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Valiant Hearts Review: A Diamond in the Trenches
In a world where puzzle adventure games have been thoroughly dominated by the sugarcoated advent of LEGO properties, fans of the genre have been fortunate to run into the likes of the Professor Layton and Phoenix Wright franchises. Though childlike by design, the titles have succeeded in crossing age groups by handling less-than-kid friendly scenarios. Taking dark situations and turning them into compelling offerings for gamers has to be a daunting endeavor for even the most accomplished developer. In the case of Valiant Hearts: The Great War and the small development team at Ubisoft Montpellier responsible for the project, this is an overwhelmingly ambitious and triumphant addition to any gaming library.
Throughout the four chapters of Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the game creatively paces the interlinking tales of some of the bravest video game characters you may ever meet. We have Emile, a Frenchman in his later years that answers to a national call-to-arms issued by his government. Then there is Karl, the German son-in-law of Emile who is torn from his wife and child as he is exiled from France and subsequently enlisted into the German military. The spark plug of the group is an African American named Freddie who shows the most gumption as a soldier as he immediately joined the war effort following a personal tragedy. Anna, a Belgian-born field nurse, is often the character vessel with which players dare to remedy the injuries of such a dark era. The star centerpiece of the story unequivocally belongs to Walt, a honest-to-goodness dog of war that expands the interaction possibilities of the vast number of puzzles that players will encounter along the way.
The life and styles portrayed in the environments and backgrounds are breathtaking. No matter how simple or minimalist the UbiArt design may feel to the most spoiled high-definition eye, the vast landscapes of the battlefields are hauntingly beautiful. The prolific destruction of the European countryside is given justice in Valiant Hearts, depicted as endless and terrifying. As your character traverses the foreground, you can only watch helplessly as war wages in the distance, dispensing countless soldiers both friend and foe. Characters may appear cartoony and relatively friendly to younger audiences but that also didn’t stop the Ubisoft Montepellier team from illustrating maps where players will literally walk over legions of dead and fallen brothers in their pursuit of peace.
The soundtrack of Valiant Hearts shows legs in creating a compelling emotional attachment to the characters. Even as players review character diaries and facts of war through the Options menu, The endless chorus of classical piano and violin tones sing harmoniously from speaker to ear. Once inside your brain, the notes carry down your veins, preparing to embark on a dangerous waltz with your heart. Even if you somehow find yourself as a player that isn’t compelled or entranced by the interwoven tales of Valiant Hearts within the first 30 minutes of gameplay, I offer this experiment: the next time you find yourself in the throes of playing The Great War and seem to be losing steam, simply pause to the Options menu and close your eyes.
This may be a video game to most where movement and interactions appear exceedingly basic. This may be a video game to some where the puzzles seem rudimentary or not too difficult to decipher. This may be a video game where the thought of characters grumbling incoherent gibberish during gameplay but speaking perfectly during voice-over cutscenes gets under the skin of certain users. However, I challenge the concept that any of these things do a disservice or act as a detriment to Valiant Hearts. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is the sum total of its parts. It offers so much in such a minute package and does well to not disappoint those looking for something more to their historical military experiences other than what different style metal sights they’ll be staring down.
Valiant Hearts even goes as far as offering a built-in hint system. Should the game sense that you’ve spent an unusual amount of time in one particular area or don’t appear to be advancing, it will flash the icon of a carrier pigeon. With this option, Ubisoft goes one step further in making the time spent playing The Great War more about the narrative and art as the primary focus. While you can still be very aware that you are playing a game, the developers didn’t want the storytelling effects hampered by an inability to discover a solution or next step.
The discovery of hidden objects, though not explicitly explained at any point during the opening chapters, slowly becomes a second nature pursuit for those looking to achieve full game completion. There are more than 100 collectible items throughout the entirety of the game, leaving some replay value for those unable to find everything on their first playthrough. Those seeking a challenge can also activate Veteran mode, a feature which turns off the hint system and removes the highlight of interactive objects. A “Chapters & Collection” menu option offers singular chapter playback and even indicates how many secret items are still yet to be found.
There is a decent blend of stages at play here, from trekking across gas-infested death zones on foot to blasting enemy aircraft out of the sky using imaginative machines of war. Some of the mission and stage types are not so readily explained in the beginning, leading you down a path of trial and error that slow begins to build the learning curve for the game. Specifically some of the stealth sequences in the game which feature you sneaking past enemy patrols that don’t seem to prepare you for the moment when you immediately approach an opposing soldier expecting the chance to melee attack them or defend yourself. Instead, your characters maintain their not-so aggressive tone throughout most of the game when they are captured on sight and you are forced to restart the area from the last checkpoint.
Anna the medic will have you healing wounded bystanders through a series of quick time events back-dropped by a heart monitor. Additionally, Anna also aids in moving characters across the vast European theater using a Parisian taxi and avoiding enemy fire timed to the rhythm of classical orchestra music. Walt often acts as the key factor in allowing the characters to retrieve important puzzle pieces or interact with other elements or characters as a means to solve whatever tricky situation our heroes may find along the way.
One of the big messages portrayed in Valiant Hearts is that the entire cast of characters are more or less reluctant participants forced to survive unfathomable circumstances. At one point or another, everyone finds themselves aiding or healing enemy combatants as they embrace the doctrine that killing a foe simply because they are one is not justifiable. It does spark some historical debate for players to ponder as to whether people of the time period may have perceived World War I as nonsensical given the atrocities and losses of life endured. The game concludes in a soul-shuddering way and leaves on a very evocative note that I believe would do well to finish my thoughts on this review of Valiant Hearts: The Great War and the lesson it teaches us all when comes to a largely untold historical tale such as this.
Even though their bodies have long since returned to dust, their sacrifice still lives on. We must strive to cherish their memory and never forget . . .