I love history. There’s just something fascinating about learning from the past and getting in the mindset of how people viewed the world at specific points in the past. It’s because of that love for history that Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a game I’ve been watching for a while. Coupled with the fact that the game also uses Ubisoft’s wonderful UbiArt Framework to power the experience was really the only excuse I needed considering my love for both Rayman Origins and Legends. The game’s been out a little under a year now and sadly, I just never found time to get around to it. Life, man, what can I say?
With Valiant Hearts being a part of Sony’s PlayStation Plus free games program for March, there really was no excuse at this point to not download it. While I expected a fun title, I was absolutely blown away by it’s ability to tell a heartfelt and compelling story. I found myself caring for these individuals the more I played and hoping they’d make it through this grim time period of humanity.
Full review after the jump…
Valiant Hearts tells the story of four individuals during the outbreak of World War I. These people are all interconnected though some may not know it and throughout your time you’ll see them deal with the fact that their life has been flipped upside down, the war itself, and the horrors now facing them. The game isn’t so much about the war as it is about the people caught up in the everyday life of being in a war. I’m not going to say too much else here because the story is a major element to the experience and to spoil it would be a massive blow to your enjoyment. Trust me when I say the game effectively pulled me in and I found myself caring for each of the characters you play as. The game will not hesitate to gut punch you a couple times.
Gameplay wise, it’s a puzzle-adventure game, so you’ll find yourself finishing puzzles and solving problems. To help mix things up, there’s also a few chapters where stealth is needed to bypass certain enemies and also “Taxi” missions where you’re controlling a car dodging various objects to make it to a destination. The puzzles are well made and though some of them can be challenging, they’re not obtuse. I understood what the game was asking of me, so at that point it was more on me to figure it out. This isn’t an action game by any means, so don’t expect real time combat or shooting segments.
Then again, considering the heavy material that Valiant Hearts dives into often, it’s not above using humor and optimism to break up the often bleak nature of things. Taxi missions and boss battles typically border on the ridiculous adhering to more summer popcorn style antics and it’s a welcomed change of pace. There are smaller light-hearted moments thrown in to help break up the brutalities seen in some of the material the game covers like death, starvation, and mutiny.
What I found extraordinary though was the game’s ability to deal with some truly heavy aspects of the war which including some horrific moments of humanity such as using chemicals for the first time at the battle of Ypres, the failed Nivelle Offensive, and even the harsh treatment of POWs. While the game doesn’t shy away from these dreadful moments in history, it manages to present them in an approachable and respectful way. There’s a specific level that deals with the first time chlorine gas was used in a major battle and it’s absolutely stunning from a level design perspective. It’s nice to see the game tackle these moments head on and handle them so well.
Coming from the same engine that powered the last couple Rayman games and Child of Light, you could say there’s a high level of visual expectation. While Rayman Origins/Legends radiates fun and color and Child of Light looks like a watercolor painting come to life, Valiant Hearts goes in a completely different direction. I like to think of it’s art style mixing a comic book type of look with a little bit of those animated Monty Python segments mixed in for good measure. It’s not going to blow you away like the other UbiArt games will, but what it lacks in gorgeous visuals, it makes up for with storytelling and heart.
The game has a certain charm to it as well, with voice acting restricted primarily to the narrator only. Even without traditional voice overs, characters still managed to convey thoughts and what was going on through the use action bubbles above their head. Not only that, character models do a great job of expressing themselves through actions and movements.
I also need to mention the game’s sound design and stunning soundtrack. Gorgeous piano work helps set the tone pulling us into this landscape. In the previously mentioned ‘Taxi’ missions, the segments are synchronized to classic tunes like the French Can Can giving them a sense of fun. The music pairs with the mood in the game so well that it starts to dictate how you’re actually feeling.
Each chapter also brings historical notes with it, which players can read to get a better insight into what the war was like for soldiers, civilians, and also major events during the war. These notes are entirely optional, but they manage to provide such great context into this time period. I learned more things about this war than I figured I would. A lot more went on than traditional history books would have you believe. Not only that, each level has hidden collectables to find which add even more little details about the war. Again, these are entirely optional, but I found myself searching high and low for them just to learn more about World War I. It’s fascinating stuff.
To help flesh out these tidbits, Ubisoft partnered up with World War I documentary Apocalypse who provided them facts and images to use in the game. The best part of these facts is that they’re presented in a way which doesn’t aim to hit you over the head with paragraphs of text and dates out the wazoo. It’s completely readable and focuses on how the war affected individual people, not the politics of the day.
Valiant Hearts is one of those games that comes along and takes you by surprise. While the gameplay is nice, it’s the characters, story, and emotion of the experience that will stick with me. Even if you’re not a history buff and have no intention of becoming one, Valiant Hearts manages to retell World War I in amazing and interesting detail. This is visual storytelling at it’s best. Don’t miss it.