Valiant Hearts: The Great War stood out at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference, and I believe only some of that had to do with it running on the company’s UbiArt Framework engine. Like most of Ubisoft’s reveals, Valiant Hearts depicts gruesome, violent scenes in which characters butcher each other with various weapons; yet, the game is remarkably beautiful, and it goes beyond the senseless violence to tell a about a few soldiers trying to survive and make sense of the conflict. Keep in mind that Valiant Hearts is beautiful with a purpose, and that purpose is to tell a story about World War I, a subject matter that has been largely absent in video games.
What immediately stands out about Valiant Hearts, besides the wonderful artwork, is how it portrays each character’s struggles regardless of what country they fight for. Even though the Germans are thought of as the villain in both World Wars, you will be dodging bullets from both the French and the Germans, as each of the five characters whom you play as is connected to each other in light of the whole bloody affair. It begins with Emile who joins the French army after his daughter’s German husband Karl is recruited to fight on behalf of the Central Powers; even when he finally runs into in the middle of war, he’s happy to see him regardless despite their differing military obligations. Others join with different reasons such as Freddie who seeks revenge for the death of his wife or Anna who wants to heal as many soldiers regardless of their affiliation. No matter who you play as, you will be accompanied by a dog who assists each character as they strive to achieve their goals, which shows how each character is just a small part of the whole war.
It’s not just the characters that makes Valiant Hearts’ story worth hearing; rather, it’s the way that the game communicates its thoughtful messages. The only person to speak in full, clear sentences is the narrator; everyone else speaks in either bits of untranslated French, German, or, if you’re playing as Freddie the American, grunts. Other times, there are bits of unspoken dialogue displayed via animations or dialogue bubbles in which I found myself knowing instinctively knowing what to do. It doesn’t take an objective marker for me to empathize with and help the German soldier who is caught underneath the rubble after a bombing–especially since the dog will often save you from a similar fate–and I don’t need to be fluent in any of the languages to understand when a sergeant is being abusive. Without any dialogue, Valiant Hearts manages to play on the emotional responses in which it anticipates the players might feel, and that’s when Valiant Hearts’ storytelling becomes its most poignant.
Valiant Hearts is an adventure game where the actions you perform mimic that of classic cartoons, providing a sense of adventure that contrasts the atrocities that are associated with war. Characters never begin with a weapon; they’re more associated with their most commonly used tools, such as Emile with his shovel, Freddie with his wire cutters, or Anna with her medical supplies and automobile. Although they each have their specialized skills, they also draw from the same mechanics, which boils down to pushing and throwing objects. Part of the tradeoff of having a game that brilliant communicates its ideas and objectives without spoken word are that some of the puzzles either provide little challenge or feel repetitive. Too often I felt a sense of déjà vu as I found myself throwing more bottles at the same targets, solving puzzles that are similar to the see-saw puzzle from Half-Life 2, or tell my canine companion to fetch an object that I could not reach.
However, every now and then Valiant Hearts introduces some breathtaking moments that makes suffering through the tedium worth it. Anna tends to have the most interesting chapters, as she’s able to drive a car during a mini game in which I dodged obstacles and projectiles in synchronization with a piece of classical music—the result is a minigame that felt like a rhythm game. Speaking of Anna, she is the only one who can heal characters, and she does so by initiating QTEs that, while at first sounds like a chore, becomes more rewarding each time Anna proudly smiles for each good deed. But, when things get violent and serious, the enemy—usually from Germany’s side—unleashes giant, mechanical atrocities for you to destroy. The solution is not to go in guns blazing; rather, you go through multiple stages of puzzle solving while simultaneously making use of your reflexes. After such interesting events transpire, the game will resume its tedious pace; however, it does give hope of more exciting things to come.
But even with the fantastic, sometimes tedious, action, Valiant Hearts is seton providing the perfect World War I story, which in turn adds value both for its price and its narrative . While some games provide collectable items for nothing more than for trophies and achievements, Valiant Hearts’ collectibles are all related to World War I memorabilia, and the game is more than happy to give players a history lesson. At the time, I was too focused on the each of the four main characters and their dog, as I felt that the game provided adequate context for each usable object; however, the collectible items should appeal to historians, be they interested in learning more about World War I or testing their knowledge against Ubisoft’s.
Valiant Hearts is essentially one of the most effective communicators in video-game form. It’s able to speak more with its animations, artwork and situations than even its narrator. At times the adventure can become tedious, although I imagine even real wars have their boring moments; however, if you stick with it, you will find one of the most incredible war stories in the gaming industry.
This review is based on a PSN review copy of Valiant Hearts: The Great War for PlayStation 3 provided by Ubisoft.