Puzzles, poignancy and a peaceful message
Inspired by letters from the World War I, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a perfect example of modern edutainment.The basic puzzle gameplay of object collecting and trial-and-error is secondary to what the game actually is. By focussing on the realities of a continent in turmoil, the displacement of people and the uncomfortable truths of the birth of modern warfare, Ubisoft Monpellier have crafted something that actually has a point. It’s more than a premise used as a crutch to shoehorn in an enjoyable combination of button presses; if anything, the act of navigating the game is the least memorable aspect of it, as it’s rudimentary in almost every way. Utilising simple mechanics, the likes of which prop up numerous free browser games, it manages to evoke genuine emotion through its story telling.
It’s not often that a game based on a war scenario actually aims to impart some kind of message to the player, but Valiant Hearts does so. If Spec Ops: The Line is Apocalypse Now, then this is Blackadder Goes Forth, behind the charming facade it’s no less serious in its cutting appraisal of mankind’s propensity for barbarism. The story bears all the hallmarks of a tale designed to tug at the heartstrings. You’ll control four characters; Freddie, a US soldier who enlists due to a personal tragedy; Karl, a German who is separated from his family; Emile, Karl’s father-in-law; and finally Anna, a nurse. All of them represent a different aspect of a grander story.
Don't forget your stick LieutenantThe early stages are very fetch oriented, and the game never truly evolves past this as a core, as you can only carry one object at a time and there are no combinations; it’s key and lock territory, find one to fit another. The amount of items placed in the environment is always on the low side, and the distance between them is generally more time consuming than the head-scratching over how to utilise them. The puzzling is of the light variety, but don’t let that put you off.
Far from being a criticism, it works to keep you moving forward, in time with the momentum of the plot, lest you forget why you’re in a particular place. Beyond one, maybe two mildly taxing conundrums, you’ll always be working through at a steady rate. With the intertwining stories, it was important that lulls were avoided and the game was as accessible as possible.
The puzzling is of the light variety, but don’t let that put you off.
The basic hand drawn art style uses the same UbiArt Framework engine that was employed with the recent Child of Light, creating a wonderful cardboard cut-out diorama of 2D objects and backdrops. The gentle undulation of animations and the layering effect adds a real sense of depth and an organic feel to shots. The direction is fairly dynamic too, as the story is interwoven using in-game graphics and comicbook-esque frames overlying one another. The scenes that unfold range in complexity, but the environments have a definite life to them.
This is vital to getting across Valiant Heart’s point. It’s almost unique in taking a war scenario and aiming for a historical, decidedly pragmatic, nay pacifistic outlook on the conflict. Getting the right aesthetic and setting the mood is key, which probably explains the game’s excellent choice of classical music. The gentle piano notes are understated and timeless, but it’s not all easy choices for sentimentality; when you first hear A Night on Bear Mountain blaring in time to the attacks during a mini boss fight, you’ll wonder why so few designers use such scores.
Archie Duke shot an ostrichIt’s not entirely cohesive though, and to get the most out of Valiant Hearts there’s a definite dilemma that soon comes to the fore. The game uses information about the period and collectibles in order to drip feed you some context for the scene that you’re playing. During your play-through you’ll travel to a variety of locations that represent many of the major bullet points of warfare at the time - everything from bombing raids and POW camps to the hell of life in the trenches.
The facts are well written, avoid basic trivia status, and actually add something, giving you pause (literally) for thought as each imparts something new to you, against a backdrop of thoughtful, slightly melancholic piano strains.
But, in order to read them all - and in doing so envelop yourself in all the game has to offer - you need to find the collectibles, of which there are over 100. This means tapping constantly to find the pesky blighters which might be obscured by foreground objects, lying behind a bush or a table. As you’d expect, for an often sombre game that relies on atmosphere to draw the player in and intends to move them, this is something of a mood-breaker.
It’s a definite dilemma, but to ignore the collectibles is perhaps the worst scenario, as they’re really intrinsic to everything that Valiant Heart attempts to do; thus, a little restraint in tapping is required, even if it means another play-through for completionists.
Good luck everyoneThere aren't many examples of steady pacing in gaming, but Valiant Hearts displays a knack for it over its 7-10 hours. The story weaves in the four characters well, creating a sense of momentum, with each having their own cliffhangers and resolutions in sight, only for them to be dashed a few times. It shies just clear of what might be seen as a cynical manipulation of emotions, particularly with the inclusion of a dog and a child, managing to generally remain centred on the realities of war rather than non-representative tragedies.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that the caricatures are occasionally too simplistic at times for a story that ends up aiming for more profundity in highlighting the horrors of war. For accessibility, the humour and cartoonish elements required a certain levity, but a two dimensional arch villain of a German and an African American (three years prior to the US entering the war) who’s steeped in the Mr T school of acting could have been a little more nuanced.
That’s the crux of Valiant Hearts though, it uses its minimalistic approach, a few tropes and the simplicity of its gameplay to lure you into a false sense of security whilst it gets its message across, like the cliched hip teacher in oh so many US movies. It punctuates quirky design choices with the harshness of reality to stunning effect, catching you off guard should you suppose the cartoon aesthetic equals a vacuous experience.
It’s accessible with a catchy art style, it’s poignant, it’s educational and it ends up being genuinely moving. There may not be the layered relationships of The Walking Dead or the truly unyielding nature of Papers Please, nor is there the complexity of proper puzzlers, but the fact that what unfolds has its roots in non-fiction helps elevate the game past its use of rudimentary mechanics and towards its destination as a fine example of evocative story telling.
- Thoughtful story
- Visually artistic
- Excellent use of music
- Shallow gameplay
Valiant Hearts: The Great War PS4 ReviewValiant Hearts is a game that actually has a point above that of enjoyable gameplay; it engages through its artwork and the information it imparts rather than the core mechanics.
We're taken beyond the standard death-or-glory of most titles set during period conflicts, and offered a slightly different perspective. Through basic puzzles and a liberal sprinkling of facts, the player is whisked to a time of heroism and tragedy, but without falling into the mire of a moralising history lesson.
It’s not a perfect representation of The Great War, and it makes a few concessions to accessibility that mean it’s light in terms of actual gameplay - relying on mini-game segments - but as a piece of fiction inspired by real events, intended to deliver a message and hopefully move the player, it proves incredibly successful.
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