Title: Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Platform: PlayStation 4 (reviewed on), Xbox One, Android, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, iOS, Microsoft Windows
Price: PS4/Xbone – £12, PS3/Xbox 360 – £12, PC – £12. iOS isn’t exactly clear; iTunes isn’t giving me a price, but I believe each episode has to be purchased separately.
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release date: Out now
Family Focus: Click here for more information.
Verdict: Buy it. Cry over it. Then delete it from your hard drive and refuse to play it again.
For some reason, I thought this was some whimsical nuclear fantasy game along the lines of Fallout. There’s an old guy and a dog, and we’ll be off merrily scavenging and finding survivors. Instead I got plunged into the depths of the hell that was WWI, and about ten hours of unrelenting, sad, gameplay. Then I remembered this is from the same people who made Lost in Harmony.
Don’t play this one if you’re depressed easily.
Valiant Hearts is a 2D side scroller with puzzle elements. It has a nice balance between plot and gameplay, which is unusual for a set up like this, and manages to make you care. Normally with small mobile titles, the puzzles are the best bit. Instead, this wants you to really imagine what it was like, living as a German in France during 1914, a POW who was unfortunate enough to be conscripted, a veterinarian turned nurse who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and an American volunteer, avenging his lost love. Valiant Hearts makes you feel, and it damn well hurts.
This is one of those games where the gameplay is nice and simple for the puzzle deficient like me. Since the stages are very small, whatever you need is usually right in front of you, or just around the next corner. The rooms are limited, so there’s not much of a chance of getting lost until the later levels – most of it is just one scrolling room, perhaps a few upper rooms, and the occasional second stage to move into. The puzzles are the same; you’re only given a limited number of tools that will every be used (pushing/pulling, throwing various grenades, moving levers or pipes and so on) and they’re pretty easy to figure out. It’s a brilliant anti-frustration technique, and it allows you to focus on what’s really important: the story. And best of all? After a certain amount of time, the game offers you a hint. God bless them.
As well as that, the gameplay feels very finely tuned for consoles. The controls aren’t finicky and awkward; there’s set buttons to interact with the environment, and they don’t deviate. It’s nice, simple, and consistent, which actually makes it fun to play. I’m not sitting around trying to work out what to do, I can just keep going in one fluid movement. The autosave, too is an absolute godsend, especially during the driving sequences. You never lose more than a few minutes of gameplay, and it’s fantastic to see it used so well.
Graphically, this is one beautiful game. Intricately drawn stages with separate, moving background pieces, each one different from the next. This is again where the game’s “limitations,” serve to its advantage; there’s no CG, no lip syncing, and very little voice acting, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Instead, all it does it draw your attention to the sheer level of detail. There’s birds in the sky, people wandering about in their day to day lives, soldiers loitering in the barracks… these stages never feel dull or lifeless. Instead, they’re living and breathing, letting you truly feel the horrors of war.
There are also a nice set of collectibles scattered about, each detailing a neat bit of history about the game’s setting. Mostly, these are everyday objects used by the soldiers, but occasionally, you’ll get snippets about people and the setting. There’s also in character diaries from each of the four leads, and longer historical fact pages, going into greater depth about the world, the weapons, and the troops.
There’s obviously been a great deal of work gone into the research for this game, and it does nothing but enhance the narrative. Each character speaks in their native language, with genuine German/French/English audio, and even though most objectives are communicated through simple pictograms, you don’t really need to have subtitles to know what’s going on. You can tell by the frantic tones that you need to fetch this, and fetch it now, lest there be hell to pay. Speed was of the essence, and yet I don’t speak a word of German.
The plot, however, is truly the masterpiece of this game. It’s incredibly refreshing to get a game focused on war that isn’t a trumped-up power fantasy. From the start, you’re met with nothing but despair. Karl is taken from his family, Emile is shipped off to fight, Walt loses his owner, Anna’s father is missing, and Freddie’s wife was killed on their wedding day. Everyone is tied together by some sort of loss, and coupled with the backdrop of German-occupied France, it’s safe to say the game doesn’t get any more cheerful from there.
It’s a truly powerful game, considering it’s narrated by a dog. It’s one of those that doesn’t need fully rendered GMV’s with Oscar-worthy dialogue. It has a story to tell, and that’s all it does – “here is what happened, here is my story, here is who we lost along the way”. In fact, those were my only two complaints about the game: fake-out deaths, and the tone. I know the status of death would have been difficult to cope with at the time, but there is a limit. After the one at the end of chapter two, I was upset. The second and third time, I was getting a bit annoyed, because all it does is make the story lose its impact. The narrative also seemed to skim over a lot of these events quickly during cutscenes, but I suppose as Walt is narrating, it makes a little more sense.
The only other issue is the tone; it’s unendingly bleak. Again, considering the subject matter, I’d consider it appropriate, but in terms of storytelling, it takes its toll. I called Life is Strange emotionally draining, but at least it had some softer bits in there to give the player a bit of a break, and Valiant Hearts doesn’t. And even though there are a ton of collectibles left to get, I shan’t be playing it again.
So in summary:
- Simple, easy to understand gameplay and puzzles
- Beautiful graphics
- Highly emotive story
- Story tells more than it shows in places
- It’s a really, really miserable game that doesn’t let up for a second
It’s a 16, and I feel that’s fair; it’s depicting a very accurate portrayal of WW1 and all its horrors. There’s a good amount of upsetting themes and imagery, so definitely isn’t suitable for younger children.