Not many developers would look at a historical event as atrocious and violent as World War I and think to make a puzzle game set in that storied period. Well, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, the next UbiArt title from Ubisoft Montpellier, is doing exactly that. Welcome to the First World War, where millions died in one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history, retold through the eyes of four strangers that will soon become more.
When given the opportunity to play Valiant Hearts almost two months prior to its eventual debut on June 25, I jumped at it. This is a game I've been looking forward to since Ubisoft announced it last September, and I went in with pretty lofty expectations. Now I've never enjoyed side-scrollers as a format for storytelling, but with Valiant Hearts, I was willing to take a chance and ditch my comfort zone in hopes of experiencing something unique.
After spending a couple hours with the game, I decided it was nothing like what I'd hoped for. I sat down in front of a TV and console thinking I was about to play this epic war drama about survival, starring hardened soldiers fighting for their respective countries and all that good stuff. Instead, I was introduced to these wonderful people whose lives were forever changed by the Great War, who threw themselves into this bloody mess they wanted nothing to do with. They became soldiers, but before they fought, they were farmers, husbands and daughters, and Valiant Hearts tells their story.
Deep in the Trenches
The art style of Valiant Hearts is obviously very cartoonish, which seems a rather strange direction to take given the subject matter. When asked -- believe me, quite a few people did -- lead designer Julien Chevallier noted a desire to create a more vibrant world juxtaposed with the grim setting. This gives the developers a very meaningful and visual way of showing change over time as the fighting spreads. Chapter by chapter, battle by battle, the scenery changes to accomodate the cast. Ana, a Belgian nurse studying in France when war breaks out, begins her journey in Paris, before moving to the frontlines with the troops. The contrast between the City of Lights, a metropolis far away from the violence, and the trenches Ana soons finds herself knee-deep in is startling.
The moonlit Parisian skyline, with the Eiffel Tower nesting atop a sea of 19th century apartments, acts as an anchor of normalcy amidst the destruction. So when Ana winds up in a tent, using a bonesaw to relieve a wounded soldier of his limb, we can very clearly see the disconnect that exists.
Not that Ana is the only one to experience such a drastic transition, and the lives of Valiant Hearts' five heroes seem to run parallel in this respect. In the very first chapter, we're introduced to Emile, a French farmer living with his daughter and her husband, Karl, a German. When Germany threatens war upon its neighbors, Karl is separated from his family, and before long, both he and Emile are conscripted. In Freddie's case, I caught glimpses of the man's previous life, when he was someone else and loved by others. As for George, the British aviator? Well, I didn't get to meet him yet, but I have a feeling he wasn't born a soldier either.
A Dog Named Walt
Chevallier said he wasn't sure if the game ever mentions the dog's name, so he tells me its name is Walt.
Walt is the faithful canine companion to all, the one character that acts as a bridge to the rest, but he's also a pretty important gameplay feature. When he joins someone, he becomes another way to explore and interact with the world, controlled separately from his human friends and quite adept at getting into all those hard-to-reach places they can't. Like any well-trained war hound, Walt is an excellent scout and tracker, and his sensitive nose spots dangers and treasures (read: collectibles) alike.
As a binding agent in the story, Walt is unsurprisingly consistent in all ways, whereas the humans see more various. Gameplay won't change too much from chapter to chapter, but each character does leave their own mark on it. Emile, for instance, is a quiet, thinking man, so he encounters more puzzles than his peers. Lucky Freddie, by contrast, is more of a tough guy who prefers to throw himself face-first into battle, armed with his tools and a pair of punch-happy fists. As for Ana? She heals people, regardless of whose uniform they wear, and her medical practice consists of simple QTE mini-games.
In all honestly, the gameplay itself is less than revolutionary, but the world and its characters were engaging enough to keep me preoccupied. I can at least say the gameplay doesn't hinder, though time will tell if its actually memorable.
I can say, however, that I was so engrossed in Valiant Hearts that I barely noticed how long I'd been playing it. Ubisoft Montpellier has made a very good game, and I really can't wait to get back into it.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War will be released as a downloadable game for PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PS4, and PS3 on June 25.
Follow Lydia on Twitter @RabidChinaGirl or check out her news and reviews every day here on Neoseeker.