Video games have been getting much better at conveying more complicated subject material over the past few years. The entertainment medium that I love so much is finally figuring things out; letting me play in places and experience stories that are just starting to become comparable to that of the quality of their equivalents in movies and books. As someone majoring in creative writing, all of these recent breakthroughs in games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and Papers, Please are extremely exciting.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft’s next UbiArt Framework game, shows that video games still have a long way to go in terms of rivaling strong works of film and literature. But at the same time it’s a great example of how much better games have become at being more interesting and thoughtful. It says a lot that even though Valiant Hearts doesn’t stand up as some great crafted work or even claim to be an exceptional playing game, I can still greatly admire and enjoy it.
The game takes places during the first Great War: World War 1. It’s an underdeveloped setting in video games, primarily because warfare back then wouldn’t work very well in a modern FPS context. Developer Ubisoft Montpellier recognizes this and tries to bring us up speed by giving the player the option to review a bunch of history lessons and collectible “fun” facts which can be read in the main menu. Most importantly though, they use this underdeveloped time period to create some truly disturbing and harrowing scenarios.
You explore the harsh trench-covered landscapes as four different characters and a medical response dog. Each of these characters have different unique abilities like carrying a shovel that can be used to dig underground to utilizing a wire cutter to clear paths through barbed wire. Control over these characters is dictated by the discretion of the story to solve various puzzles and environmental challenges across this great war-torn world.
Indeed, Valiant Hearts’ story is deeply concerned with the ways that war tears us apart as a species. All of these characters, including the secondary non-playable characters, are tied together unequivocally in ways both petty and profound. And while Valiant Hearts is quite capable of creating some very realistic human moments, storytelling is also one of its weaker points.
Thematically the game is all over the place, to the point where the game has to deliver a rather obtrusive and forced speech at the end just to tell you what Valiant Hearts is “All About”. And some of the other elements of the story like the unnecessary narration throughout and tonally inconsistent Saturday morning cartoon villain undermines Valiant Hearts’ otherwise very fair treatment of all sides of the conflict. Video games still have a while to go before they can tell great, thematically consistent narratives.
But disregarding that, Valiant Hearts as a pure gameplay experience is at the surface rather unremarkable. It’s a fairly casual adventure game experience locked to a 2D side scrolling perspective. You don’t have an inventory to manage, per se, but your character can carry one item they find and interact with various other environmental doodads like boxes and levers. All of this is done in the name of puzzle solving. While the vast majority of these puzzles are fairly straight-forward, the sheer variety of different puzzles to solve and the creative design of them is so staggering that I had a great time solving all of them. Even if at a dizzying rapid rate a I easily blasted through most of the game.
And while Valiant Hearts isn’t a very long game, the production values of it will stay with you long after the game ends. I feel like I say this about every new UbiArt Framework game, but Valiant Hearts is perhaps the best looking game from that engine yet both from a design and animation perspective. The colorful cartoonish art style is incredibly detailed, not to mention insanely well animated. You would think the exaggerated style of the game would take away from its more potent of moments, but on the contrary, it rather enhances them much better than if it was some realistic grim-dark artstyle. With this and Child of Light under its belt now, I’m now more incredibly excited to see the next non-Rayman UbiArt Framework game than any Assassin’s Creed or Far Cry blockbuster.
Valiant Hearts is also no slouch in the audio department either. The game has a great classical soundtrack that enhances the already powerful visual moments of the game. And even in interactive moments, music plays extremely important parts in surprising rhythm puzzle moments that surprised me in a good way. The visual and auditory values of this game combine to create one of the more atmospheric and stylistically dominant titles of the year thus far.
While Valiant Hearts may not be incredibly innovative, complex or entirely successful, it’s still a great experience. While the story has some rather unfortunately crippling issues, where Valiant Hearts finds a foothold in my heart is in immersing me in the power of the moment. Charging across a battlefield as soldiers around me fall, silently navigating a hostile warzone in the middle of night, and solving mechanical and environmental puzzles are all experiences that I am very familiar with by now. But it’s a credit to Valiant Hearts that it can take these gameplay and thematic experiences and manages to make them feel new again.
While video games have a long way to become as sophisticated as their elder entertainment brethren, Valiant Hearts shows us that we are at least on the right track going forward into this new generation. And being on the correct path is half the struggle anyway.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)