Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review: In the trenches
Video games about war are nothing new. We see new ones released every year. But while the Call of Duty’s and Battlefield’s seemingly glorify the war hero, Ubisoft opts to explore the emotional aspect of the war and the effect it has on all involved. This is made clear by the simple fact that, at no point in the game, do you actually kill anyone. That doesn’t mean you won’t witness death though.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is set during World War I, also referred to as “The Great War.” But make no mistake, there is nothing great about this war -- except for maybe the number of casualties. With this game, Ubisoft isn’t necessarily trying to make you a war hero (though you will play as quite a few of them). Rather, they are simply attempting to share the experience of World War I with a younger generation. And that was my favorite part about the game.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War tells the story of five characters: Emile, a French farmer who becomes a prisoner of war when looking for his son-in-law. Freddie, an American soldier fighting in honor of his fallen wife. Ana, a field medic -- a "rose in the trenches -- surrounded by blood and gore. George, a British aviator who lied about knowing how to fly. The last is Karl, a German soldier lost in the trenches alone and sick with his love for Emile's daughter Marie. Accompanying these five characters are a canine, Karl, who not only helps the characters survive, but also assists through action sequences and puzzles.
The story is told much like the films Love, Actually or New Year’s Eve. Each character has their own individual story which is linked by one overarching plot. In this case, each are victims of this dreadful war. To tell their stories, you’ll take turns playing as each character.
Even though Valiant Hearts: The Great War is primarily a sidescrolling puzzle game, each character has their own distinct feel and speciality. Though puzzle solving is primarily what you’ll be doing, the types of puzzles you’ll solve -- or rather the purpose of doing so -- changes depending on who you’re playing as. Emile, an older gentlemen clearly weary from the war, often finds himself trudging along the frontlines. But his downtrodden gait has a much different feel then say, the revenge-driven Freddie, who is more eager to rush into combat. The more spry Ana, on the other hand, is just as involved in the war, but much of what she does is centered on healing others.
In addition to the different “feel” you’ll have with each character, they each have their own signature moments. With the shovel-wielding Emile, you’ll be presented with minigames of-sorts that involve digging underground and dodging bombs. Ana has precision-based puzzles where you must press a button at specific moments when healing someone. Though much of what you’ll do, regardless of what character you’re playing as, involves simple object gathering, it’s the slight variations with each character does help keep things interesting though.
Valiant Hearts doesn’t try to stump you. It’s not difficult by any means, and part of that is because Ubisoft does a great job preparing you for these later puzzles. Sure, some of the puzzles become a little more complex towards the latter half of the game, but with a generous hint system it’s nothing you won’t figure out in a short amount of time. Most of the time, though, what you’ll find are that many of the elements repeat themselves, but with some compounded complexity to it. The game also has a very generous checkpoint system so even if you do die, you won’t lose much progress.
In between, and even during your gameplay, you’ll be presented with historical facts about World War I. Though I appreciate the history lesson, I was disappointed in the way it was presented. Facts about the war are unlocked naturally as you progress, with each chapter introducing iconic elements: zeppelins, flamethrowers, tanks, barbed wire, mustard gas, and things of that nature. Unfortunately, the presentation of such things is bland. To learn more about each thing, essentially have to pause the game and dig through a series of menus. Valiant Hearts presents each historical element wonderfully through the world itself, I just wish I could learn a bit more through the gameplay itself and not footnotes.
Perhaps even more bold than the topic Valiant Hearts covers is the art style in which it adopts. Built on UbiArt Framework -- known for the Rayman games -- the exaggerated art style and approachable character design serve as a nice juxtaposition to the horror and gore of the war in the trenches. What’s most surprising about the game’s art direction is just how well it handles not just the beautiful, like rural France, but the ugly too, the trenches and frontlines of the war. At no point does Ubisoft shy away from depicting the real horror of war.
When it’s all said and done, the story, art direction, and soundtrack of Valiant Hearts: The Great War all seamlessly blend together for a presentation that elicits all different types of emotion. You’ll feel moments of hope, only to have them squashed by some horrific event. You’ll lose faith in humanity only to have it restored temporarily by an act of kindness from a complete stranger. You’ll see the good in people, as well as the madness that thrives within them. Valiant Hearts: The Great War isn’t about being the hero, though there is some of that. It’s not about beating the “bad guys,” as you’ll experience the war from both sides. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a beautiful depiction of the horrific effects of war.