Ubisoft Montpellier showed off Valiant Hearts: The Great War about a year ago and from what we saw, it looked like it was going to be a tearjerker. It’s setting, the Great War or World War I, acted as the title’s main hook as many games are not set during the early 1900’s; it’s a time period that should be explored more in the video game industry. But Valiant Hearts also sets itself apart by not focusing on the action of WWI, but focusing more as a humanistic art piece centered around hardship and loss and in this regard, it succeeds and fails to an extent.
Aesthetics (Story, Graphics, Sound)
Valiant Hearts follows four playable characters whose journeys through war-torn Europe intertwine around one medical supply dog named Walt: the Frenchman Emile, the American Freddie, the Belgian Anna, and the German Karl. The game sells itself as an emotional experience that chronicles their hardships — the loss of loved ones, the horrors of gas warfare, and the importance of friendship. I thought the story was very well done; it was paced well, flushed out the main characters in a way that had me invested in their plight and had some interesting set pieces. Yet, for a game that tries to stand out among a slew of good war narratives in not just gaming but in cinematic art, it doesn’t quite reach a level of immersion and emotion that it needs to be at. One glaring example of this is two dimensional antagonist Baron von Dorf who acts villainous solely because he’s “the villain”. As the primary antagonist, he represents a common goal shared by the four characters but he’s flat and uninteresting, carrying out evil deeds because he needs to be the enemy.
Art direction for Valiant Hearts is, in a word, amazing. The amount of detail in each background, in each crumpled ruin or putrid trench, really catches the imagination and does an impressive job of translating one of the most gruesome conflicts in history into an animated adventure. There are some moments, however, where I feel the style doesn’t lend itself much to the immersion but their choice was bold and works out for most of the game.
The greatest strength of Valiant Hearts is its soundtrack. The slow, melancholy orchestral scores resonate perfectly with the sentimental scenes of heartbreak or respite while the upbeat fervor of the action scenes adds a sense of intensity and adrenaline. It creates an extraordinary level of atmosphere that, coupled with the brlliant sound effects and mixing, makes up for the loss of poignancy in the other areas of the aesthetic. Another interesting note is how the characters talk, which has me divided. It’s not jibberish, but more a mumbled, sped up version of each character’s actual language. The linguistic style fits perfectly with the art direction, but at the same time suffers from the same problem: it breaks immersion in an otherwise realistic interpretation.
Gameplay (Combat, Systems, Mechanics)
Valiant Hearts is a character-driven, 2-D puzzle platformer adventure. While the media shown for the game didn’t make this clear until recently, I though it was an interesting approach to a World War I set game. But Valiant Hearts’ main draw is its story and art direction, but how does it operate as a video game? The puzzles are pretty straightforward and don’t really challenge your cognitive abilities. It’s a shame because while I’m a huge proponent of the importance of video game narratives, Valiant Hearts is a perfect example why, as a video game, gameplay is just as important as showing an excellent story. Obstacles seem included simply because they needed something for the player to do while getting from chapter to chapter, from point A to point B. Moving from puzzle to puzzle felt like going through the motions and doesn’t really engage its player.
Each character in the game has their own unique mechanic and while this varies the gameplay slightly, the puzzles are relatively the same with a few mini-games sprinkled in. For example, Freddie, as the enforcer type character, can cut through barbed wire and has more enemy encounters than Anna the medic or the digger Emile. Each character is accompanied by Walt, whose own puzzle mechanics are few and uninspired. However, I must mention that there is one mini-game in Anna’s sections that I enjoyed thoroughly: the driving game. It’s a little silly and simple as you dodge obstacles that are timed to famous classical pieces, but it’s an entertaining portion that stuck out the most from the constant humdrum puzzles thrown at the player.
In a nutshell, and I kind of hate to say this, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is basically War Horse the video game. The plot takes an animal protagonist who meets various soldiers and war volunteers from multiple fronts and factions and chronicles the Great War through their experiences. That’s just on a surface, summary level you might say, but the level of execution in aesthetics and goal in both are also on equal terms. The game represents itself as a somewhat serious, sentimental take on World War I, but just falls short of really hammering down the emotional urgency or poignancy needed. The characters and their stories are well told and the art and sound are beautiful, but all of these elements don’t really express the deeper struggle of WWI and its devastating effects. On top of that, the game’s simple puzzle design and lack of challenge makes it seem like the story was the main intent all along, that the actual game mechanics were tacked on solely because a video game demands them as a form. I’d recommend this to those who want a good cinematic, aesthetic experience or if you’re just interested in World War I history, but if you’re looking for a good interactive experience, Valiant Hearts falls a bit short.
Final Score: 7.5 / 10
Written and Edited by Tim Atwood