Also on: PS4, PS3, XBox 360, PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Up until I actually got my hands on Valiant Hearts: The Great War, I had no idea what kind of game it was. With a title like this, it's clearly interested in communicating some emotional story that — as suggested by the visuals — takes place in a wartime setting. So, it's like WW1, but with feelings? Sure, sign me up. The least it has going for it is having made use of the UbiArt engine past Rayman and the recent Child of Light.
Indeed, Valiant hearts begins with the personal story of a little farm in France, where a German husband and his French wife live alongside the company of her father and newborn son. Life is good, until the men are drafted into service for their respective countries. The Great War has begun, and we're all probably going to learn something about the human condition and seeing through prejudices.
Initially, Valiant Hearts starts out with an interesting perspective on the War, in compliment to the cross-cultural split between the introductory family. When playing as the father, Emile, in a battle on the French countryside, the combat, explosions, and erupting battle are dressed in a brightly-lit setting. Another early mission introduces the character Freddie in a train station, where the mechanics are introduced in a tutorial that's more creative than some of the later puzzles players will encounter. These settings give promise to a game that not only has a different angle to approach the story of a war from, but with unique settings in which that tale is housed.
Even the gameplay, which is advertised as a puzzle game, seems to have a grip on how games can be used to tell stories. Its solution is to fold a 2D action game into an environmental puzzle, where each piece fits more completely into an overall picture of a greater puzzle. The mechanics are shared between a set of basic abilities (jump, hit, change characters) and a button to interact with context-sensitive objects. It's what we'd probably get if Telltale tried to make a 2D platformer.
Over time, however, the game loses touch with its roots, as it pushes the limits of its initially tight design. environments become larger, puzzles more convoluted, and design more hamfisted in order to accommodate the limited moves a character may have. Emile, for instance, and his trusty shovel, will almost always find themselves in situations where there's something to dig through. What's stopping Frankie or Karl from digging tunnels? Why isn't anyone picking up all the guns people are dropping? Characters become pigeonholed in scenarios that are only befitting to the special ability they carry, creating a game that feels more "Sonic Adventure" than "Company of Heroes."
The typical gameplay of running errands, solving puzzles, and outsmarting enemies with a dog too friendly to ignore, is interspersed with a few minigames, which includes a rhythm-based driving section which lifts its musical boss fight design from the recent Rayman games. While these sections are cute, they find their voice all-too late, and feel ultimately uninspired. Another highlight is the healing minigame which the field medic, Anna, brings to the table as her special ability. This is such a divergent turn of events when other characters can only seem to punch and dig through areas, that it makes Anna's moments all the more engaging to play. How strange of this game, which hopes to intertwine four meaningful characters, to employ just one with a purpose that outshines the others in gameplay. That's not to say that the rhythm-based healing game is a work of art, but it's at least more interesting than trading places with a dog.
Balancing story and gameplay is a tricky mix, which is commendable of Valiant Hearts for trying to make work. A rare few games have managed to actually justify storytelling through mechanics, and so the crutch of an adventure game format is perfect for the times where some guesswork is needed on the part of the storyteller. I wish this had been a cleaner transition in those times where Valiant Hearts had to be less of a game and more of a powerful tale, where little distractions like war artifacts may be strewn around a grim shootout. I'd really like to be in the moment, but I have to pick up a penny whistle and read about it for a minute. Also, while my family's lives are in danger, I won't be starting this car until I sneaking around for a bottle of water.
I could never empathize with the characters thanks to these contradictions (along with the slowly evaporating design), and eventually cared more about the little nick-knacks than who lived or died. The voiceover narration which serves as a glue between missions was more compelling, somehow, than a melodramatic story about how sentimental it would be if friendships were forged and revisited throughout years of conflict — so much so that I would have almost preferred a format closer to what Call of Duty is doing in their games, where characters serve as a vessel to the player's experience in notable events; characters who could (and would) die in many gruesome circumstances. Maybe I'm heartless, but a little less romanticism would have helped Valiant Hearts hold some water.
The highlights in Valiant Hearts were, for me at least, the moments where that beautiful piano piece would play as I checked the journals and item descriptions. This is probably a good time to mention that the sound design is really a wonderful part of Valiant Hearts, especially in aid to its simplistic visuals.
Once returned to the game, I gradually felt each task to be more repetitive (although no worse than the mindless tedium of the tank sections), and mostly looked forward to the next little slice of life in the form of collectables. While there was something to keep me going, that's not very high praise for a game that was hoping to hook audiences with a memorable cast and intimate story. Committing to one or the other would have done a world of good to valiant hearts, rather than dipping back and forth between Ken Burns and Saving Private Ryan.
Visually, the game is crisp, but looks to me like a glorified flash game. I enjoyed some of the more unorthodox environments in the beginning, but found that they disappeared into a typical warzone. At points, Valiant Hearts manages to tie its mechanics into the story, and these are the crown jewels of what players can expect to find behind a game that's otherwise overly affectionate for its own thesis. The divorce between gameplay and story occurred about halfway through for me, and was probably encouraged by encountering a few bugs that required a reset, but after a while, I could only recommend this game to players who value art and style over substance.