Valiant Hearts: The Great War

360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One

EDGE - - GAMES -

It’s a shame that the flights of fancy made the cut, be­cause Valiant Hearts is at its best dur­ing in­ti­mate mo­ments

Pub­lisher/de­vel­oper Ubisoft (Mont­pel­lier) For­mat 360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One Re­lease Out now

Like war, Valiant Hearts be­gins with a few mod­est steps be­fore es­ca­lat­ing out of con­trol. The game opens with Emile, one of four playable char­ac­ters, walk­ing through a French re­cruit­ment sta­tion, hav­ing been dis­placed from his farm and con­scripted.

Over three screens, we’re told the story of Emile’s trans­for­ma­tion from peas­ant to pri­vate as he ar­rives at the gates and is barked at by an of­fi­cer, moves through a build­ing hav­ing been stripped of his old clothes, and then emerges wear­ing a uni­form and car­ry­ing a gun. It’s a sub­tle but pow­er­ful open­ing. Later on, how­ever, amid the ruins of a church, he fights a grenade-toss­ing Ger­man gen­eral in a blimp by buf­fet­ing the of­fi­cer us­ing the off-key parps emit­ted by an or­gan’s bro­ken pipes.

Valiant Hearts, then, isn’t en­tirely sure what kind of game it wants to be. But even if such mo­ments are ton­ally dis­crepant, they are at least neatly wo­ven to­gether from a me­chan­i­cal stand­point. De­spite its WWI set­ting, the ma­jor­ity of Valiant Hearts in­volves sim­ple puz­zles; ma­noeu­vring a blimp into po­si­tion so that you can knock a grenade from an en­emy’s hands is func­tion­ally no dif­fer­ent from cook­ing wurst ein­topf in en­emy trenches as a pris­oner of war. The mes­sage each puz­zle de­liv­ers, how­ever, and their ef­fect on the player, is pro­foundly dif­fer­ent.

It’s a shame that the flights of fancy – which are mostly re­stricted to boss en­coun­ters – made the cut, be­cause Valiant Hearts is at its best dur­ing its more in­ti­mate mo­ments: be­ing res­cued from rub­ble by Walt, a Ger­man medic dog, and sub­se­quently build­ing a last­ing friend­ship; help­ing out in­mates around a POW camp in order to gather the equip­ment needed for a dar­ing es­cape; or hid­ing from sol­diers by cover of night, be­ing care­ful not to move as flares light up the field.

De­spite the ac­tion on­screen, you’re rarely the per­pe­tra­tor of vi­o­lence, be­yond the oc­ca­sional shovel to the back of the head, as you move through Ubisoft’s take on the war – grenades are mostly used to clear ob­sta­cles rather than kill. But vi­o­lence and suf­fer­ing sur­round you on all sides. Bod­ies lit­ter no man’s land and muddy trenches, sol­diers cry out in fear, and chlo­rine gas fills the air. One par­tic­u­larly har­row­ing se­quence sees you play as Bel­gian stu­dent Anna as she at­tends to the wounded, hav­ing vol­un­teered as a field nurse. One man needs an arm re­mov­ing, an­other re­quires a crutch, and an­other still needs a wooden cross to fin­ish bury­ing a dead soldier.

It’s a se­quence that’s typ­i­cal of the game’s open, mul­ti­lay­ered spa­ces, which al­low you to move in and out of the screen be­tween planes, and con­tain many smaller in­ter­con­nected puz­zles. The prob­lems are never dif­fi­cult to solve, and when you get one piece right the rest tends to cas­cade into place (the am­pu­ta­tion saw also fells a tree that holds a bil­low­ing scarf that can be used as a sling). There are more lo­calised puz­zles, too, which take the shape of pipe sys­tems with ro­tat­ing con­nec­tions that must be ma­nip­u­lated to al­low liq­uids or gases to flow through them. Work­ing out the big­ger pic­ture and cor­rect order while ex­plor­ing the at­mo­spheric – and beau­ti­fully drawn – ar­eas is sat­is­fy­ing de­spite the lack of chal­lenge.

It’s a pity, then, that Ubisoft falls foul of its in­abil­ity to self-cen­sor and in­tro­duces a rhythm-ac­tion-style minigame to rep­re­sent Anna’s med­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties. A ban­dage con­tain­ing a sim­ple car­dio­gram scrolls across the top of the screen and you must match but­ton presses and com­bi­na­tions with each blip on the line. Miss these cues and the ban­dage will grad­u­ally be­come blood­ier, even­tu­ally re­sult­ing in fail­ure. It’s a rel­a­tively in­of­fen­sive ad­di­tion the first time you en­counter it, but you’ll spend a lot of time help­ing peo­ple as Anna – of­ten mul­ti­ple times in the same area – and it quickly be­comes te­dious. It feels like an un­nec­es­sary me­chanic added for the sake of it, rather than some­thing that gives va­ri­ety to the game, and all the more so given that there is no con­se­quence for fail­ure and you’re able to sim­ply try again un­til you suc­ceed.

Anna’s other rhythm-ac­tion minigame, which sets several long-dis­tance car jour­neys to mu­sic – the sound­track in­clud­ing Flight Of The Bum­ble­bee and Of­fen­bach’s In­fer­nal Galop (bet­ter known as the mu­sic to the can-can) – is a more suc­cess­ful ab­strac­tion. Steer­ing Anna’s car left and right as it moves to­wards the player, planes, cars, tanks and even pot­holes at­tempt to im­pede your progress, all show­ing up in time with the mu­sic. These sec­tions feel like poor re­la­tions to Ray­man Le­gends’ mu­sic lev­els, but they raise a smile nonethe­less. Well, they do un­til a boss fight with a gi­ant ar­moured car is shoe­horned into one of them and things be­gin to drift from fact-based fic­tion to the sim­ply fan­tas­ti­cal. Worse, a cou­ple of the ar­moured ve­hi­cle’s at­tacks aren’t ad­e­quately fore­shad­owed, lead­ing to a clus­ter of frus­trat­ing deaths. Valiant Hearts’ other playable char­ac­ters aren’t so re­liant on gim­micks. Emile is some­times armed, but more of­ten finds him­self with just a shovel, which al­lows him to open up es­cape routes dur­ing gas at­tacks and find buried col­lecta­bles (all pe­riod ob­jects that shed light on the era, such as makeshift gas masks made from whit­tled shell cases or urine-soaked cloth). De­spite the game’s story be­ing told from mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives, it is Emile’s jour­ney that forms the cen­tral nar­ra­tive.

Early on in the game, Emile be­friends an Amer­i­can soldier, Fred­die, who joined the French For­eign Le­gion in the early stages of the war. Whereas Emile was con­scripted re­luc­tantly, Fred­die is seek­ing re­venge against a Ger­man reg­i­ment that caused the death of his wife, and is a lit­tle more gung-ho as a re­sult. He can hit harder, and also car­ries some use­ful wire cut­ters, but

while you’ll spend more time un­der fire play­ing as Fred­die, progress is still mostly about puz­zle-solv­ing.

And the same is true for Karl, a Ger­man-born farm­hand who, after leav­ing his home coun­try, ended up work­ing for Emile and fall­ing in love with his boss’s daugh­ter, Marie. The cou­ple had a baby just after the as­sas­si­na­tion of Franz Fer­di­nand, and Karl is forced to leave France when the coun­try ejects all Ger­man ex­pa­tri­ates in re­sponse to ris­ing ten­sions, re­join­ing the Ger­man army in the process.

Many of the game’s puz­zles re­volve around a fifth char­ac­ter, the afore­men­tioned Walt. Hold­ing L1 on our DualShock brings up con­tex­tual com­mands, each as­signed to a dif­fer­ent but­ton, which al­low you to send the scrappy ca­nine through small gaps to re­trieve keys or other items, dis­tract guards or just re­turn to you. He’ll bark at items of in­ter­est or to warn of po­ten­tial dan­gers, and can crawl be­neath ris­ing gas to re­trieve a gas mask, for in­stance, or even pull levers to move plat­forms or ma­chin­ery. One par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able sec­tion sees you switch be­tween con­trol of Emile and Fred­die, each on dif­fer­ent sides of a river, us­ing Walt to ferry items be­tween the two hu­mans. He may not have a speak­ing part, but Walt proves as es­sen­tial to your sur­vival as you are for his.

De­scrib­ing the other char­ac­ters’ roles as speak­ing parts may be a bit of a reach, how­ever. In­stead of dia­logue, char­ac­ters mum­ble just-per­cep­ti­ble bursts of words ac­com­pa­nied by pic­to­rial speech bub­bles. For ex­am­ple, early on in the game, a lad­der is blocked by a soldier. Walk up to him and a speech bub­ble will ap­pear that first dis­plays a lad­der with a cross through it, and then a heart and some qua­ver notes. Get a nearby brass band to play, and he’ll wan­der away to join the other rev­ellers. The sys­tem im­bues the game with a kind of emo­tional short­hand that com­ple­ments its up­set­ting sub­ject mat­ter and avoids the trap of heavy-handed ex­po­si­tion, leav­ing a nar­ra­tor to fill in the blanks be­tween lev­els. Emile also sends let­ters home – nar­rated, oddly, in an English ac­cent, though the per­for­mance is a pow­er­ful one. The story is filled out by short di­ary en­tries from each char­ac­ter (in­clud­ing the non-playable Marie) and a se­ries of Facts, which open up as you progress. Thor­oughly re­searched in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the French-govern­ment-funded com­mem­o­ra­tive body Mis­sion Cen­te­naire 14-18, this in­for­ma­tion is ac­com­pa­nied by pho­to­graphs (some­times heart­warm­ing, some­times har­row­ing) and, de­spite not be­ing di­rectly in­te­grated with the game, never feels bolted on. There is also a hint pi­geon should you get tan­gled up in one of the game’s less log­i­cal puz­zles, the avian mes­sen­ger de­liv­er­ing grad­u­ally more de­tailed clues on a timer to en­cour­age you to give it an­other go first.

Boss fights aside, Ubisoft’s con­sid­er­a­tion for its sub­ject mat­ter through­out is strik­ing, and for the most part Valiant Hearts feels like a fit­ting trib­ute to the mil­lions who died fight­ing on both sides of the Great War. That the story never takes sides, nor cheap­ens its cam­paign by mak­ing the player solely re­spon­si­ble for vic­tory (or, in­deed, de­feat), is even more re­mark­able. Valiant Hearts is sim­ple, hum­ble even, but it’s never facile, and it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be moved by the very per­sonal sto­ries it tells along the way.

ABOVE Comic book-style cut­aways are used to show rel­e­vant en­emy ac­tiv­ity hap­pen­ing off­screen. Here, Emile must wait un­til the guard steps away from his gun be­fore mak­ing a dash for the next piece of cover

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