the throws of World War I itself, and form much of the conflicts found in the game. Though the game borders on relying a little too often on plot devices and convenience in bringing the characters together (given they have the entirety of the European battleground to traverse), it’s a small quip with the otherwise grand story at play, and one that manages to weave in believable, relatable characters in just over six hours that many other games struggle with at two or three times its length.
Even more remarkably, the game conveys the struggles of its characters so beautifully, and yet with often little-to-no dialogue, with either small, delicate lines or exasperated grunts from Freddie to Anna’s shocked yelps at injured war victims that help in giving warmth, and humor, to the characters in the story.
Though the story and characters of Valiant Hearts are notable enough for their contributions to the experience, it goes without saying that the artwork and animation suitably do much of the heavy-lifting in making the game’s depiction of World War I so enriching, enthralling, and terrifying all at the same time. Compared to the bright, cheerful qualities of Rayman or the ethereal, storybook-artwork in Child of Light, Valiant Hearts substitutes the colors of those titles with a far more washed-out, grim palate of browns, whites, and grays, but nonetheless suiting the World War I landscape beautifully.
Bringing a number of comparisons to European animated films like that of Sylvain Chomet, Valiant Hearts’ art much resembles that of an animated graphic novel which, while cartoony at first in appearance, does an admirable job of bringing every facet of World War I to life – thankfully, it does so with taste and doesn’t sugar-coat the brutality of the war itself.
The game even more so walks a very fine line between showing the war in a bit of a lighter side compared to most depictions of its horrors, yet still manages to not shy away from the brutality (and bodies) that made up numerous portions of the first World War. Though it captures the war in a lively tone with many of its sequences, it captures the war both beautifully and respectfully throughout the entire experience.
Valiant Hearts succeeds amicably from a visual and storytelling perspective on numerous points, yet in a gameplay sense the game performs mostly honorably, with just a few bumps along the road to make the experience fun, but not particularly challenging. Gameplay in Valiant Hearts mainly consists of light puzzle-solving, making the title’s adventure game-styled experience a refreshing change of pace from the typical shooter route that other titles might have gone down in its depiction of World War I.
As a mix of a side-scrolling platformer alongside a puzzle title, gameplay focuses for the majority of the time on having players solve brief puzzles to get from one area to the next, whether they be in figuring out the best route to avoid gunfire, finding a lever needed to access a higher platform, or any of the other situations found in abundance throughout the game.
As players traverse the environments of European battlegrounds, numerous obstacles and situations will be presented to players to continue progressing, whether it’s in accessing dynamite to blow up enemy trenches, using your canine companion to pull levers, or find ways to maneuver through patches of deadly chemical gas.
In addition, the game also adds in some smaller bits of interactivity that are unique to each of the characters, based on their story and skill sets. Emile travels the battlegrounds of WWI with his dog companion (who can humorously be pet at any time), where commands can be given at any time for the dog to grab items, hit levers, and more. Likewise, Anna’s skills as a nurse are put to the test in a small “mini-game” where buttons prompts quickly flash across the screen while Anna is nursing wounded soldiers on the battlefield,
Valiant Hearts’ gameplay is full of interesting ideas and unique takes on familiar mechanics, but throughout its duration many of them feel like they aren’t quite ready for the battlefield.
Through most points during the title, story takes the precedent over gameplay during its various puzzles and brief combat situations, many of which are not particularly challenging or requiring more than some basic problem solving, but serve adequately to drive the story (and characters) to the next locations on the battlefield. Likewise, the game provides hints every few minutes or so if players are stuck on a puzzle or challenge, which usually is only needed when the solutions sometimes feel unclear or not immediately solvable, which is definitely not uncommon, but often feels like it ends up taking away much of the challenge from the game itself.
Though the game may be a bit on the easy side, it’s not without plenty of highlights that make its wartime tale fun, while maintaining its reverent tone. In particular, Freddie’s segments thrusting him into the heart of warzones are a thrilling and chilling reminder of the heat of WWI combat. Likewise Anna’s taxi chase scenes, basically serving as this game’s rendition of the musical levels from Rayman Legends, are some of the most lighthearted but fun sections of the entire game, especially when faced with weaving between traffic and incoming enemy bombs while under the pomp and circumstance of “The Can-Can” playing in the background.
World War I conjures up many images of destruction, of horror, and some of the atrocities dealt by human hands on a global level; even more so, it brings forth the honor and human spirit that was on display through those both affected and involved with the war itself. With Valiant Hearts, Ubisoft has created a tender and respectful title that not only recreates the atrocities of World War I realistically, but also tastefully and with complete artistic integrity and imagination.
The title is certainly not without its faults with fairly simple gameplay and puzzle-solving, and a sometimes over-reliance on historical facts and pop-up text to describe its WWI-inspired world. Yet, like the greatest feats and tales of the first World War, this tale, though difficult to witness at times, is nonetheless an important and great one for the ages.