Developed by Ubisoft Montpellier. Published by Ubisoft. Released June 24, 2014. Available on PC (reviewed), PS4, Xbox One.
For all the World War II shooters out there, comparatively few games attempt to tackle the Great War of 1914-1918, and it’s not hard to see why. While the Second World War has so many famous offensives, so many thrilling battles across land, sea, and air – all of which make great videogame material – the most famous aspect of World War I is trench warfare. This type of combat consisted mostly of sitting in the damp and the filth, feeling miserable, before being forced to run into a hail of machine gun fire where you will almost assuredly die.
War is often senseless, but the way in which 9 million people were marched to their deaths, often under threat of execution by their own superior officers, was particularly incongruous. Between the horrific conditions on both sides, the employment of poisonous gas, and the dehumanizing meat grinder tactics, it’s not surprising many consider this war one of the most tragic in history, even if other conflicts claimed more lives.
So, not exactly prime meat for a videogame, but that is the world in which Valiant Hearts: The Great War absorbs itself, amid the muddy trenches and burning chlorine of the European front. What is truly shocking about this game, however, is that it manages to do with its cartoon visuals and cute gibberish voices what a decade of dark, gritty combat games have failed to do – make war horrific, frightening, sad, and even a little inspiring.
I was having a bad week when I played Valiant Hearts, so whether the game in its entirety can claim credit is tough to say, but I had tears in my eyes as the end titles rolled. It may provide Ubisoft – a company I’ve more than criticized in the past – a little bit of satisfaction that it was able to make me cry, but it is certainly commendable that this game was able to draw such a reaction from me, regardless of any other circumstances at play. In the end, a perfect combination of narrative building, poignant dialog, beautiful music, and heartrending voice acting drew an extreme and rare reaction from me, and ensured Valiant Hearts‘ place as an unforgettable personal experience.
The animations are sublime, and the voice acting, led wonderfully by Dave Pettitt, lends a relatable quality to what is a very human story. It’s a story that crosses sides, and on more than one occasion explores just how meaningless the idea of a “side” can be to those soldiers sacrificing everything for their countries. It is a story of losing everything, but finding things to gain in that same loss.
Revolving around four playable characters and inspired by actual letters sent during the Great War itself, Valiant Hearts‘ main story is propelled by Emile, a French farmer called to fight for his country, and his son-in-law Karl, a German who has to battle for the opposing side. Tied into their tale is Freddie, an American soldier who wants to avenge his wife, and Ana, a Belgian nurse who wants to save lives regardless of nation. Crossing all their paths is a dog (named Walt out of game), whose training and loyalty makes him invaluable to each of the cast members throughout their interwoven stories.
For all its effective storytelling, Ubisoft Montpellier has produced a rather mundane experience from a gameplay standpoint. A standard adventure game primarily comprised of the “give item A to character X to get item B for character Y,” variety, this sidescrolling title relies on simple puzzles and fetch quests for the bulk of its gameplay. Each of the characters will interact with the world in a slightly different way, giving a different flavor to things, but for the most part, this is a very familiar little adventure.
Emile has a shovel, and his adventure takes place mostly in the trenches, where deadly explosives much be avoided while item-based tasks are handed to him by fellow soldiers. Freddie’s chapters are decidedly more action-packed, as he tosses grenades at enemy gun turrets, drives a tank over embankments, and has to avoid falling bombs. As Ana, players will regularly need to heal the wounded via a rudimentary rhythm game, while Karl primarily employs stealth, sneaking his way from French captors in a bid to return home to his family. The gameplay is not necessarily tied to one character – Emile will find himself in action-oriented sequences just as much as Freddie ends up solving puzzles – but there’s a definite theme to each of the playable heroes.
At regular intervals, Walt will accompany the player, and he can be sent to pull levers, fetch objects, and distract enemy guards. Again, there’s nothing truly groundbreaking here. Solving puzzles with a non-player companion is as old as the day is long, and nothing particular new is done with it. However, the dog is decidedly adorable, and simply interacting with him is a particular joy.
A couple of the fast-paced sequences rely a bit too heavily on trial-and-error, especially when it’s rushing players forward and then ambushes them them gunfire they couldn’t have expected. A number of puzzles feel far too much like busywork, too, requiring very little thought but a whole lot of carrying. There’s really nothing too taxing, though, especially as you’ll be gifted puzzle hints if you spend too long figuring out a particular problem.
The true standout of the game is a series of car chases that are, frankly, too few and far between. At various points in the game, players will take control of Ana in her red taxi, swerving from left to right to avoid pursuing opponents and oncoming obstacles. The hindrances occur on screen in time to a number of famous classical music pieces, giving the whole thing a “rhythm action” feel to it. These sequences are beautifully done, and provide some much-needed rousing between sidescrolling sections.
Valiant Hearts aims to be a somewhat educational experience, too. Entering new environments and finding optional items unlock factual tidbits about World War 1, detailing the history, culture, and tools of the period. There is some genuinely enlightening stuff in there, providing further context to the narrative and helping demonstrate just what conditions were like on the front.
Despite its comic book visual style, Valiant Hearts does an impeccable job of bringing to life the tragedy and the cost of World War I. Sequences including a poison gas attack on an entrenched position, as well as a truly incredible portrayal of the nightmare scenario that is going “over the top,” provide a stark contrast to the endearing presentation, and hammer home the death and destruction so flagrantly produced by the war. There’s stuff in here that made me think about the nature of warfare more than all the “gritty” first-person shooters under the Sun, and there’s an effectively jarring disparity between the deeply personal stories of the characters involved, and the horrible ease with which everybody around them dies. This is a story of loss, of how war consumes everything indiscriminately, but also of just enough hope to make everything worth continuing to fight.
Though a highly conventional game from a mechanical standpoint, Valiant Hearts is one of those games that demonstrate how great presentation can turn the common into something remarkable. As a straight videogame, The Great War did not wow me, and yet I cannot deny the fact that it inspired an emotional outpouring from me that I quite frankly needed at the time. There are so few examples across all entertainment media that I can say that of, and it brings cheer to my cynical heart that videogames, for as coldly calculated and focus tested as they’ve become, are capable of inspiring a genuine and importing feeling in me.
Hell, you just wouldn’t expect it from Ubisoft, huh?
Bottom Line: Despite taking shape as a rather unambitious adventure game, Valiant Hearts: The Great War nonetheless tells a beautiful story of loss and companionship with overwhelmingly evocative success.
Recommendation: If you’re one of the set who value story over gameplay, this is well worth checking out. If you’re the opposite kind of player, you may not quite get what you want here.[rating=4]