by Matthew Thompson
With an eye-catching trailer at last year’s E3 and a quality developer like Ubisoft Montpellier behind the project, I’ve been meaning to get around to Valiant Hearts: The Great War for a some time. Now that I finally have, I’m sorry I waited so long. Valiant Hearts is a wonderful and unique title, one that would have surely found a spot in my top ten games of 2014 had I played it before creating that list.
The story told in Valiant Hearts revolves around four characters whose paths cross and stories intertwine during the first World War. There’s Karl, a German living in France, who is deported and ends up fighting for the German forces while his aging father-in-law Emile is drafted to serve in the French army. You’ll also play as Freddie, an American who joined up with the French to seek revenge on Baron Von Dorf (the villain of the piece), and Anna, a Belgian nurse who helps save whichever victims she can regardless of their allegiance. Plus there’s Walt, a dog medic who will accompany all the characters at various points on their journeys. The developers don’t shy away from depicting the ugliness of the war. The game is even loaded with historical notes and items that will help shed light on the events that inspired the game. But they also use the characters to show moments of happiness in this dark period and how the bonds of family and friendship can help in the bleakest of times. Haunting and moving, Valiant Hearts tells a story worth hearing, one that nearly brought me to tears by the end.
Puzzles make up the bulk of the gameplay which is most comparable to classic point-and-click adventure games. The ones on offer here aren’t exactly brainteasers, but still fun to solve. My favorite parts featured larger areas that you’d have to explore and solve a number of puzzles in different buildings or for different NPCs. One solution would lead to help in the next until a chain reaction was created and you could eventually move on to a new area. Despite the puzzle-solving focus, they did a good job mixing up scenarios and adding lots of other gameplay ideas to keep things varied. You’ll be using a flock of sheep as cover to sneak out of a POW camp one moment and then driving a tank into battle another. There are wild taxi chases and boss battles against zeppelins. Each of the characters have unique abilities, so their segments all have their own feel. And your dog companion is used to add another layer to the puzzles. It all helps to keep the 5-6 hour adventure fresh until the very end.
Valiant Hearts excels in both the visual and sound departments too. It puts the UbiArt Framework engine (best known for creating the top-notch graphics in the recent Rayman games) to good use, creating a lovely 2D comic book-style look. I was particularly taken by the character designs which hide most adult characters’ eyes behind their hats, helmets or shaggy hair. There is a real charm to them. The soundtrack is just phenomenal. I found myself lingering in the pause screen at times just to hear the sweet and somber sounds of that menu’s tune.
There are some small issues throughout. I thought a few of the action sequences were a bit too trial and error. I guess there isn’t much in the way of replay value outside of snagging some missed collectibles or just replaying to relive the story. But these seem so minute when thinking back on Valiant Hearts: The Great War. The memorable narrative, the fun gameplay, the stunning art direction, the wonderful soundtrack, it all came together to create such a tremendous game. One I’m very glad I had the opportunity to experience.