Valiant Hearts: The Great War
360, PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One
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