Ubisoft get a lot of justified stick for their record on PC. An era of devotion to failed DRM schemes, the inconsistencies of Uplay and various less-than-optimised ports have rightly sullied their reputation amongst PC users. But every now and then, Ubisoft gets things spectacularly right. Consider the PC-only Might & Magic X Legacy or Anno series. What other major publisher would give the go ahead to titles like that?
The same question could be asked of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, an affecting, character-driven 2D puzzle game based around World War One’s Western Front. Few games have even attempted to address the human tragedy of WW1, in part because the methods of warfare don’t translate all that well to current gaming mechanics and in part because it doesn’t fit the simplistic “goodies vs Germany” narratives so beloved of blockbuster WW2 titles.
Valiant Hearts adopts the narrative complexity of the Great War as a strength, intertwining the tales of four playable characters (and one adorable dog) from mixed national backgrounds and peppering progress through the game with brief but incisive details about the war.
The last known serving veteran of WW1 died in 2012, so primary sources like letters, photographs and artifacts are now the only way of preserving the war’s history. Although Valiant Hearts is first and foremost a game, it’s also a decent surreptitious teaching aide. Each level across the title’s five-to-six hour length has relevant encyclopedia entries, and the numerous in-game collectibles (as mandated by Ubisoft internal policy charter #503) tend to be items used by soldiers or civilians of the period.
There’s even a documentary air to the between-level cut-scenes and voiceover, not least because the guy narrating sounds a lot like he belongs on PBS’ Frontline talking about miscarriages of justice or financial fraud. The voiceover is useful for historical context and framing, but it can sometimes deliver a little bit of over-exposition. When we’re about to play a level in which a character is very clearly signing up for the French army, it’s not really necessary to be told that beforehand.
Valiant Hearts’ educational undertones aren’t forced or jarring, much of the information is simply there if you’re interested in further reading; but you’re likely to complete the game knowing more about the lives of people involved in this most senseless of conflicts.
The main characters of Valiant Hearts are portrayed in simple, but effective, terms. Each has a clear motivation and diverse background. Frenchman Emile has been conscripted by his national army and is keen to locate son-in-law Karl, booted out of France on account of his German citizenship. Veterinarian Anna wants to know why her Belgian father has disappeared, and brings vital medical knowledge to the front-lines. Freddie is a US citizen living in France, driven to join up by revenge, while Walt is an expert at being an adorable dog and helpful friend for puzzle-solving.
Communication between all characters in the game takes the form of short verbal barks, part-nonsense and illustrative speech bubbles. This is consistent with Valiant Hearts’ short-hand approach to conveying a great amount of information about a complex war. In fact, this minimalism actually feels a little bit undermined on the occasions where characters are given an actual cut-scene voiceover. The French-accented Emile of the game sounds nothing like the British voiceover version; an odd discrepancy that feels like a misstep.
This external narration is necessary to an extent, as the game’s narrative jumps between characters, through time and across locations. A certain amount is set in the expected trenches, but there’s a clear recognition that there’s more to WW1 than trench warfare. As it’s based on the Western Front we don’t get to see any of the more under-represented aspects like naval warfare or the Mesopotamian campaign to secure oil fields (the more things change, eh?) but civilian life in France and Belgium get welcome amounts of screen time.
As the screen captures dotted throughout this review should attest, Valiant Hearts is a wonderful looking game. The UbiArt Engine, previously used for recent Rayman titles and Child of Light, proves to be just as effective for darker (while still beautiful) graphic novel styles. Like the best animated presentations, the game isn’t afraid to use it’s cartoon-like visuals to depict the grim horrors of Ypres and the Somme in a non-graphic but powerful way.
Valiant Hearts can do lighter moments too, be they Walt’s cheerful hop when you solve a puzzle or some of the more absurd gameplay moments (using a cathedral organ to defeat a German officer springs to mind here,) but largely avoids too much tonal dissonance. The game knows when to hold back the more whimsical antics, and is adept enough not to let the bleaker material overwhelm and snuff out what sparks of hope exist in this story.
Ubisoft Montpellier’s sound design is near-impeccable, making fine, sparing use of classic music and restrained piano as well as more jaunty numbers with accordion emphasis. A certain car chase mini-game was giving me cause for concern that the game might be falling into the old Ocean Software licensed film title trap, but then the pursuing foes started launching attacks to the beat of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop (the “Can-Can” music) and my worries dissipated.
Car chase interludes aside, the majority of Valiant Hearts’ actual gameplay is of the side-scrolling puzzle kind. They’re not the most confounding of challenges, centered in the main around finding a way to progress beyond a caved-in tunnel, officious guard or poisonous gas. Each character has a basic swipe that can be used for demolishing rubble, the ability to lob items (to trigger switches or land some dynamite in a helpful spot) and also can ask Walt to fetch out of reach items or operate switches. Though the game gets a fair amount out of these straightforward mechanics, this is it’s weakest area.
Solving the puzzles is gently satisfying, but mostly because the art and sound work is so strong that you’ll always want to progress in order to luxuriate in more of it. Making Walt the dog such a key part of the puzzle-solving process was also rather cunning, as he’s a delight to interact with.
Portraying Anna’s medical abilities as a rhythm-action mini-game was perhaps a little strange as design choices go, and utterly confounded me until I realised that it would only recognise inputs from the keyboard’s arrow keys (even though I’d changed movement to WASD.) A more serious control oversight popped up regarding Emile’s ability to dig through certain areas, too. The game refused to recognise multiple keyboard inputs at once, meaning I couldn’t dig diagonally upwards and had to switch briefly to a 360 pad. This has the potential to be a progress ending bug for those who don’t own a back-up controller.
Just to round off the slightly bizarre technical issues, Uplay would sometimes refuse to load the game at all until I went into Task Manager and attempted to shut it down. At which point it would open up and run without issue. Very weird.
Valiant Hearts doesn’t quite solve the question of how to portray WW1 through an interactive medium, but comes closer than any other title I’ve played. It’s refreshing to progress through a wartime game where the bulk of time is spent trying to help people rather than staring down the barrel of a gun, and it does a better job framing the protagonists as heroes than the headshot and ‘killstreak’ titles could ever aspire to.
The four year humanitarian catastrophe of World War One demands sensitive and courageous handling. In Valiant Hearts: The Great War Ubisoft Montpellier have created a commemoration of the conflict in which videogaming can take significant pride.