It seems that ninety percent of the time when you pick up a controller your main objective for the next few hours will be to stare down a scope and mindlessly pick off grunts with relative impunity. Indeed many of these titles have lead characters that seem solely motivated by the rationed weak porridge of brown water and ‘do your duty’ oats.
It’s refreshing then to see Ubisoft Montreal taking on the subject with maturity, heart and consideration for the impact that war can have on people’s lives, with Valiant Hearts: The Great War, It’s this approach that makes this game as compelling as it is despite a few flaws in its design.
The two things that will draw you in before you’ve even pressed a button are the way this game looks and sounds. The visuals are driven by the same mechanics as the recent 2D installments of the Rayman franchise and the hand drawn, often care-free pen strokes fill the screen with an endearing style that is simply charming.
Where most games would go for a rousing musical score of strings and marching timpani, valiant hearts assumes a more subtle approach with delicate piano led sequences that are emotionally evocative and set the mood perfectly. They say you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression and by the menu screen alone Valiant Hearts had already convinced me of its quality.
The story takes place during the events of the First World War which are explained through some neat little cut scenes as well as additional information concerning war life presented through logs, journals and fact sheets within a seperate menu. This information is not compulsory reading but it does really add to the atmosphere and helps ground the game in the period.
You play as four different characters (and a dog) the first of which is Emile, a farmer who is drafted into the French army despite his age. Then there is Karl, Emile’s son in law who is one of many Germans deported from France at the start of the war and who is then drafted into the German army. There is also Freddie an American who has volunteered to join the French army after his wife was killed during a German bombing raid. Finally there’s Anna, a Belgian student who doubles as a wartime nurse.
Each character has their own motivations and it makes for an intriguing mix. My main reservation is that the character delivery is a little inconsistent. Personally I think it would have been better to have each character speak either in their own language with subtitles or at the very least in English with a French or German accent. Emile is a French farmer, so why the hell does he sound like a British actor from an afternoon radio play? It’s distracting. My biggest issue was with the villain of the piece ‘Baron Von Dorf’ who, as his name might imply, is presented as something of a German scoundrel and who would be better placed in an episode of Allo Allo which unfortunately grinds at odds with the tone of the rest of the game.
The game itself plays more like an adventure game than a 2D platformer and you’ll spend more of your time rescuing the wounded than gunning people down. This is a refreshing change and only goes to deepen your compassion for the motivations of each character. The puzzles however although varied, were never particularly challenging and while that helps with the flow of the gameplay it also makes the experience as a whole a little uninspired at times.
So this isn’t a perfect game but it is a commendable one. Its tone may become a little confused at times but Valiant Hearts: The Great war is just that, filled with heart. It is a brave move by Ubisoft to break from the hack and slash mould of most 2D titles and try something with a little more substance. I’m pleased to say that for the most part they’ve pulled it off.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developers: Ubisoft Montpellier
Xbox live Arcade
Genre: Puzzle Adventure
Release date: 25th June 2014