World War I doesn’t get nearly enough attention… now that’s a strange statement, and those battles that were waged between 1914-1918 should not be trivialised or exploited – nor should war in general – but the harrowing stories to come out of the conflict deserved to be told in the interest of reflection, perspective, respect for lives lost and why they were sacrificed, and to help us better understand the errors of our ways and how to avoid such breakdowns of civility in the future. Yet it seems World War II alone, with its clearly defined villain in Hitler putting a singular face to evil, consistently piques the interest of people looking for a real-life ‘Good vs Evil’ story. Instead of retreading such oft-adapted territory, Ubisoft Montpellier aim to tell a respectfully poignant story set against the backdrop of World War I with Valiant Hearts: The Great War, exploring the human element of war and, hopefully, strumming the right chord on our heart strings. Having played the game for more than an hour on the PlayStation 4, we can positively say that they’re on the right track.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is specifically inspired by letters written by soldiers during WWI, and as such is focused on the lives of multiple individuals on both sides of the conflict with the war itself being the antagonistic force. At the game’s introduction, Emile – a humble farmer – is taken from his daughter Marie and grandson Victor, conscripted into the French army. An older gentleman, Emile goes through the standard training regimen – a tutorial for the player, introducing them to the basic – but must rely on his wits to survive the brutal and physically demanding battlefields. And so, the player’s experience with Emile is much more puzzle-heavy. Before even stepping onto the war-zone, Emile sees an opportunity to interfere when a man is being harassed at the train platform. Conveniently, the bullies are standing on either side of the steam pipes. One pull cord is unguarded, but the other is. A French brass band is standing by, and it turns out this guard really just wants to hear some good music. Directing the four members in the right order, almost like a conductor, lures the guard away from his post in order to enjoy the music, allowing the player to climb the ladder, head into the cab and pull the second cord, spraying hot steam right into the remaining bullies’ faces. The victim’s name is Freddie, an American who willingly joined the French army as many did, but he’s no weakling. Freddie is one of five playable characters throughout the journey whom we will get to shortly.
Moving on, Emile charges alongside his comrades in Neuve-Chapelle in early 1915, with the player evading incoming mortar attacks by reading the enlarging shadows on the ground and either slowing down, or speeding up to avoid its impact. Unfortunately, Emile gets captured by the Germans during this first battle. Awakening in shackles, we see the grandfather appointed as chef for the opposition. Little is communicated in Valiant Hearts: The Great War through actual dialogue, but rather with thought bubbles (accompanied by some gibberish) presenting visual direction/communication. The above image is taken from the initial chapter and, in fact, the exact area we are on, and shows an example of this. Emile is ordered to cook some bratwurst for the troops, but entry to the kitchen is blocked by another soldier demanding you get some water for his ‘casualty dog’, as they were called. Most actions in the game are contextual, with the aforementioned pull cords requiring the player hold ‘X’ down and flick the left thumbstick downwards to reflect the appropriate motion of the action. Here, it’s a wheel that needs turning. Once inside the kitchen, Emile is visited by Karl, his son-in-law who was deported and conscripted into the German army numerous months back. He asks about his wife back home… all he desires is to be safe with his family again, and that includes Emile. Karl leaves before they can be caught speaking.
There is a photograph of Marie on the floor, a collectible for the player, of which there are up to 6 or so in each level. There are also diary entries that are updated as the story progresses, written by Emile, Karl, Marie, Freddie and Anna, a medic we meet later on. What’s especially neat are the facts added to your journal, which can be accessed as they appear by pressing ‘triangle’ at the prompt. These detail topics from related historical events attached to the immediate surrounds of the player, to something as minute as the mud you trudge through. They are great, passive history lessons that are completely optional, but add context to proceedings. After boiling and rolling out the bratwurst for our captors, we are forced to flee back into the kitchen as French mortar strikes pepper the camp. In the aftermath, trapped under rubble, the casualty dog comes to our aid, now without a master. Pressing and holding ‘L1’, we enter ‘dog mode’ (for lack of a better term) where the player can command the dog. Walt, as he has been named by Ubisoft outside of the game, pulls Emile from the wreckage and so begins their budding relationship. Walt is, himself, a main character and interacts with all playable characters at some point or another in the plot. He’ll indicate dig spots, help in puzzles by pushing levers (yes, he’s quite an intelligent canine) and fetch objects for you that are out of reach, all the while navigating on a vertical plane via small tunnels bored into the environment.
Emile is armed with his trusty ladle, which can be used as a melee weapon or to dig through dirt/into the earth… obviously not your cheap, plastic variety. As mentioned, the Emile sections of gameplay are puzzle-centric, although the whole game features puzzles of different kinds/difficulties. One such puzzle involved using up and down pulleys to lift a crate above ground, allowing Walt to jump on, bringing it back down to the platform underground, jumping on as Walt jumped off and finally commanding him to push the down lever to transport you to the bottom level where you could progress. This puzzle in particular is multi-sectioned, as Emile is tasked with overloading a generator that is pumping toxic fumes as a line of defence on the surface. Once achieved, the team find themselves in peril with Walt caught in barbed wire and a tank advancing on their position. There is where Freddie returns to the fray, as we embody him leading up to that moment on the other side of the hill. Freddie is a true battler who prefers his fists, and explosives, mind you, to guns. Running across the battlefield, intermittently taking cover from the opposing gunfire, we approach our objective – a bridge, fitted with TNT, that must be detonated. Getting to the detonator, however, is a challenge requiring the player throw found objects such as bottles to distract guards, stealthily moving past them and, if need be, knocking a couple unconscious.
When we arrive at the site of a troublesome mortar, Freddie spots Emile and Walt at the mercy of the enemy tank, leading us to take aim and save the day. Freddie reunites with his friend and, using his speciality tool – wire cutters – we cut Walt loose of the sharp, digging metal spikes and continue on together. Eventually, the trio are on the run when it seems almost all hope is lost. Thankfully, Anna plays the role of deus ex machina when her jeep comes into view. Leaping in, the crew are saved from guaranteed death. This is when we flash forward to chapter 2 for the purpose of the demo. 9 months earlier in Paris, we get a taste of Anna’s story, as she mends the wounded in an almost rhythm-game-esque minigame (shown above) and fixes her automobile before outstripping and eluding German pursuants. Her gameplay is very much centered around performing her duties as a nurse and being the equivalent of the ‘wheelman’; it’s nice that every character has a special ability/set of traits that lends to unique gameplay, breaking up any potential monotony. Puzzles, again, are encountered in every area, and before her car was road-ready, we had to find the right shaped wrench to remove a wheel lock keeping it grounded, find another wrench for the nearby fire hydrant, open it, and then fill the radiator with the water.
Sadly, that was our time with Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Particularly interesting is the clash of tones with the cartoonish, over-the-top animations and the depressing nature of the themes presented. We did encounter some bugs, but they were known issues already marked by the developers and are probably being worked on as we speak. Child of Light was made with the same UbiArt Framework engine, and for what it’s worth, we believe Ubisoft have another high-calibre digital release on their hands. Valiant Hearts: The Great War releases on June 25; look for our review closer to the date.