In the First World War, tens of thousands of dogs were tasked with transporting equipment and locating explosives, among other, very important duties. Yet arguably their most significant role was to comfort soldiers who knew that they could be weeks, days, even hours away from death. Between 1914 and 1918, the bloodshed across Europe was like nothing seen before, and Valiant Hearts: The Great War tells this 100 year old story to a new generation, in a way we haven’t seen any video game do before.
Emile, Karl, Freddie and Anna are four regular people who come across each other at different stages during The Great War. While they’re fictional, it’s clear they’re all inspired by people who lived through this four year span – normal people, thrown into an extraordinary situation that they must adapt to. All of their individual stories intersect at different junctures as they help one another deal with the atrocities of war. For example, Emile was a farmer from Saint Mihiel in France, until conscription forced him to join the French forces only days after the war broke out. It was on this farm where German-born Karl met Emile’s daughter Marie and started a courtship which resulted in their son being born. War is the backdrop for this story of human struggle and heartache, which is communicated through beautifully narrated letters sent home from the trenches.
While telling an exquisite story, Valiant Hearts is a puzzler that will initially not test your logical thinking but, as it progresses, will pose a slightly tougher challenge thanks to larger levels. They’re never too taxing, though some of the latter puzzles can be quite clever. But those looking to be truly challenged will need to find their kicks elsewhere, as they do merely act as a means to advance the plot.
However, the glue that holds everything together is Walt. Raised to serve the German army, Walt the dog goes from character to character throughout and offers a childlike view on proceedings due to his almost always chirpy demeanour. When the world is crumbling down around the four protagonists, Walt is there, and for one fleeting moment he can melt their hearts and, subsequently, yours. Your canine companion is also a capable one, as he’s helpful when it comes to solving some quandaries. By holding one of the shoulder buttons and hitting one of the face buttons, you can command Walt to interact with levers or distract guards, for example – an advantage that’s especially useful in some of the stealth sections.
And that’s one of the wonderful things about Valiant Hearts – it tries its hand at integrating a number of genres and, for the most part, succeeds. In one outside area, you are trying to stay hidden from a legion of soldiers with searchlights and a desire to see you captured. In order to pass them unscathed, you have to shield yourself from their glaring eyes by strategically moving with a flock of sheep that appear to be aimlessly toing and froing in a field.
Another example of Ubisoft Montpellier’s diversity are the stages where you are behind the wheel of a car and have to avoid the onslaught of your adversaries. As they are attacking you with a barrage of weaponry, they are doing so in time to the music. As the crash cymbal hits, a bomb that was headed your way will connect with the ground – as long as you were able to avoid it, of course. These inclusions are a fresh change of pace for Valiant Hearts and are far superior to Anna’s medic-focused gameplay.
When controlling the Belgian-native, you’ll be able to patch up some of the officers that need immediate attention. A rolling line, similar to that in an ECG, will appear at the top of the screen and at random intervals, the wave will deviate from the norm with a sudden peak and valley. When this occurs, you’ll be instructed to press one or two of the face buttons at the same time in order to tend to your patient. Boring is the best way to describe this little mini-game as it rarely poses any form of challenge, and is a distraction from the touching story and more enjoyable gameplay offerings.
That touching story is marvelously accompanied by some graceful piano arrangements that capture the mood perfectly. Whether a troop of blood-thirsty young men are hurtling toward the enemy, or someone close has died at the hands of your foes, the score compliments it. Without this mesmeric music, The Great War’s more emotional beats wouldn’t have half the emotional impact. The same can be said for the art style. The UbiArt engine has been used in a number of titles, but none as dark as Valiant Hearts. This interactive cartoon contains tragic events from a time period that we’ve rarely seen tackled in recent years, and that dichotomy is brilliantly unsettling. The harrowing scenes at Verdun and Ypres are the ultimate contrast to the comic book-like appearance.
Thankfully, Ubisoft’s research is impeccable and their eagerness to document World War I correctly is evident. When in a new area, there will be an on-screen prompt which allows you to indulge in some historical facts and this is where you can see the work that has been put in to make Valiant Hearts a piece of art, faithful to the time period. We’re all aware that collectibles can be superfluous from time-to-time, and they aren’t integral to the main narrative here, but they add some more context to what the soldiers, nurses, civilians, et al, were going through at this time. It’s both terribly interesting and deeply saddening, reading up on the events that took place during The Great War.
VERDICT: All entertainment media has a tendency to glorify war and games are no different. On most occasions, we select our loadout and happily headshot anything with a pulse. Valiant Hearts tackles the harsh realities of what this war did to regular families. It tore people apart and, conversely, brought strangers closer together. It’s a beautiful tale of love and woe, with a consideration for the chilling realism of war. History may be in the past, but it should never be forgotten, for the people affected truly were Valiant Hearts.
SUPERB. This is the mark of greatness, only awarded to games that engage us from start to finish. Titles that score 9/10 will have very few problems or negative issues, and will deliver high quality and value for money across all aspects of their design.
Review code provided by publisher.