Monday, August 25, 2014

Game Review: Valiant Hearts Revisits the Great War, 100 Years Later

July 27th, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of World War I.  Therefore it seemed appropriate to play the recently released Valiant Hearts which, in its own way, pays tribute to the "unsung heroes" of The Great War.  I have always been interested in games with a true historical basis, so I've had this game on my to-play list for a while.  Valiant Hearts is a unique side-scrolling, puzzle-adventure game by Ubisoft featuring detailed and accurate historical context, diverse puzzles, compelling characters and an emotional storyline which collectively make for a memorable game experience.

Valiant Hearts' story begins in Saint-Mihiel, France, and introduces two of the four characters that the player will control throughout the game: Emile, a widowed farm owner in Saint-Mihiel who is called up to serve in the French Army shortly after war was declared; and Karl, a young German living and working at Emile's farm, who is married to Emile's daughter and was forced to leave France after war was declared. Later in the story, two more playable characters are introduced, an American fighter and a Belgian munitions factory worker.  I would be remiss if I didn't mention a fifth playable character: Walt, a Doberman Pincher K9 medic, who helps out the other characters throughout the game and is critical to their success--not to mention, ridiculously cute.  (Spoiler Alert: No, the dog doesn't die at the end....if he did, I probably would have thrown my controller at the screen).

The player starts the game controlling Emile as he is going through basic training with the French Army--which also serves as the basic training for the player to learn the controls for the game.  Valiant Hearts uses extremely simple controls for interacting with the environment; for example, using the square button to execute each character's special skill, like digging or cutting wires.  In addition, many actionable items have a "button prompt" hovering over them so that you know you can interact with them.  In addition, the inventory of the character is streamlined to only what the character is carrying on his or her belt, plus whatever Walt the dog might have.  This simplicity further emphasizes the game's focus on storytelling and character development, rather than a flood of attack combos and a giant inventory of supplies and weapons, which is often the case in other war-themed games.   

One of the many puzzles throughout the game. (Photo
courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)
As the game and story progress in chapter style with a narrator, the player will rotate through gameplay with each of the four "unsung heroes."  They will encounter a series of diverse puzzles to solve on the battlefield, in a prison camp, or on the city streets, with varying difficulty.  Some tasks may require the use of various items in cooperation with Walt the Dog, distracting enemy soldiers, digging around mines, or moving objects in the correct sequence.  

There are some legitimate battle sequences that give a sense of the stress on the battlefield, as the character dodges airborne attacks, hides in bunkers, and narrowly escapes enemy fire or chemical attack. I found the time-pressure puzzles for Anna (the Belgian munitions factory worker) to be particularly stressful, as she is often charged with healing people wounded in battle.  The player controls Anna's administration of first aid through a series of rapid button-pushing sequences, which must be executed at precisely the right time and in the right order to save the patient.  Every time the player misses a button, you can see the patient bleeding more!  
Anna uses her medical skills to help a war victim.
(Photo courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)

Despite the artificial stress created by certain puzzles and time-limited actions, Valiant Hearts is generally forgiving with respect to saved games and resuming play if a character dies.  There are auto-save checkpoints at the start of each chapter and no penalties for having to play through a particular chapter many times to advance.  I personally found this generosity, as well as the simplicity of the controls, to be almost too simple to provide satisfying and challenging gameplay.  But again, I think this goes back to the idea that the developers really wanted players to focus on the story.

Another unique aspect of this game is the inclusion of extensive historical data about the World War I.  Facts are interjected via sets of hidden collectibles and historical items in each chapter.  When the player collects an item, a new fact card is added to the player's deck.  I found it really interesting to read through them and learn more about what happened during World War I.  The fact cards are short enough to where I didn't feel like I was reading a history book, and they usually bore some relevance to the game's story line or puzzles at the end. 

The graphic style of Valiant Hearts has the feel of an interactive
cartoon. (Photo courtesy of Ubisoft Entertainment)
Stylistically, Valiant Hearts is also unique in its comic book graphic style.  The game was rendered using Ubisoft Montpellier Studio's UbiArt Framework.  The artistic idea was to make the player feel like they are interacting with a cartoon, and the game environment effectively conveys that feeling.  However, I have to say I felt slightly uneasy about the scenes in the game depicting mounds and mounds of bodies (when depicting the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the War) in the game's friendly-looking cartoon style.  It had a big emotional impact.  The game's soundtrack was fairly memorable and complemented the game well.

I don't want to spoil the story, but let it suffice to say that Valiant Hearts does an excellent job intertwining the stories of the four "unsung heroes" illustrate how the transition to modern, total war of World War I affected individuals from a variety of angles, not just the perspective of the soldier.  The perspectives of the characters transcend generations and still resonate with me in relation to current world events.  I appreciated the historical context of the game and the developer's efforts to ensure the accuracy of the facts included (even receiving certification from the French Commission on World War I).  

If there is one thing I cannot reconcile about Valiant Hearts, it is the intended audience of the game. Who is it? As a thirty-something American female gamer, I can appreciate the historical education aspect of the game and the focus on story rather than complexity of gameplay.  I am not sure that many younger American gamers would enjoy Valiant Hearts solely for the story or actually read the historical facts, but perhaps European gamers would be more attuned to this aspect of the game.  I am also doubtful the gameplay would appeal to gamers who gravitate toward first-person shooters and heavy action games.  Valiant Hearts is truly unique, which is both a blessing and a curse in terms of its appeal to large audiences.  The game's strength lies in its compelling story and its focus on the interpersonal relationships of a diverse set of characters to illustrate the effects of war.  If that sounds appealing to you, I highly recommend you check it out.