War isn’t necessarily the first setting you might envisage for a point ‘n’ click puzzler. As gamers we’re more attuned to seeing war as an FPS opportunity or as a way to command vast and faceless battalions. Far less often do we face the human stories behind real life wars in games. The Great War seems even less likely; trench warfare effectively removing any glory you might find in a WW2 title or on the field of the American Civil war and replacing it with trench foot, gas poisonings, tedium and nine million pointless deaths.
In light of this, Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a curious proposition. Created in the charming UbiArt engine used for both Rayman: Legends and Child of Light, you have an art style reminiscent of sunday newspaper funnies or old French satirical cartoons, juxtaposed against the horrors of World War One…
What is fascinating about Valiant Hearts: The Great War is how strongly it can impart a sense of horror and loss, of the sacrifices made in war, all whilst maintaining its childish aesthetic. The voice acting is babbled, gibberish, a mixture of simple french, german and english mixed in with incoherent mumbling, whilst meaning is imparted through speech bubbles with pictures showing what it is the characters are saying. With such a design, you might imagine the emotion in Valiant Hearts would get lost along the way, but there remains something deeply touching about a family divided along national lines when a German husband is separated from his French wife and father-in-law and forced to fight on opposing sides. Inspired by real letters sent during the war, the letters and diary entries you unlock along the way are surprisingly emotive, and the story is so strongly written you find yourself powerfully empathising with these strange, semi-mute cartoons.
At times, Valiant Hearts feels like a game designed to teach children about the horrors of the First World War. As you progress across war-torn France, the game feeds a steady stream of real life information about the timeline of the war, it’s major battles, victories, and losses, and the conditions in the trenches. These pockets of information cover everything from the use of animals in the war to the trench postal service. Normally I wouldn’t have high hopes about playing a game that seemed to have such a didactic purpose, but once again, the atmosphere, polish and strength of storytelling in Valiant Hearts pulls it above being a “mere” children’s game. The information is integrated enough that you soon forget you are being “taught”; the information seems as integral to the story as the character’s diary entries and letters.
From a gameplay standpoint, Valiant Heart’s: The Great War is fairly innocuous. Whilst the single player co-op (you can switch between playing as Emile and his dog Walt on a number of occasions) was a fun dynamic in the puzzle solving, the mechanics were not exactly mindblowing or particularly complex. The puzzles reminded me most strongly of Machinarium - perhaps helped by the similar garbled, gibberish voice acting and speech bubbles showing what characters want that is reminiscent of that puzzler - but they’re a lot simpler. Here, once again, the juxtaposition of childishness with adult content is clear; the story may have depth, but the gameplay is generally fairly easy to solve puzzles interspersed with a few fetch quests. There’s a few nice flairs - one particular car drive where you’re dodging bombs and machine gun fire in time to the music reminded me favourably of the music levels in this studio’s 2013 Rayman Legends - but again, fairly simple for anyone over the age of 10.
Yet - whatever I think of Ubisoft as a publisher - there’s a reason Ubisoft Montpellier stay up there as one of my favourite developers of all times, and it’s because they consistently manage to craft such structurally flawless games. Everything seems to polished, smooth, optimised, and with a single, strong design brief behind it that gives the game an internal strength and consistency. It’s true of the Rayman games, it was true of Beyond Good and Evil, and it’s true again here. When a game is so reliant on story and concept over mechanical complexity to keep it going, it really has to nail atmosphere, music, storytelling, writing. The lot, basically. There’s a lot of serious talent and experience behind the game, and it shines through with each polished level and flawless control.
Something inside me soars every time I see a big publisher like Ubisoft creating something like this. I said similar in my Child Of Light review, but breadth in AAA publishers is what helps keep gaming fresh. Sure, I like Assassin’s Creed as much as the next guy or gal, but it’s nice to see the huge budget and force of big publishers focussed on something quirkier, aimed at a different audience to the likes of Far Cry or Watch Dogs.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War will certainly not be the most challenging game you play this year, but it is utterly absorbing, charming and a real experience for fans of puzzle and adventure games. Worth investing in for the soundtrack alone, it’s an experimental title that - whilst it feels as if it could be a valuable educational tool for a younger audience - is still a mesmerising game for adventure fans of any age.