Valiant Hearts: The Great War – An Important Game
I only learned of Valiant Hearts fairly recently. I had heard the name before E3 2014 happened, but that was where I saw the first trailer for it. I was immediately in love with the concept of it.
I have become quite the critic of Ubisoft lately, and their tendency to produce games that are incrementally less interesting. Though with titles like Rayman Legends and Child of Light it seems the studios working with the UbiArt framework have been largely spared the creative suppression that’s happening elsewhere, but I will admit that I was still slightly worried about how Valiant Hearts would come out.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is my so far top candidate for Game Of The Year. It is certainly the most important game that has been released this year, and while there is always the chance of something better coming along, it’s quite the act to top. You should play it. If that’s all you needed to know, and don’t want any spoilers of any kind whatsoever, then you’re free to leave it here. I will keep spoilers as light as possible for the review text, but certain things will have to be mentioned.
Let us start with genre. I believe that the game described itself as a playable comic book (and the art-style certainly helps enforce that notion), but at its most basic, this is a 2D puzzle platformer. Except you don’t have a jump button, so it’s mostly about puzzling your way through the environment. To its credit, there is very little arcane puzzle logic at play here. Most of the stuff is fairly simple to figure out, especially if you make a habit of exploring your surroundings. And it helps that the art direction and levels are often set up in clever ways to give you hints about what you are supposed to do. Some of the hints do border on quite blatant, but I’m sure there are people who appreciate that as well.
I really only remember one place where I got so stuck, or perhaps a better word is lost, that I needed to rely on the extra hint system provided by the pigeons with tiny helmets.
And the game is fairly generous with checkpoints as well, if you should screw up and get captured or killed. I do find it curious that there’s no “Revert to last checkpoint” option, which means that if you missed a collectible and you really want it, you’ll have to quit to the main menu, and continue from the last save point, which might be a fair while back. Definitely not a huge fan of that.
Before I move on to why I like the game so much, a note about the controls on PC. Menus are fully mouse and keyboard driven. And keyboard controls for the game itself are just fine on everything except Emile’s digging, where it’s becomes impossible to dig diagonally if you don’t use the default keybindings. And there are a few sections where you will need to dig up and down at an angle. I switched from arrows keys to WASD for movement, and it would only let me dig in straight directions. (I wanted one hand on the mouse for the sake of my own convenience, and to take screenshots.) After a test with the default keybindings, I found that the arrow keys do let you dig diagonally. It is of course possible that better keyboards than mine won’t have this problem.
To further note on that: While all tutorial key prompts I found changed to show my rebound keys rather than the default keys, there are still certain minigames, most notably the medic one, where it still expects you to use the arrow keys to match prompts.
All in all not the best PC port, but better than expected from a Ubisoft title.
You follow a handful of people through three years of the war. You might make certain assumptions due to the art-style, but in all honesty the game doesn’t really pull many punches. Valiant Hearts teaches you about the horrors and realities of war, both through the story it’s showing you, and all the historical facts it gives you to read at your own leisure. Several of them are locked away in the numerous collectible objects you can find throughout the game, and those are often relevant to the current level/mission you’re on.
Somehow Ubisoft Montpellier figured out a way to make a game educational, while still providing interesting gameplay and a well-written story. They’ve created a world where every screen is so full of detail and stuff going on that it helps the world feel alive.
I speculated before the game’s launch that you would actually be playing as the dog, which turned out to be not quite true. His name is Walt, and he is your sidekick for large parts of the game. He is a trained rescue dog, really smart, and very helpful. He can get through cracks and small areas the humans can’t, he can carry items, and even push levers. I’m not a huge dog person, but I really love Walt.
Now I already said pretty much the same thing on Twitter, but Valiant Hearts displays and comments on the horrors of war with a skill that Hideo Kojima could only dream of. It handles emotion so deftly it could make David Cage froth at the mouth with shame. On reflection maybe not a huge endorsement considering both of those two suck at those respective things, but I stand by it.
It doesn’t just go as dark as dark can be for the sake of it, it keeps more of a focus on showing the reality. There are moments of levity, like the strange taxi driving sections accompanied by grand orchestral scores, and there are certain bits that maybe feel a tad too much out of tune, like the recurring villain being rather cartoon-ish at times.
So it’s certainly not perfect, but nothing is, really. However, this comes pretty damn close. The comic book style with its clear visuals accentuates the message of the game quite well. And I enjoy the diverse characters, the way it doesn’t show everything as simply black and white, all the historical tidbits, and of course the dog. It all adds up so well. After I was done, it felt a bit like my soul had been scrubbed raw.
World War I was a great choice for this as well, for many reasons. First of all it’s gotten a lot less exposure than World War II, and secondly it was the war that really taught the world how horrible war can be. So much new and awful technology was used in this conflict, and death tolls previously unimagined were accrued on all sides. It essentially dispelled the notion that war had anything to do with honour or glory on a global scale. And we’re at a point now where we’re in danger of forgetting it.
I think combining a game with a documentary is a great way to have the message reach more people, and when it’s as well done as this one, I really can’t complain.