Review: Valiant Hearts: The Great War Is Sadder Than The Brazilian National Team
When is the last time a war game elicited real tears from your eyes? Probably never, maybe that one time you destroyed Hitler’s mech in Wolfenstein. My point is that war games don’t make you feel things, they make you do things. You feel what it was like to be in the midst of a great war but you don’t feel what it was like to be in that war.You don’t get a sense of the losses, the strife, what life was like during those times. Valiant Hearts: The Great War tries a different approach and dare I say it mostly does as advertised but that requires some explanation.
- Worth The Time?Whether you love war, love a strong narrative or just love puzzles, there's something here to keep you in your seat.
- Things LovedThe visuals are delightful, the sound is incredibly well done and you get to raise the Canadian flag. The narrative is told in a unique way but hits you with some powerful emotional sledgehammers. Great puzzles. The historical notes add great significance to each section of the game.
- Things HatedCharacter diary entries seem wooden and detrimental to the narrative style, some minor bugs
- RecommendationIf you're looking for something new to play then look no further, Valiant Hearts has something for everyone and if you don't mind tears on your new winter knitwear then get it now. This is one of the best and saddest games of the year so far.
- Name: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
- Genre: Sadness
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: None
- Platforms: PS3, PC, PS4, Xbox One, Xbox 360
- Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
- Publisher: Ubisoft
- Price: $15
- Reviewed On: PS4
We’ve seen hundreds of dozens of World War II era games, so many that we find ourselves saying “never again”. Valiant Hearts is about the First World War, the one that was started when Nemanja Vidic’s granddad shot Arnold Schwarzenegger’s father in the face. It wasn’t so much a Great War as it was a “why are we doing this again?!” kind of war.
Valiant Hearts starts out by setting itself apart from the rest by not being a shooter nor is it trying to be uber-realistic with the latest cutting-edge next-gen hyphenated-words-filled technology. It’s a 2D side-scrolling puzzle-platformer built using the UbiArt Framework.
You play as four characters over the course of the game, five if you include the dog. You’ve got German-born Karl who is forced into the German army, his father in-law Emille who is drafted into the French army, American Freddie who enlists himself in the French army and Belgian nurse Anna. Each has their own narrative that runs to completion with their tales interweaving and overlapping. They play largely the same but with some variances. Anna will have to heal people, Freddie does some pretty destructive things, Karl spends a lot of time trying to escape the army and Emille just does a lot of weird stuff with a giant ladle.
The game isn’t so much about fighting the war as it is about living the war. You spend time escaping mortar fire on the frontlines, carrying a flag, assisting people, escaping enemies and there is some great gameplay in the trenches and tunnels that became infamous during the First World War.
There is no real dialogue, merely an occasional bit of narration but the game’s narrative conveys itself powerfully. Essentially, both Emille and Karl are trying to get back to their home while Freddie is on a path of vengeance against the Germans who killed his French wife. Anna is attempting to rescue her father from a German Baron who is exploiting his scientific knowledge.
It’s not a wholly original narrative but it is given freshness by the four different perspectives, four different ways of experiencing it and the way the four individual narratives move around each other. The things these characters go through are actually pretty harrowing. Bombings, gas attacks, dealing with death, PoW camps. Ubisoft Montpellier didn’t leave much out when doing their WW I research.
The fact that it is delivered in this cutesy hand-drawn style is almost jarring and yet makes it easier to consume. It’s certainly got a more powerful and meaningful message than the ultra gritty “war simulators” out there.
Despite the lack of dialogue, we get a glimpse into each character’s thoughts through diary entries. These are heavy-handed and wooden but are useful if you can’t quite follow what’s going on. I’d recommend avoiding them as they were completely sundry to the experience and in fact were detrimental to the manner in which the narrative is told. What I do recommend reading though is the historical facts. Each new section or area of the game hits you with a few historical facts relevant to the section you’re playing. I knew enough about the First World War going in but these facts give you an insight into what life was like during those times.
What Valiant Hearts tries to do is give you a sense of what living through a war must have been like and I swear on the life of an Austrian Archduke it does just that.
The gameplay is simple, the puzzles less so. Controls are so basic you could play with one hand but this is essential because Valiant Hearts stresses the puzzle aspect of “puzzle platformer.” There are intricate puzzles that involve all manner of things from producing a machine part using a press to something far more elaborate like distracting a guard so you can steal a uniform in order to steal a bottle of wine for the intents of sabotaging an army captain to steal his uniform for the purpose of getting past a bunch of guards to get a wheel in order to replace the broken one on your car. Then each of those tasks has a smaller puzzle within itself.
Is that elaborate enough for you?
The game is filled with puzzles like that and they’re pretty great once you figure out what needs to be done in which order and how to do it. It feels like genuine problem solving. However, there are some rather obtuse puzzles which simply don’t make any sense until you look at the hints which the game will drop periodically unless you tell it to stop. For the most part, all the game’s mechanics work well and are simple to grasp but must be applied to complex problems. That right there is the perfect approach; it’s what makes the likes of Portal so damn great.
The way the puzzles are constructed allows them to mesh well with the narrative so that you don’t get this jarring effect whereby you’re constantly jumping in and out of the narrative. All the puzzles are very much tied to the narrative, some in brilliant ways.
What adds to the ambiance of war is Valiant Hearts’ sound. The soundtrack comprises mostly the sort of tunes you’d expect to hear warbling out of a gramophone. There are plenty of classical tunes but also a fair bit of original soundtrack that helps sell the scene. What really stands out though is the background noise. The constant drone of planes overhead, the cacophony of mortars but most hauntingly the pained screams of the wounded. Anna’s healing consists of rhythm-based mini-games which sounds simple enough if you’ve played any game ever but try doing it with people screaming in agony.
Under its skin Valiant Hearts is genuinely good little puzzle platformer. It isn’t innovative in that regard but it does its puzzles well and with pride. The real hook here is a narrative so sad you’d need to be Silvia Plath crying while Placebo plays in the background to top it.
The story in Valiant Hearts constantly finds ways to pull at your heartstrings and strum them like a bloody harp. In some cases the emotional element may be a touch heavy-handed but it always works. The ending in particular is right up there with some of the best. By the end of this game you feel like you know these characters. You haven’t heard a single line of dialogue from them but you feel for them, you know what they’ve been through. Pulling that off is no easy feat from Ubisoft Montpellier.
Valiant Hearts is not a long game but you can run through it in a decent 7 or 8 hours and at this price it’s worth it. Did I mention the game is peppered with some truly memorable moments? Like aiding a group of soldiers to lift the Canadian flag. Canada, fuck yeah! There are better examples, I swear.
Despite the fact that Valiant Hearts left me so sad it was three days before I stopped wallowing and wrote this review, it is a great little piece of work. Here we have a game that is pretty simple in its mechanics but competent as a puzzle platformer while delivering a brilliant wartime story told in an intriguing yet engaging way. Grab a box of tissues and get this one.
And now, we shall close with a verse from Kanye West’s latest single:
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.