After being blown away by Rayman Legends and Child of Light, I wondered what Ubisoft would do next with the UbiArt engine. Valiant Hearts was an interesting approach and being based on the first World War, was intriguing for me. I studied History at university and achieved a bachelor-degree as well. One of my subjects was “European history”, which of course included the first World War, an in-depth study on how war was viewed upon, the cultures at that time, and much more. When I saw it on sale, I told myself it was about time I took a look at this approach to one of the most well-known conflicts in history.
History told in many ways
Set in World War 1, we follow the struggles of 5 characters through this war from its beginning in 1914 till its end in 1918. The characters being Emile, a French farmer who is forced to fight against the German-army, Karl, his son-in-law who must leave to fight for Germany due to his heritage, Freddy, an american soldier supporting the French and who has a personal agenda, the nurse Anna who is looking for her father, and finally Marie: Emile’s daughter and Karl’s wife, who is staying back home and is the only character we don’t control.
Showing through in-game cutscenes and gameplay how war affects our characters, questioning the need, struggle, right vs wrong, and the honor (if there is any) in war, are great ways of telling the story. There are plenty of harsh moments, such as the first use of gas, and when soldiers from opposite sides try to support each other, just so they can live for one more day. You definitely feel with these characters, both their struggles, failures and minor victories. All of this is achieved by showing it through mostly gameplay, instead of telling it bluntly, which I love. There is a narrator, but he only gives his speech between scenes or when you change playable characters, which is rare. The same goes for the cutscenes, most of them happens in-game and the few that are clearly not, are quite rare, making the story flow and feel more personal due to you being in control.
Adding to the story are optional facts about the actual war that are given for every new scene, diaries that showcases our character’s thoughts on the war, and hidden trinkets that give us small facts about items, or letters telling us a small story. This is also something I praise: make the plot be a clear showcase, but also make it possible to access more info for those who wish for it, without it being forced down your throat (similar to Silent Hill). The only problem I had, is that one German officer is shown as a clear main-villain, which destroys the concept of war itself being the true enemy. The game clearly tries to focus mostly on how bad a war can affect humanity, giving you the option to play and interact with soldiers from both sides, so having someone be played as an over-the-top villain, was an odd move. There are also other officers that, while harsh and hated, simply act as a commanders that need to win for their honor and country, and are not necessarily bad-guys.
With a strong ending, a journey that made me sit on the edge of my seat, feel with every character and see how respectful and true to the history they stayed with both the fictional stories and actual events, I am pleased that they show that a comic-style can also be strong and even dark at times, without needing to be overly violent. The German baron is the only negative part and something that makes the game barely not reach its full score.
Story Score: 9/10
While taking the side-scrolling approach, like Rayman Legends and Child of Light before it, Valiant Hearts takes it to a different gameplay-style. This time, it is a linear puzzle-game, with obstacles that require some thinking. Each character has one trait that is somewhat glanced over, with Emile being able to dig through dirt, Freddy having ability to clip through wires, and Anna being able to heal. These come into play, but are easily forgotten due to being a tad situational. You will have to solve puzzles to progress, such as searching out objects, and at times throwing them at the right spot, or look for clues. All puzzles are somewhat enjoyable, such as one where you need to find out how to open a safe or where you needed to lure a guard to take of his outfit, so you can pretend to be a higher rank. The puzzles are definitely varied, but never hard to figure out and are more often than not straightforward, making the game feel a bit restricted at times in its creativity. I never needed the hint-system and while some puzzles were complicated, there were also some that outright told me the answer and even went to a cutscene before I felt like I got started on the next chapter. You have the option to toggle “Veteran mode” on, where hints and highlights are gone and I strongly recommend that, even though it might not help much due to how clear puzzles can be.
Breaking up the puzzles are other minor gameplay-elements. Most come in the form of small, action-based scenes, where you dodge bullets and bombs, or drive a tank. The first is hectic and intense, since one bullet means game over and makes the war feel more dangerous due to how easily you can get killed, even if it’s not very deep. The Tank-parts are only played out twice, where you do nothing but shoot and go towards one side of the screen, and this is so basic that you can pretty much do it blindfolded. You will also take control of Anna as she drives her automobile, and dodge incoming cars, war-machines and other obstacles to the tune of old, classic music. These are a blast and can be heart pumping due to how fast the music can be. Another part of Anna where rhythm comes into play, is in quick-time events where you help wounded or sick people with the tap of buttons Parappa the Rapper/Guitar Hero-style. Both of these seems to be the only parts of the game with a good difficulty-curve, getting gradually harder as the game goes on. Finally: there are stealth-segments that make you hide from soldiers and try your best to stay hidden or use the environment to help you get through. These are intense and even include puzzles to do. Getting a game over is a slap on the wrist and only sets you back not more more than 5 seconds of playtime before you bit the dust, so the game is quite forgiving.
While nothing is really bad here, many parts aren’t as developed as they could have been. The puzzles, which are the game’s main-focus, are definitely uneven and at times too easy. However, they are mostly enjoyable and the other segments break up the pace nicely, giving us a good variation. It just could have gone a bit further and not been as restricted or easy as it is.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
The soundtrack is lovely with piano-tunes and symphonic tracks complementing the game’s atmosphere well, with vague piano sounds setting the tone for the more depressing scenes, and the humorous driving-sequences being supported with well-known music pieces, such as Hungarian Dance No. 5. It is all enjoyable and fitting for its period and the events.
The UbiArt framework is used for a style that represents a hand-drawn comic, with white borders cutting of scenes and a style that gives our characters a cartoonic vibe without it being too comical, giving it a more mature approach. The visuals are dark and grim, which becomes stronger visually as the in-game years pass, with corpses and washed of colors being used to great effect.
The characters are animated a bit over-the-top, but restricted enough to feel realistic and chat in gibberish with small words from their languages to each other, which is a nice touch. The “puppet-animation” seen in Rayman Legends is well done here, with a more realistic approach due to the restriction and they are expressive enough to showcase what is going on, with cute bubbles that show what they are talking about. The areas are perhaps the most impressive, with detailed environments such as the confrontation in “war-areas”, with soldiers running and getting killed, and beautiful cities with glowing lights and multi-layered backgrounds, giving it an impressive 3D depth in an otherwise 2D-game. There are some parts where it is a bit rough, with bits of the scenery moving alongside the ground, instead of being stuck, and minor clipping-issues, but overall it presents an important war respectfully and in an interesting way.
Presentation Score: 8/10
With a decent length of 7-8 hours, there are more than 100 collectible items to find to get extra facts or minor stories, which are all enjoyable. I will definitely admit I personally loved reading about historical facts with some I had not even known of, but it also supports the main-story and of course: its setting. Some of these trinkets are hard to see, but they usually sparkle and the more exploratory types will be able to find most of them. The bonus for collecting them all is nothing to brag about, but collecting them in general is a blast and I found myself taking every opportunity to search them out.
Extra Score 8/10
Valiant Hearts might not be a great game, but it is a good showcase on how effective telling a story through a game can be. It has a lot of great moments and good ways of telling both a fictional story and a historical event through gameplay, with nice presentation and optional facts to complement it. If the puzzles had been a bit more creative, we would have had a fantastic game. As it stand: it is a serviceable game that should make everyone intrigued to actually learn about this event. One of the better educational-games in quite some time.