The way in which I’d recommend Valiant Hearts violates the kinds of recommendations that I typically acknowledge: “Just stick it out for the first hour; it gets better, I promise.” But I’d have to make a special case for Valiant Hearts because it redeems itself in a way that I haven’t seen a game pull off in many years. I went from dreading my experience with it to adoring its fulfilled potential by the end of its story. There’s a reason why it was part of the conversation as one of the most memorable games of 2014. But I can tell you for damn sure, it wasn’t because if its opening chapters.
In the beginning, you’re left wondering why Valiant Hearts is so revered as another gem coming from Ubisoft’s Ubi Art catalogue, which encompasses the publisher’s smaller budget efforts, such as Rayman Origins and Child of Light. Aesthetically, the Ubi Art engine is put to good use as the art style is undoubtedly striking. An assortment of bleached and vibrant colour schemes that appropriate the early century/World War I setting, and stocky character proportions that are both endearing and rugged, fill the screen and draw your eye to every detail. At the very least, it succeeds at sustaining an aura of sadness around a story of breaking families apart in the First World War and sending them off to fight.
But the way in which the story gathers momentum, however, concerns itself more with moving its characters from location to location and tying them together with little more than coincidental convenience, rather than fleshing out plausible motivation. Worse yet, the things that happen to and around these characters are narratively and emotionally unsatisfying to the point that there’s little tension around each of their fates, which is ultimately antithetical to the tension surrounding the World War I setting itself.
More so, how underwhelming Valiant Hearts is at the beginning is partially highlighted by the story’s juxtaposition to the well placed historical facts. Every so often, the game prompts you to read contextual details that tie directly into the events in-game. They target everything from the livelihood and the pastime of the soldiers, to the dire conditions and lethality of war machines – all of which are the exact opposite of Valiant Hearts’ initial tone. There’s an almost dishonest innocence to the game at first that’s not at all convincing. Generic soldiers flop over and die, but it all feels like white noise behind the safety bubble that surrounds your characters.
One missed opportunity involved the game’s medic, Anna, who was tasked with amputating a man’s left arm. But when it came to the amputation itself, it was reduced to a button patterned sequence – not unlike your run-of-the-mill rhythm game – which here runs along a field of medical tape. There was no screaming, no writhing in pain, no need to hold the man down. It was all but a “PG” depiction of the amputation followed by a “Hats off to you mam’” gesture from the patient himself. Valiant Hearts’ first impression makes the game’s story seem sanitized and uninteresting to the point that I almost cut my time short with it as a result.
Even if I were to fixate on the gameplay itself, the embryonic systems and mechanics don’t redeem what is first seen in the story. Valiant Hearts mostly plays out like a persistent side scrolling adventure game where you solve puzzles and mix and match items to make progress. Chapter one, and parts of chapter two, are overly simplistic and will have you solving unidimensional puzzles that feel more spoon-fed than challenging. There just aren’t many moving parts involved, and success is hardly ever satisfying. There are also some action sequences that punctuate the pacing as well, but the slippery controls make them feel as if they were simply implemented in order to accomplish just that, rather than to evoke any sort of enjoyment out of them. Anna’s driving sequences easily comes to mind in that regard, as you only have to shift her vehicle from side to side to avoid the worst drivers in Paris.
And then the game starts to get good.
While the story doesn’t come into its own yet, nearing towards the latter end of chapter two you’ll begin to see some more desired complexity into its puzzle and sequence design. They ease their way into the game nicely as well following some well-orchestrated boss battles that seem to mark the official transition to a better game. But it’s when Valiant Hearts reaches its third chapter where the game synergizes and begins to take itself much more seriously. Here, there’s a night time escape with one of the characters that’s surprisingly well-paced and varied, mixing both smart stealth, chase and puzzle elements, all in which easily make it my favourite “level” in the game.
Another stage involved similar combinations of gameplay styles, but swapped out the stealth with bombastic vehicular combat. All of these are, again, contextualized by Valiant Hearts’ historical facts; because the gameplay is much more engaging here, the game’s history lesson adds weight to the events of the game, creating a sense of place that’s more effective than ever before.
Valiant Hearts’ fourth chapter reaches a climax that transforms the game completely, both mechanically and tonally. Here, the brutality and devastation documented in many of the historical facts finally becomes unfiltered in the game itself. Part of this tonal shift is achieved by how the art style finally fulfils its duty by conveying an evocative and oddly beautiful representation of WWI’s worst. The brutal imagery manages to be unrelenting without being gratuitous, and haunts you with the thought of the mindset that soldiers had to be in when thinking of their dead comrades. This climax of the story amounts to Valiant Hearts’ final conclusion. And strangely enough, it validates all of the game’s emotional misfires and it culminates into a heartfelt and heartbreaking curtain call that feels well-earned.
Despite its sluggish beginnings, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is an accomplished fictional tour through the horrors of World War I. It takes much more time than I would have liked to fully realize both its story telling and elaborate puzzle design, but once it hits its peak, Valiant Hearts blossoms into a thought provoking, emotional history lesson.
A Worthwhile Slow-burn
Be patient. Valiant Hearts is every bit the intimate, World War I experience it set out to be.