Ubisoft’s in house UbiArt Frameworks has been on quite the roll as of late. Not only are they responsible for the stellar Rayman games (Origins and Legends), but the recently released Child of Light met with critical and commercial success. Valiant Hearts, being their next potential linchpin franchise, had a tough billing to live up to: continue the stretch of critical darlings while at the same time make a killer game about a war that no one really knows about. Where to begin? I’ll tell you where: The story.
Story matters. In movies, in television and even in video games, having a great story can bring a mediocre game to the levels of great and a great game into legendary status. Valiant Hearts begins and ends with a great story that not only endears you to the settings and characters but also manages to sneak in a little knowledge into your gameplay experience. Valiant Hearts: The Great War puts you into the combat boots of four different people, and an awesome dog, that all have very unique experiences during WWI. These experiences intersect in different moments throughout the course of the story and often in very emotional, heartfelt ways.
So here’s the gist of the story: Germany attacks France and most of the rest of Western Europe after Archduke Ferdinand is assassinated. Once the war is on, the battle lines are drawn. Karl, a German living in France with his French born wife, is forced to join the German army and fight against the country he now calls home. Emile, who is Karl’s father-in-law, is commissioned to return to the French army from whence he had once served as a cook. Soon Emile befriends an adorable, and very valuable, dog named Walt; Walt has an amazing relationship with each character and I became extremely attached to this courageous canine. As the story progresses, Freddie (an American who volunteers to fight for the French) joins in to fight the good fight. Filling in the group lastly is Anna, a French medic. All three are all connected via a common hatred for Baron Von Dorf, who is leading the charge for the Germans in chemical and aeronautical warfare. In a cruel twist of fate, Karl (who now knows of his wife Marie’s pregnancy) is in charge of protecting the Baron…uh oh!\
The story is wrapped around a fairly simple but very clever series of puzzles. And although the puzzles may not be too complex they payoffs are often very rewarding and progress the story in relevant ways. Even though you may be pulling levers, moving blocks and manipulating pipes the feeling of tenseness is palpable and I was never frustrated (which is a problem in modern puzzlers). I will say, however, that the areas where you are controlling Anna and are healing wounded soldiers with a timed minigame. The minigame reminds me of Rock Band, where the player is taxed with pressing buttons in time to heartbeat symbols on a scrolling bandage. I don’t mind the minigame so much, but the experience is so unlike the rest of the game that it pulled me out of the game entirely. Even though it wasn’t too obtrusive it still felt off.
Let’s talk about music for a minute. In my humble opinion, nothing pulls entertainment together like a good musical score. Games, especially recently, have used music to an amazing level. Games like Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption and Journey, which was nominated for a Grammy, have used music to convey emotion the likes of which haven’t been seen before in this medium. Valiant Hearts uses music to express emotion better than any other game I have played before. Whether you’re rescuing your dog, escaping from a POW camp or even navigating the menus the score for Valiant Hearts brings all the feels in ways that I’ve seldom experienced in any medium. The chase scenes, where you are escaping German gunfire or avoiding traffic, are a classic example of using music to enhance emotions. The way that the action is timed with the classical music intensifies the action and puts you right into the experience. It’s really something to behold.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a case study in how a video should be: heartfelt, honest and bringing out every emotion that you have. And I can’t lie…I wept at the end of this game. Like a full, angry baby. And you what? It’s okay. Valiant Hearts takes a portion of a war that is largely forgotten and wraps them up in a story that is engaging and emotional. It’s truly impressive what Ubisoft has done here with some historical pictures and a handful of found letters from soldiers. I have come to know and love Emile, Freddie, Anna, Karl and Walt. Their hardships and strife will remain in my heart and have taught me an appreciation for war unlike any other form of entertainment or history book I’ve ever had the privilege to experience. Do yourself a favor and play this game. You can thank me later.