Characterised as a slow, cagey and brutal period of global military history, World War I is a setting rarely explored in games. Whilst the Normandy landings and Blitzkrieg tactics of World War II make it a perfect setting for fast-paced action games, the trench battles and artillery barrages of the Great War make it a less than ideal backdrop. As a game that takes inspiration from the iconic adventure games LucasArts’ dominated the nineties with however, Valiant Hearts is a game that really benefits from its setting.
Developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, the studio behind 2011’s fantastic Rayman Origins, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a puzzle-based adventure game which priorities driving home a core narrative rather than delivering on action. Telling a bittersweet tale of four characters whose separate stories intertwine as the game progresses, Valiant Hearts is ultimately a very unique and interesting idea that, at times, is flawed in its execution.
Valiant Hearts’ most interesting trait is its unique setting, and whether you’re familiar with World War I or not it’s easy to appreciate they way in which everything in the game so effortlessly serves the narrative. Hand-drawn environments, brought to life using Ubisoft’s innovative UbiArt engine, give purpose to the game’s presentation and compliments some of the themes it explores.
What most impressed me about Valiant Hearts is that its narrative isn’t as obvious and clichéd as you would expect. It would almost be too easy to make an entirely dark, bleak adventure game since World War I is rarely glorified in mainstream media, but instead a bittersweet narrative is offered that explores themes like togetherness and camaraderie as well as a sense of futility and sadness. Valiant Hearts finds the line between funny and respectful admirably, often bringing a smile to your face without masking the harsh reality of war. The way the plot progresses between the famous battles is also excellent – the game never feels like a dull history lesson but does a pretty good job in offering the player a brief synopsis of the main events of World War I.
With that said, the plight of your characters isn’t all that easy to identify with and the story doesn’t always come together all that well. The main cast of characters don’t really develop as you progress and, for a game so heavily reliant on its story to remain engaging, the over-arching plot doesn’t culminate in anything particularly noteworthy. Ubisoft Montpellier did excellent work in terms of nailing a setting and tone, but characterisation and plot let Valiant Hearts down.
The gameplay isn’t as important as it is in most games, so it’s not too big a criticism to say that Valiant Hearts isn’t a brilliant adventure game – merely an average one. Puzzles, which revolve around moving and finding useful objects, helping other characters carry out objectives and pulling levers, are pretty standard fair. Little is done to move beyond the usual constraints of the genre in terms of gameplay, which for a game that does this so successfully in other areas feels a little inconsistent. Still, fans of adventure games will find plenty of familiar content to like and a useful hint system means you’ll never be stumped by its puzzles for very long.
Valiant Hearts also utilises some extremely limited stealth and combat mechanics which positions the game as a personal tale of the effect of war, rather than how people go about fighting it. I actually really liked how simplistic these mechanics were, as more complexity in the gameplay would have undoubtedly juxtaposed the game Valiant Hearts clearly tries to be in other areas.
Fans of adventure games both old and new may be disappointed by Valiant Hearts’ lack of meaty or innovative gameplay, but for those that want to experience a lovingly crafted title that succeeds in many areas Ubisoft Montpellier’s latest endeavor provides a breath of fresh air. It’s a game that’s clearly the product of hard work from a passionate, talented team, and whilst Valiant Heats gets a lot wrong it is also unlike anything you’ve ever played before. It’s an imperfect experience that may not have the lasting impact on you that the developers seemed to intend it to, but it’s also a game I can easily see people really warming to if the give it a chance.