Quick Look: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Drew and Jeff enlist in a stunning and sobering WWI adventure game. Don't you DARE touch that dog, Ubisoft.

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Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

4
  • PS4

Ubisoft Montpellier's take on the first World War is a surprisingly heartfelt adventure.

A video game about war is perhaps the least novel thing you could create in our medium today, which is one reason why Valiant Hearts: The Great War is such a surprising thing. Developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, Valiant Hearts examines the aspects of war that are most often brushed past or ignored altogether in games. This is a game concerned with the human element of war, the stories of the people forced to fight in these terrible conflicts, the people displaced by violence, and the relationships that keep them going in the face of terrible hardship. In some respects, it's a clumsy effort. Its narrative relies too heavily on situational convenience and generic villainy at times, and its gameplay is rarely the best thing about it. Yet Valiant Hearts remains compelling throughout its half-dozen hours, thanks in no small part to its deft handling of the many emotional highs and lows that make up its small, but wonderful tale.

Whether you're a history buff or just want a good story, Valiant Hearts delivers in surprising ways.

Set against the backdrop of World War I's western front, Valiant Hearts tells the story of four people whose lives are gravely affected by the conflict. Karl is a young, German-born man living in France when the war begins, and despite his protestations, he's sent from his home back to Germany, forced to fight for a nation he no longer calls home. Emile, Karl's father-in-law, is forced to take up arms for his home nation of France. Elsewhere we also meet Freddie, a burly American motivated to fight largely by personal vengeance, and Anna, a Belgian medic who moves from battle to battle doing whatever she can to patch up the wounded.

These four protagonists (along with a trusty dog who helps out from time to time) find themselves floating in and out of each other's lives, reuniting during various battles, only to be torn away from one another by one horrible circumstance or another. At times the plot strains itself to find ways to bring these four people together, given that they're often spread across such a massive battleground. But those moments of plot convenience are forgivable by virtue of how endearing these characters are. Their stories are fleshed out primarily from collectible diary entries, but they also communicate a great deal wordlessly. Apart from a few bouts of narration and some language-specific grunting, there is little dialogue in Valiant Hearts. Instead, the game's visuals are tasked with doing the heavy lifting here. Every moment of pain, sacrifice, and (occasionally) joy is communicated using the game's comic book-inspired artwork, and it works surprisingly well.

It's not just that Valiant Hearts is a beautiful looking game (it is), but rather that its art is used so effectively to communicate to the player. It's in each character's facial expressions, and the small environmental details, that the game's emotional resonance lives. Valiant Hearts is expressive in a way that big studio games often aren't, relying on a subtlety of delivery that implies a trust in its players to empathize with its heroes, despite spelling out only the most basic details about each of them. It never yells to the player about what they're supposed to be feeling; it never shouts about much of anything, actually. There are certainly big, sweeping moments of action within the game, but they're dwarfed in number by the scenes focused on individual characters and the horrors continually befalling them.

You can press a button to pet the dog any time you like. I pressed that button a lot. Like, A LOT.

It's worth noting that Valiant Hearts isn't looking to be an especially "realistic" portrayal of World War I. The game pulls no punches when portraying the grotesqueries of the battlefield--moments where you'll find yourself running through hails of machine gun fire, climbing over the bodies of your fallen comrades, are frequent--but the overall tone of the game is a bit lighter than its subject matter lets on. Take, for instance, the near-total lack of combat in the game. In the rare instance that you do have to fight an enemy soldier, you're never handed a gun and asked to shoot anybody (outside of a lone tank sequence where you blast away enemy artillery and swooping fighter planes). Instead, Emile just conks enemies on the head with a wooden spoon, a nod to his role as a military cook during one period of the war, while other characters never attack at all. Another example is a pair of quickly paced chase sequences. Here you take control of a sputtering cab that mostly propels itself, while you simply dodge and weave between enemy fire and other obstacles while classical music accompanies the rhythms of the action. It's goofy stuff that would, on paper at least, seem wildly out of place in a game so seemingly dour in tone, but somehow Valiant Hearts pulls it off without coming across as jarring or distracting.

The only time Valiant Hearts really lost me was when it opted to drum up some artificial conflict. So much of the game is about the kind of faceless evil that makes up war, the constant charging into certain death against an enemy you know almost nothing about. That changes after a point, when an evil Baron from the German side starts appearing just to put a face to what you're fighting against. He's a pointless character, a twirling mustache there to sneer and drop bombs on you when the gameplay demands a more specific threat, and it's the only part of the game that feels out of place. How the game chooses to pay off the Baron's plotline is ultimately of little consequence to the bigger, more interesting stories at play, which makes his inclusion seem all the weirder.

Valiant Hearts also lost my attention during a few particular gameplay sequences. All of Valiant Hearts' campaign consists of lightweight puzzle solving, peppered with the aforementioned minor combat bits and even some light rhythm gaming. In each stage, you are presented with some maze of problems to solve--an injured civilian is trapped behind a pile of debris you must navigate your way to, a prison camp can only be escaped after you perform tasks for various people, a detonator must be found and recovered before you can blow up a German fortress, and the like. These simple navigation puzzles are rarely of the sort that will stump any experienced player, but there's mostly just enough challenge there to keep you from feeling like you're just mindlessly doing chores before getting to the next story beat. Mostly. A few stages are outright dull, while others seem like neat ideas that never feel fully fleshed out--the minigame that accompanies Anna's patching up of injured folk is particularly pointless. Even when the puzzles are better, Valiant Hearts is never particularly thrilling. Given its more contemplative tone, that's not surprising, but it does highlight the challenge of trying to turn something so decidedly graphic novel-like into a game. While Valiant Hearts has numerous poignant moments, few of those are during the most interactive portions of the game.

Its gameplay is fairly mundane, but it serves the story the game is trying to tell. And that story is very much worth seeing through to the end.

Fortunately, one of those few great interactive moments closes out Valiant Hearts, demonstrating definitively that there was value in turning this story into a game after all. It's a simple thing, something you won't even realize until the consequences are staring you right in the face, and it serves as a perfectly heartrending conclusion to a sad, but beautiful little story. Sometimes the most important thing a game can do is just stick the landing, and Valiant Hearts does exactly that.

Valiant Hearts isn't going to challenge many players' abilities, but it may challenge any preconceived notions about how video games are meant to tackle subjects like war. There are certainly faults to be found with its underlying game design, but in a game that cares this much for its own characters--arguably as much as it cares about the history of the war itself, which is quite a lot--I found it difficult to get hung up on the occasional uninteresting fetch quest or rhythmic minigame. Its rewards are far more emotional in nature, the kind you find in any good story, regardless of medium. Seek this one out, and see it through to its conclusion. It's worth it.

Alex Navarro on Google+
50 Comments
Posted by Tajasaurus

Cool!

Online
Posted by Vuud

If there's a "pet the dog" button then I'm going to guess the dog dies in some tragic way.

Posted by Joker369

This game looks really interesting. Definitely going to pick it up.

Edited by Zornack

Do you go to Africa in this game?

But, seriously, great review and a great game. It definitely has it's issues but it's a beautiful breath of fresh air, especially for a game set during a World War.

Posted by SternOne

Such a stunning game, and the ending left me completely numb. Alex - this review is spot on. Not a perfect game by any means, but it packs a serious punch.

Posted by Kentobi

But I have to know about the dog! I have to know!

Posted by Winternet

Nice review, Alex. Probably the best game I've played this year.

Posted by Video_Game_King

I wanted to say, "I was hoping one of the new hires reviewed this." Then I remembered what @alex said on the last Bombin' the AM.

Online
Posted by Hassun

One one hand I am intrigued by the setting of the game. On the other hand it seemed to have unnecessary comedic touches and mediocre gameplay.

Not sure what to make of this one.

Edited by abnewton

Personally it gets 5 stars from me. Yes its an easy 'game', but its a great experience, highly recommended, and if you don't agree then you're dead inside ;-)

Edited by HammondofTexas

Alex, I like the way you make words! <3

Online
Edited by johnham

I'm excited to play this, but at the same time....

Posted by LoktarOgar

Finished it before this review was out. Easy game of the year for me. That ending, holy shit.

Posted by Yesiamaduck

I love Ubiart, its the best idea Ubisoft ever have... at this rate I can expect a really nice game every 3 months or so that looks pretty and is based around an interesting concept :)

Posted by conmulligan

Looking forward to checking this out.

Posted by Jazz_Bcaz

"It's in each character's facial expressions" The art style very deliberately lacks facial expression completely, so I don't know where that line comes from, but the characters are certainly very expressive.

The story isn't about the dog either, so no one needs to worry about what you're all thinking. It doesn't make the ending any less shattering.

I also disagree with Alex's assessment of how Baron Von Dorf is handled. He's the driving force behind Freddie's campaign for vengeance (thus appropriately caricatured), and the pay off only further highlights the futility of artificially seeking conflict especially considering his 'fate worse than death' and how Freddie finally confronts him. I don't really know what 'bigger more interesting stories at play' is actually supposed to mean considering the game is about the small stories surrounding people, and their own personal shifting conflicts and friendships amidst the sweeping chaos of the war. That seriously undermines the strong theme of Freddie's story thread and his personal redemption.

Posted by SlashDance

This game felt like the people who made it cared about both the game itself and the subject matter. More than you can say for 99% of pseudo-historical games. I loved it.

Posted by Alex

@jazz_bcaz: The faces move and emote. The hair covers the eyes, but mouths contort accordingly. It's subtle stuff, but I found it effective.

It's probably telling that I found Freddie's story to be the least interesting, since for much of its going it's just about him looking for vengeance. I get what you're saying about the conclusion, but I don't think it's a particularly fitting inclusion, when you consider the rest of the stories in the game. Which are what I was talking about when I said "other, larger stories at play." Specifically the stories of the other main characters, especially Karl and Emile, who take up the lion's share of the storytelling.

Staff
Posted by development

@vuud said:

If there's a "pet the dog" button then I'm going to guess the dog dies in some tragic way.

Spoiler: The dog was allergic to being pet.

Posted by Brad3000

Great review and I don't disagree with much of what was said, however the game is an easy 5 stars for me. Amazing art, amazing story, amazing music, and an entirely unique feel smooth over the couple small gameplay bumps. Besides, I actually liked MOST of the gameplay quite a lot. To me it had the perfect level of difficulty for what it was trying to do. I definitely had to think to finish some of the puzzles but I never had to think so long and hard that it slowed down the progression of the story they were telling. If I had gotten stumped for very long it would have taken the wind out of the proverbial narrative sails. I also liked how many different types of gameplay scenarios there were. There may have been one too many switch puzzles, but it definitely felt like there was always something new to do just around the corner. And it all wraps up so well. I'm definitely looking forward to whatever this team does next.

Posted by fargofallout

Alex, I thought you only reviewed shitty games. What gives?

Edited by Jazz_Bcaz

@alex:

They certainly do, but they're very much victims of a larger machine at work, to which tragically, Emile pays the greatest price. I felt Freddie's story touched upon the destructive nature of seeking conflict. He joined the war long before the Americans did and upon discovering his younger brother's later enthusiasm he was horrified. Von Dorf was a man that revelled in the conflict and in his pursuit of revenge Freddie learnt he was unable to be that man as well. War was not his calling.

Personally, I found Anna's story to be the most lacking, despite enjoying her characterisation the most. It was a deft touch giving her those mad driving skills, but her personal conflict, along with Karl's was probably the most shallow. They tended to be affected by the war yet their characters were passive towards it's events. Yes, they went through hardships and displayed compassion and heroism but, ya know, that's just how stories are.

Emile's story was truly devastating though. He was tossed around and used, he felt failure in his duty to Karl and in the end his only choice was to hurt others, for which he was punished. He carried such a huge burden. I felt it ran throughout his story, especially the moment in the mines after he saves the german soldier, only to unwittingly annihilate him moments afterwards. That final charge, I found myself getting so frustrated and dying so often that when it came to it, I just felt resigned towards murdering that officer. By the end he'd just had enough. That walk to the post...

Posted by Alex

@jazz_bcaz: The whole end sequence is just beautifully done. It's heartbreaking in an amazing way.

Staff
Posted by Jazz_Bcaz

@alex: Gonna take the opportunity to say directly, thanks for the review and the content. Always try to tune into Bombin'.

Awooo.

Posted by SkullPanda1

My toddler got ahold of my ps3 Blu-ray remote and bought it for me. So I'm kinda stuck with it. Glad to hear it's good.

Edited by NTM

I'm still wondering if I should play this or not. This game, from the little I've seen and heard, reminds me of Sylvain Chomet's work to an extent, and that's a good thing.

Edited by Casty

@patrickklepek mentioned a line from another review that said "Valiant Hearts is a wonderful story trapped inside a video game." I couldn't agree more with this statement.

The game's strongest points are the audio, visuals, and presentation. I felt very much unfulfilled with the "game" elements. The best parts were the cutscenes, the narration, and reading the historical notes. I was most excited for a new stage because I'd get more notes, but I was not excited to play the game beyond that interaction. The gameplay didn't help advance the story in any substantial way. The puzzles just felt like they were there to give me a typical "game" element instead of experiencing it. It's as if there were discussions of storyline and character developments that could of went there but then someone said "but... this is a video game, we should put a puzzle here or something." I'd rather watch this story than play it.

Even with the story there is some strong ludonarrative dissonance further amplified by the dark subject matter. Mild spoilers: At the title screen we're presented with a moving score and haunting but beautiful scene in contrast to a jarring message at the top that reads: "There are more than 100 collectibles in Valiant Hearts. Can you collect them all?". This first impression sums up the main issue with the game: the game gets in the way. The fights with the Baron, the mechanics that each character has exclusive to themselves (wire cutting, reviving soldiers, fetching items), and the puzzles took me out of any connection to the characters or story that may have been fostered.

I hope you don't think I am bashing these types of games, because honestly I was super excited to get this game. It was one of the only things shown at E3 from the big press shows that I actually wanted to play. The game is respectful of the subject matter and you can tell the developers really do game about how they portray the history of WW1. I'm only being critical because I want these types of experiences to succeed in ways that other mediums can't. Overall I'm very glad the game exists and was made and don't regret my time or money spent, I was just hoping for a lot more...

Posted by Hawkerace

ya but, uplay

Edited by Yodasdarkside

I accidentally watched the end of this on Live from Playstation the other night and even though I only caught the last five minutes of the stream, the guy playing it was crying pretty hard. Even I was affected by it and I had missed the vast majority of the game.

Posted by ADAMWD

One of the 10 best games of the year so far, in my opinion.

Posted by csl316

Looking forward to trying this. Seems like it'll do what I want this sort of game to do.

Edited by huser

I need that dog to have that deep wizened voice from the trailer. With no explanation.

Edited by Cybexx

Great review. I'm planning to play this as soon as I get through some more of my backlog. I like that Ubisoft is taking some risks with their smaller titles while we see other large publishers doubling down on the big AAA safe-bets.

Posted by Parkingtigers

It's a wonderful game, and on reflection it was a 5 star experience for me. I found the action sequences more exciting than some recent big FPS games, the puzzles were satisfying, the characters were endearing and overall everything seemed to work just right.

I'll recommend that anyone that likes this game to go and watch the Audrey Tatou movie "A Very Long Engagement", as it's very similar in form and tone to this. It's not a war movie in the same way that this isn't a war game, both of them just happen to be set in the great war. Seriously, hunt it down, you'll thank me later.

The lighter moments in Valiant Hearts actually add to the tone, rather than detracting from it. The great war was when the public first learned the realities of modern warfare. At the beginning, war was still seen as an adventure, something that people would eagerly sign up for. Going from jolly adventure romp into a darker, body-strewn nightmare was the right choice for the game, and is pretty much how the world's eyes were opened to war over the four years. You couldn't just start the game with a "war is hell" grimdark beginning, because that's not true to 1914.

Wonderful game, highly recommended. 2014 has been a bit of a weak year for games so far, but this little gem more than delivers.

Posted by Nigthguy

Now that I'm done with Shovel Knight, I'm definitely gonna buy this. I was on the fence but after reading there's a button to pet you dog, I HAVE to buy this.

Posted by cooljammer00

Pet the dog button? Is that like the hugging the blob button? Do we have a wiki page for this feature yet?

Posted by Rox360

Yay! Happy this turned out well. The E3 trailer remains one of my favorite things, I must have watched that five times after I saw it on the livestream, but I was really worried about the ability for an entire, interactive game to be as emotionally resonant as a carefully cut and narrated trailer. Glad it seems to have worked out!

Posted by falling_fast

awesome. i'm gonna pick this up soon

Posted by Gutterkisser

Nicely written, Alex - you summed up my thoughts well. There's a few glaring flaws in Valiant Hearts, but the things it succeeds at make it incredibly memorable. WW1 is an unfathomably sad, pointless conflict, but it also represents chivalry and courage - I think this game reflects both aspects well.

Just finished it this evening, and this cold soul shed one tear at the ending.

Posted by armedpatriots

Great review. I am in love with this game!

Edited by TheVGamer

I hate Freddie's character. He's so out of place with Americanism and revenge motivation, as if he was ripped straight out of G.I. Joe. That character in particular reeks of focus testing and execs requiring a burly American dude because the game wouldn't be emotionally resonant for those "dumb Americans".

Edited by Darro

Just finished the game there about an hour ago and it is my favourite game of the year so far. Maybe it was because I went to this after Shovel Knight but I enjoyed the gameplay because it was just so relaxing to play and didn't get frustrated like parts of Shovel Knight did, which is another great game.

And not afraid to admit I cried during that end sequence. It was damn heartbreaking!

Edited by Kittiah

...and now I need this game. Love your reviews, Alex. Great work!

Posted by Chango

Great review, Alex.

I finished the game earlier this week and completely adored it. It's my favorite game of the year thus far. The issues that Alex had with the game (and seem to be prevalent amongst most reviews) are accurate. The game is very much far from perfect, and that's the game's biggest gripe with it self, that it's a game. I think that it's far too long, it's puzzles are not always conveyed clearly to the player and result in frustration as they can sometimes serve as a stopping point till we reach the next story moment or moment of progress, and the english narration remind us that the video game industry's target audience is still the US, much like Hollywood movies, for better or worse. But the game is incredibly charming and whimsical and those two attributes allow the story's poignancy to further connect with the player and make the story all that more impactful.

It's one of the most memorable and emotionally moving games I've played in recent years (along with Journey, The Last of Us, and Persona 4), and while I resent the need for un-needed sequel in games, I would very much love to play another game by this team, perhaps set in WWII this time around.

Edited by Y2Ken

Pet the dog button? Is that like the hugging the blob button? Do we have a wiki page for this feature yet?

I'm so glad someone else thought of this comparison too. I'm all for more of this type of mechanic in games.

Edited by Razorbak94

Seems interesting, I like it

Posted by siddarth0605

Great review Alex and I agree 100% about that ending. It was an unbelievable ending that will stick with me for a long time

Posted by LandHawk

@skullpanda1:

Your toddler has a great taste in games. Be sure to have him play it when he gets older.