Valiant Hearts (PS4)
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Release Date: June 2014
Released in June 2014 from French studio Ubisoft Montpellier, this critically acclaimed and well received puzzle solving adventure game set during the tumultuous and life changing events of the first world war, Valiant Hearts is the narrative of three individuals whose lives intersect at various critical junctures during the conflicts of the Great War. Utilising a living comic book presentation style with an artistry and aesthetic more akin to the printed page, Valiant Hearts plays unlike a normal traditional Ubisoft studios title you might expect, narrative is key and at the heart of this expansive and encompassing tale that encapsulates many of the great battles and conflicts of this period from the declaration of war with the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand of the Austrian-Hungarian empire to the Battle of the Somme and across the Western Front. It crafts a narrative and story that intertwines the more personal and moving moments of your cast of characters to the more wider and encompassing legacy of war both on the civilian population and the soldiers in the trenches.
I first attempted to play this game in 2017, intrigued by the setting and stylistic approach of the games visuals and score. It offered a unique take and perspective of this setting, unlike its peers and contemporaries which opted to focus on the action and conflict in the traditional first and third person combat genre, Valiant Hearts instead felt very much like an educational puzzle experience, an articulate narrative spanning the entirety of the conflict and very much explaining the setting and context of the environment you found yourself within. I’ll concede I probably had certain expectations given my experiences with the studios other more similar and attuned titles of what to expect with this game, I was pleasantly surprised, it has a unique style and personality that doesn’t overstay its welcome, building on mechanics throughout its time before concluding in a poetic and moving fashion. In fairness I was deterred by the reliance on problem solving in the beginning, from the offset you are confronted with a variety of intuitive challenges to overcome, a hurdle at first for me but I felt it was time to give this game another opportunity so in August I returned to the world of Valiant Hearts to see this game to its conclusion.
Into The Fray…
Valiant Hearts follows the fate of three separate characters during the First World War, Karl, a German citizen living in France and deported at the onset of the conflict before being conscripted into the German Army and ostensibly the opposing force to the games other two central characters. Emile, a draftee into the French army and lastly Freddie, an American volunteer to the French army reflecting the neutrality of the United States at the onset of conflict up until late into the war. Interspersed during the game you are afforded the opportunity to play chapters as Anna, a Belgian nurse and as a unique feature Walt, a Doberman who once liberated from the German forces is a faithful companion to his human masters. The game follows a fairly linear path inter-crossing the narratives of the three central protagonists as their duties and orders see them survive and overcome several notable conflicts that have become ingrained in the European and global psyche from the horrors of the conflict from the use of chlorine gas and its effects on the soldiers and civilian population. The fatigue and cost of trench warfare, most notably in its closing moments with the Nivelle Offensive capturing the spirit and tone of Emile’s journey and interestingly, the perspective of Karl captured and held in a French prisoner of war camp and providing a counter-part view for the German forces, humanising the soldiers in the trenches of the opposing forces and the cost it had upon that nation.
There are momentary uses of non linear progression, changing focus back to a character at a different period to provide context or explanation for a given event or moment. One of the more obvious uses is somewhat signposted towards the games conclusion but it still served its purpose effectively and was an interesting mechanic tonally to shift the narrative away from a particularly bleak and morose period of the game. One of the games weaker elements is the central villain, Baron Von Dorf, purportedly a parody of the real life August Von Mackensen, who whilst utilising a plethora of advanced weaponry continues to thwart the progress of the games various protagonists through the entirety of the narrative before facing his comeuppance. I won’t pretend to have a vast knowledge or background in this subject matter however one of the overwhelming narratives to come out of the conflict was the sense of futility both in the tactics adopted and the overall circumstance the young soldiers found themselves in. Whilst the use of a central villain to hang the narrative upon works as a mechanic in a fictional setting, it painfully stands out and contrasts to the attempt to humanise to some degree both sides of the conflict. At points during the campaign you rescue a trapped German soldier, the main protagonists are disgusted at an underhanded ambush and attack on an enemy placement. I don’t personally feel the game benefits from such an obvious trope as the evil Baron in his tanks and zeppelin singularly focused on crushing the two allied soldiers.
There is an obvious respect paid towards the horrors experienced by these young soldiers on both sides, whilst a subjective notion you never feel either side is aggrandized through their actions, and to a large extent it does capture the spirit and tone of the futility of their actions and those of their superior offices around them. Given the recent controversy courted by Call of Duty on its release for its use of white phosphorous I was curious to see whether a game released outside of this political climate would be emboldened in the historical use and implication of chlorine gas in the trenches. Neither the nature or abhorrence of its use is ever expanded upon, merely presented as an aspect of the conflict to which you find yourself embroiled within. Equally in the closing moments the evolution of machinery and weaponry that forced the change of military tactics in the face of overwhelming odds and death, the very real cost it had upon the populations involved. There are so many historical aspects to explore and experience, indeed the game builds up the toil and experience of the events upon Emile to such an extent his inclusion in the Nivelle Offensive and his decisive action which ultimately leads to the harrowing final moments is a nuanced and grown up framing mechanism which certainly shatters the assertion of gaming for kids. And unfortunately makes the inclusion of the Baron such a disappointing trope to use, there are far more nuanced and powerful, real stories to tell, a pantomime villain works in the context of a game, this had the potential to exceed expectations and just falls short in these moments.
The Mechanics of War
As with a great many titles such as these, the mechanics of the game are fairly simplistic to come to grips with however there are difficulty spikes and curves with a number of challenges stopping me in my tracks for a few moments until I was able to overcome them. Thankfully a progressive hints system is available to use should you so require it. In terms of base mechanics, beyond the move and interact function each character has a specific ‘special move’ in keeping with their personality and motives, Emile with his spade is able to dig through soft terrain which becomes somewhat trickier towards the end with the presence of shells in the ground although the solution is somewhat intuitive. Karl is able to perform rudimentary melee attacks from behind although this is surprisingly curtailed which was a refreshing change of pace as I had been slightly concerned this may alter your approach to the game or he would be somewhat over powered in contrast to his peers. Lastly Freddie has a pair of clippers that allows him to cut through barbed wire fences in addition to a should barge function. With the inclusion of Walt who you can instruct to perform certain tasks such as pulling leaves and retrieving items, for a superficially simplistic presentation, there are a plethora and wealth of moves and mechanics to learn and utilise which add a real depth to the game. Whilst a subjective viewpoint you never feel overwhelmed or a sense of repetition with the various puzzles and challenges, a stealth segment as you evade French capture with Karl can lead to a moment of levity as you race to the front line as Anna in a humorous and orchestrated avoidance puzzle with her haphazard driving style.
Freddie in his last few chapters gains the ability to drive a tank, in fact a novel invention and means of combat at that period of time, and serves to bombard the gunnery positions. The digging mechanic works, its not perfect and does lead to frustrating moments as you plot to clear an angle through the shell littered tunnels beneath you. The medical quick time events are enjoyable to a certain extent but do tend to break the illusion somewhat, or at least present a very game based mechanic that doesn’t fit with the broader narrative and play style. An example, when you encounter the chlorine gas in the latter stages of the game and enter a house to rescue a loved one, the solution to the puzzle fits in with the environment around you and you gain a certain satisfaction for performing the obvious which helps you progress. In contrast, quick time events never feel organic or part of the gaming world, there continued use with Anna just makes her feel like a tool to utilise in a story unlike the emotional journeys of Emile, Freddie and Karl. As with the broader narrative beats, it just feels like an example of the studio passively reminding you as a user you are indeed playing a game, here is a recognisable gaming mechanic, the QTE albeit in a healing and restorative manner as opposed to the usual use as a combat function. Games such as these that pursue the narrative over more intricate and complex gameplay give the impression and I suppose raise the question of opting to play a game over watching a movie or series, the moments of emotional impact and resonance indeed come through the presentation, the narrative and moments of exposition as opposed to any real action you take albeit in the closing chapters.
A Living Comic Book
There’s very little to fault or critique when it comes to the presentation of Valiant Hearts, at worst, you could argue perhaps its a style you may not necessarily prefer or opt for given your own personal predication however, it is a visually impressive and stunning art form in every sense of the word. It does fulfil the notion of a living, moving comic book with the characters beautifully drawn with certain exaggerated features and mannerisms added to convey message and emotion. If I had to pick faults, and a common issue seemingly with Ubisoft and its presentation of the French, I do find it strange your French central character of Emile in his voice over portions of narrative speaks in a clear distinct East London accent. I’m uncertain whether this is intentional, certainly Assassins Creed Unity suffered from much the same affliction, it just seems to be some form of media trope historical French characters must talk in English at all times. Visually the world is gorgeous to view, I was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find the variety of environments and level design to be so rich with character. Whilst in certain areas there is an element of repetition such as the trench warfare portions of the narrative, there are some beautiful visual moments to experience. Notably the escape from the prisoner of war camp as Karl evades his pursuers in near darkness, the use of flares illuminating the level briefly before returning to shadows. Its a stunning portion of the game to play and witness.
As the game opts to use this presentation and appearance it affords the team the opportunity to develop and portray these rich and distinctive locations and environments to set its narrative within. Whilst perhaps some of the more memorable moments occur during the many juncture points, the framing points of the narrative equally many of the locations you explore and visit have a distinct visual hue about them. I certainly had the impression or reticence that the overall appearance of the various battle fields would be similar and repetitive to view and see. I wouldn’t judge the game based on that of course but there in lies my own handicap and mental conditioning to view this as a game and wanting certain gaming functions such as varied and distinct levels where in reality one field at the Somme would look like any other on the Western Front. To that extent the studio have done a remarkable job to present the world of France in this period in such a varied and distinct way, from the almost sun blushed walls of France on the onset of conflict, the brown hues of the battlefield lit up in the ember fires, the fields around the camps with no light or illumination. The implied historical foundations of the courts and house you find yourself in. There are as many distinct areas and levels to explore as you can imagine, the game does not lack for variety or scope of imagination.
Reflecting on my time with Valiant Heart, you do come away with mixed impressions and as ever the question of what constitutes a good video game as opposed to a memorable narrative and experience is left unanswered to some degree. I would postulate there is a great deal to respect and admire about this title, certainly it serves its function well and acts as an educational experience many will be able to enjoy and conclude in short order whilst gaining some insight into the conflict that for generations born since the new millennium begun are but a distant memory. Any narrative that can both inform and entertain in equal measures deserves praise and championing to a greater audience and certainly by any measure of success this game did gain traction and saw both commercial and critical acclaim. Where it struggles, and I’ll readily admit this is perhaps a subjective criticism, the world it brings to life is a fascinating, horrific environment filled with many challenges and dangers, and yet it opts to use a pantomime villain that shatters any illusion of resonance with the world you inhabit. The escapades of the Baron in his pursuit and evasion of your main protagonists feels very much like a poor Saturday morning cartoon which is a real, genuine shame and damages the game to some degree. And yet, its an understandable addition to benefit gamers or indeed any consumer of fictional media entertainment to have a framing hook to base the heroes’ journey, it is indeed an archetype of traditional storytelling to have the challenge, to have the enemy in the heroes journey to overcome.
I would just hypothesise in this particular game, in this environment its not required, survival itself would be a worthy and memorable challenge to overcome. The presentation is almost faultless, I adore the art style of the game, certainly in recent weeks and months I have come to appreciate the comic book style and aesthetic, the world does look amazing as you progress through the various fields of conflicts and it’s amazing how each area has its own distinct feel. The soundtrack is amazing and can be listened to in its entirety with a beautiful piano central score that permeates the entire campaign. It’s haunting to listen to and fits the world you inhabit with a certain melancholy and forlorn nature. I did find the gaming mechanics were off putting, not necessarily the remedial actions such as movement or action commands, for the most part it allowed a certain level of experimentation and intuitive exploration to resolve challenge points before you progressed forward. It was the clear explicit gaming mechanics that shattered the illusion, when playing as Anna continually having to complete quick time events to heal the patients before her, though never to great a challenge to accomplish, just a consistent reminder you were playing a game, unable to fully immerse yourself in this virtual world. And perhaps then, ultimately that is the conclusion I draw from experiencing the world of Valiant Hearts, a game as an experience, one of many I have completed in recent months most certainly targeted and intended for a more mature audience given the graphical depictions of the conflicts during The Great War, the use of chemical weapons, the brutality of conflict.
One of the interesting inclusions into the game was the addition of historical interviews and articles giving greater context to the events you experience, it bridges the approach of the game being both informative and entertaining. With the upcoming release of Six Days in Fallujah looking to set a game in a relatively recent, active theatre of conflict you do start to appreciate this type of approach that provides a level of understanding and context behind the events, not attempting to glorify or excuse the horrors of war. This was typified with the use of chlorine gas in the trenches, it is a historical fact both sides in this conflict utilised this type of warfare, there is no explanation, only the very real effect on the soldiers who experienced this form of chemical warfare. As a game, to draw a comparison to Rockstar’s most recent acclaimed hit Red Dead Redemption 2 which seemed to champion intuitive and nuanced control inputs, to a large degree Valiant Hearts allowed you to persevere and proceed based on this ethos, but seemed unable to resist, certain temptations and trappings typical with this form of media. I enjoyed this game, I adored its aesthetic and soundtrack, as a memorable experience, the illusion of connectivity was shattered with certain tropes necessary to play through and for me it becomes a game to complete once with little impetus or drive to return.
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