Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PC
Install Size: 1.32GB
Release Date: Out Now
Price: $19.95 – Available Here
Valiant Hearts: The Great War follows the recent, critically acclaimed entries in the Rayman series, and Child of Light, all developed within the UbiArt Framework. Child of Light proved that Ubisoft Montreal – what many would call the “flagship” studio amongst the lot – has the breadth in creativity to create a smaller, uniquely original and off-type game by their own standards, but Ubisoft Montpellier started this trend of painterly, digital releases with Rayman Origins in 2011, and are back for some healthy, in-house competition (although, they’ll never claim that) with Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It’s a gutsy move, a game about the personal struggles, loss and sorrows of World War I that isn’t just a downward spiral into depression…hell, it’s actually insane to attempt! And hard! This isn’t a shooter where you can easily relish in killing the unequivocally evil Nazis, after all….
Valiant Hearts: The Great War follows four main protagonists: Karl, a German man living in France with his wife Marie, young son Victor and farming father-in-law Emile, the second of the four; Freddie, an American soldier who volunteered to join the French forces, and finally Anna, a Belgian nurse. After the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, and WWI is incited, Karl, along with all other German civilians, is deported back to his homeland as the battle lines are drawn between the countries. He is conscripted into the German army and, mere months later, Emile is conscripted to the French army, leaving Marie alone with baby Victor, worried sick for the two most important men in her life, as was the reality for all wives and mothers during the war. Emile and Freddie meet at a Paris train depot, forming a bond built on their common circumstance and motivation – their loved ones. Freddie’s wife was killed in a German bombing raid, hence his thirst for revenge. As the tales of the main four are told, and move along from location to location – mostly through narration – their paths intertwine.
The wicked Baron Von Dorf represents the face of the enemy, abducting Anna’s scientist father, with Karl forced to aid his superior. Van Dorf was also the guilty party behind the fatal bombing that took the life of Freddie’s beloved. Diary entries are added as missions are completed, penned by the main four, as well as Marie back in Saint Mihiel, offering multiple perspectives on the terrible conflict. There is death at every turn, and the survival of every single central or related supporting character would unfortunately be quite unrealistic…there are some sad moments to be had, that’s for certain. But everything that does happen, occurs according to the protocols of the time; Ubisoft Montpellier – other than what could be considered a racist Indian accent – upheld an extreme level of accuracy with respect, even including a bunch of historical facts, covering the gear used, letters home, conditions and more that really educates those who are uneducated on the lesser talked about war. The only disappointment lies in the poorly paced ebb and flow of the plot, with frequent and quick changes that don’t allows plot points to sizzle. As an aside, it is interesting that the only characters whose eyes aren’t covered by their hair or hats are the children; a symbolism of their innocence, perhaps?
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a 2.5D, side-scrolling adventure-puzzler as marketed and listed, but it is so much more than that. There are numerous stealth sections, which are creatively use depth and light/dark as part of the mechanics. There are also more straightforward, action-heavy sequences involving tanks shooting down helicopters, and even a boss battle or two of sorts that integrate unique puzzle elements. Then you’ve got the car-chase missions, which are shorter, but presented from a front-on camera and makes use of advanced motion comic-like trickery to portray a sense of speed and movement as Anna, the designated driver, slams the pedal to the metal. It’s amazing how much variety Ubisoft Montpellier were able to produce. Characters never speak unless in a cut-scene narration, with speech bubbles appearing over their heads in gameplay to visualise their verbal interactions. The intermittent car chases are more upbeat, as obstacles advance and enemy vehicles swerve to the rhythm of classical compositions, providing faster tempo sections that boast light-hearted atmospheres by comparison to most of the rest of the experience, breaking up the pace and tactfully ensuring a relative amusement to bleakness ratio.
Each of the four main protagonists have special, specific gameplay mechanics of their own. Emile, whether yielding a giant ladle or shovel, can dig through dirt mounds; Freddie carries wire cutters to snap barbed wire fences; Anna is a medic, and so can employ her skills in reviving others in a scrolling quicktime event (plus she’s the driver), and Karl – though the player gets the least amount of time with him – can take on disguises. There’s actually a fifth playable character that hasn’t been mentioned, and that’s Walt the dog. Man’s best friend pays a key part in solving many puzzles, able to be controlled and commanded by holding ‘LB’ and pressing one of multiple button prompts for different contextual actions, depending on the surroundings. He scratches at the ground to alert to the presence of a hidden collectible – of which there are 100 strewn about – can hold an item in his mouth, allowing you to carry another, can pull/push levers, and much more. The puzzles, and in actuality the entire game, are cleverly designed and executed. And if you miss a collectible, there’s no need to worry as you can restart every mission from the main menu. While you can’t restart from checkpoints, the missions themselves aren’t too long to cause you frustration in having to replay them from scratch and checkpoints do save after each discovery.
Visuals & Audio
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is dark in tone, and that translates to its visuals in regards to the muted hues that paint the world and its inhabitants throughout. However, Ubisoft Montpellier actually made use of a large colour palette, with a range of both warm and cool colours. One of the more beautiful landscape shots, and probably the only one in the game where you can just sit back and take in the beauty of your surrounds with fleeting, uninterrupted serenity, is Paris at night at the outset of Chapter 2 (shown below). On a whole, the hand-drawn visuals do not detract from the seriousness of the tale as some may have feared. It just works. Characters do mumble under their breath whilst interacting in gameplay, and while Emile boasts a French accent in these instances – as he should – his narration is inexplicably recorded with an American accent. Musically, piano and various horns serve as the foundation for the aural atmosphere, with some truly tender, poignant pieces written and performed with the former. But, the use of, most notably, Flight of the Bumblebee by Rimsky-Korsakov, and Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms, in the car chase sequences is complete genius.
It’s difficult to make a game based on such depressing blights on humanity as WWI was, where the intent is to tell a touching, realistic and honest-to-the-situation story, but it’s even more so to keep it from being absolutely grim to the point where players see no fun in the experience, and therefore have little motivation to play it. It’s a balancing act that Ubisoft Montpellier have succeeded in with Valiant Hearts: The Great War. At first glance, and after being given the synopsis, its cartoonish style might seem antithetical to the narrative tone, but in keeping the above in mind, these design considerations are indeed necessary. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is touching, informative and entertaining. Ubisoft has successfully continued their run of great, artistic, indie-esque, UbiArt Framework titles with Valiant Hearts: The Great War, and seem to have carved a certain niche for themselves, especially for typically being known as one of the largest AAA, blockbuster publishers in the industry.
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