PC: Valiant Hearts – The Great War (review)

Release date: November 2014

Developer: Ubisoft

Format: Digital download (Windows)

Other platforms: PS3, PS4, XBox 360, XBox One, iOS, Android

Price: ~$20 AUD

Focusing on World War I, Valiant Hearts starts in 1914 after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand has been assassinated, leading the Austro-Hungary Empire to declare war on Serbia, which in turns gets Germany and Russia involved. Separated from his wife and child, German citizen Karl is deported from France and drafted into the German army, while his father-in-law, Emile, is drafted into the French army. After his unit is wiped out, Emile is captured by the Germans and held at the camp of Baron Von Dorf, who is obsessed with wiping out his enemies with any advanced weapons he can find.

After Emile (and Karl, who was also stationed in Baron Von Dorf’s camp) manage to get away, these characters are joined at different points throughout the war by Freddie, an American who has volunteered for the French army after his wife was killed in a German bombing raid; Anna, a veterinary student working as a nurse and trying to find her father, who was kidnapped by Baron Von Dorf and forced to design advanced weapons; and Walt, a Doberman Pinscher from the German Army. The action switches between the four human characters, often accompanied by the dog who helps them reach items or places they couldn’t get to themselves.

Though it covers some of the important conflicts in World War I, the game does take some liberties with the story. For example, Baron Von Dorf is such an over-the-top caricature villain it’s hard to take seriously, especially when he’s cackling at you as you lob sticks of dynamite at him while he’s trying to ram you with his tank. That being said, these flashes of humour are welcome in a game that deals with the darkness of war. The final chapter is particularly harrowing, with an emotional ending that hits like a punch in the guts.

Though there are some minor platforming elements in Valiant Hearts, it’s largely a puzzle game. The interaction options are pretty simple but the game still utilises them in a variety of interesting ways. A lot of the puzzles involve searching for objects needed to progress, whether it be parts to operate some machinery or an item needed by another character, who will often give you another helpful item in exchange. Sometimes you need to line up some pipes in order for water to flow through to where it’s needed, or dig up hidden items with a shovel. Even though it’s a war game, there isn’t a whole lot of violence required from your characters; aside from the occasional need to clobber an enemy soldier on the head to knock them out, usually you’ll defeat them by throwing items to distract them or just by sneaking past and avoiding them entirely.

The puzzles are never really challenging to solve, though I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. With the focus on the emotion and atmosphere of the game, I think getting stuck on a tricky puzzle would pull you out of it too much and break the story’s momentum. The game offers hints if you do happen to get stuck. There are also more action-oriented sequences, which are a nice fast-paced change; in some scenes, you have to steer a car through obstacles like explosives, other cars and gunfire from planes, while in others you’re dodging mortars or enemy soldiers on the battlefield.

Some of the puzzles involve ‘quick time’ or rhythm-based mini-games, and this was an aspect I found a little tedious after a while. I tend to find games that require me to ‘press a button in time with a sound or image’ don’t really add anything to the gameplay. In fact, there didn’t even seem to be any consequences for completely screwing it up (as I did in one scene when I was distracted by a family member). Luckily there weren’t too many of these.

While Valiant Hearts‘ soundtrack included some familiar classical pieces (like Flight of the Bumblebee and the Can Can), but there were also a number of original tracks, and these were perfectly suited to the scenes they accompanied, from sad, haunting piano melodies to dramatic and upbeat full orchestral pieces. Most of the ‘dialogue’ is just nonsense grunts and gasps, though the cutscenes are properly voiced by a narrator or by character voice actors. In spite of these vocal limitations, the personalities of the characters are still unique and endearing and you genuinely want them to get through the war unharmed. The art style was also beautiful, but even though it’s somewhat cartoonish, it still conveys the horror and brutality of the war.

As you make your way through the stages, you can find various objects (some in plain view, some well hidden) that give you interesting photos and facts about the time or locale you’re playing through. Though you can view them straight away if you want, it’s entirely optional; you can go through from from the menu at your leisure or ignore them completely if you just want to play through the game. I didn’t collect all of them – I’m generally not a person who has the time or energy to devote to ‘100%ing’ games – but the ones I did find were interesting to look through.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a thought-provoking journey through World War I that illustrates the horror of the fighting from a personal perspective while still being accessible to a wide audience, as well as providing an educational look at it for those who want it. It’s not a long game at 6 and a half hours or so, and it doesn’t offer much challenge or replay value, but it’s still worth your time and money.

Score:

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