GrogHeads Reviews Valiant Hearts: The Great War

A review by Lloyd Sabin, 20 July 2014

Published by Ubisoft Montpellier

As always, click images to enlarge

Emotions and War

I don’t typically wear my emotions on my sleeve. In the last 20 years I think I have shed tears three times in front of my own wife. But there are certain events and historical phenomenon that bring out the sensitive, skinny-jean-and-mesh-truck-cap wearing emo in me…and World War I is at that top of the list.

Why, specifically? I don’t know. Maybe I view World War I through too romantic a lens and I believe so much of what has been written about it: “lions led by donkeys,” the “death of innocence” and “good bye to all that.” Those terms and the emotions, places, and situations they describe really resonate with me in a way that no other historical era does.

Zeppelins are portrayed in Valiant Hearts and you'll have to learn how to take them down!

Zeppelins are portrayed in Valiant Hearts and you’ll have to learn how to take them down!

It’s strange because I had direct contact with World War II through my grandparents: its horrors and its triumphs – so much so that World War II became almost commonplace to me. Where and when I grew up, everyone had a father, or more likely a grandfather, who fought in it. World War I is murkier; I have never knowingly met anyone who was there, so I have constructed what it was like for combatants on all sides in my own head. And this has produced a war where vengeance and justice have been replaced with melancholy and the longing for “the way things were before.” By World War II the world collectively knew that there was no going back; during World War I this loss was still very new and very fresh. This hazy, general feeling of loss and grief is captured masterfully by Valiant Hearts: The Great War (VH:TGW).

Paris at night, before the Battle of the Marne.

Paris at night, before the Battle of the Marne.

Don’t Just Stand There, Do Something

Published by Ubisoft Montpellier, VH:TGW is admittedly like many, many PC games that have come before it, while simultaneously being very unique. That is, it’s a side-scrolling puzzler.

Generally I hate puzzle games – turn this wheel to raise this platform, move this lever to open this door, etc.  And there is a lot of that sort of thing in VH:TGW, enough to infuriate me at certain points because I just didn’t get it.

Basic training at the breakout of the war.

Basic training at the breakout of the war.

But once the majority of puzzles are solved, the player is rewarded with simply beautiful scenes. Whether they are depicting a zeppelin raid, the rescue of a child from a burning building or the Battle of the Marne, the art style of VH:TGW evokes a human response…as the player you want to get in there and “do something” in the face of adversity, and VH:TGW lets you do that. And despite it being, at heart, a puzzle game, it’s a puzzle game with a great historical backdrop.

In addition to regular platform puzzles with levers and knobs and iron wheels used for maneuvering through the game world, there are also wonderfully rendered pursuit scenes where one, two or all four of the characters featured in the game are either outrunning an air attack outside Rheims or trying to get to the front to defend Paris in a taxicab – either way the chase scenes are very well done and a nice break from the more standard puzzles.

Catch a Paris taxi and get to the front, France needs you!

Catch a Paris taxi and get to the front, France needs you!

Simple Elegance

Don’t get the wrong idea – players won’t be commanding armies through the mud of Flanders, piloting a Spad, or leading a cavalry charge at Tannenberg in VH:TGW.  It’s not a wargame or a simulation by any stretch.

But it is a game set in Europe (mostly France and Belgium) during The Great War, and it captures its world well. Shelling, poison gas, trenches, barbed wire and a host of other technology and phenomenon that are collectively associated with World War I are all here, and the simple art style portrays them well. It’s hard to describe the art style used here.  I know I have seen it before but someone with more knowledge in art will have to tell me what it’s called. That said, some may be taken aback by the portrayal of the Germans here – they are clearly the villains and made out to be barbaric monsters, while the British and French are clearly the heroes, portrayed gallantly and heroically. Judge for yourself whether that bothers you enough to not purchase VH:TGW.

The Germans are portrayed less than flatterlingly.

The Germans are portrayed less than flatterlingly.

Besides the art style, the music and audio are excellent. They evoke the period perfectly, with a lot of piano and meandering orchestral bits, and I really enjoyed it. On top of the music are some appropriately moody and fitting sound effects, including explosions, machine gun chatter and air raid sirens that go very far to create a solid representation of what World War I must have sounded like on the Western Front. VH:TGW is more ‘art’ than games I usually play, but because of this it is more evocative of the time and place it is exploring than most other games. In my head, everything fit together well and you could see and hear the amount of skill that went into creating this game – I felt I was in good company with developers who felt the same way about their subject matter that I did. I felt at home.

 

The Real World Intervenes

Scattered throughout VH:TGW are collectible items and historical background information that are well represented and add to the all-around feeling of polish. These items can be explored in an in-game encyclopedia, or ignored if the player chooses – it depends how deep you want to go. Each of the four characters also presents diary entries for background on exactly where each of them is coming from, literally and figuratively. These entries can also be ignored if the player chooses.

The encyclopedia is a great part of Valiant Hearts.

The encyclopedia is a great part of Valiant Hearts.

So, VH:TGW is a puzzle-platformer set during The Great War with some high production standards and great supporting material, with a pretty pedestrian set of backstories. It’s safe to say that if it was not set during World War I, I would have little to no interest in it. Thankfully it is, because it is greater than the sum of its parts!

Admittedly I did not know what to expect from VH:TGW, and I did get frustrated with some of the solutions from time to time. But each time I finally figured out what to do, I felt rewarded and so moved on, gleefully, looking forward to what was coming. Isn’t that a central piece to a great game design, regardless of what type of game it is?

In-game perspective sometimes changes to the shells of the weapons you're using.

In-game perspective sometimes changes to the shells of the weapons you’re using.

That, plus the game’s ability at eliciting emotion as well as a sense of time and place, coupled with its high production values and low price ($14.99 at press time for about 10-14 hours of gaming) make Valiant Hearts: The Great War very easy to recommend. It’s available at Steam right now and installed without issue on my 2.5 year old gaming rig.

And if you don’t like puzzlers, don’t fret – you may forget you’re playing one after a while.

 

Gameplay addendum…

“It’s not you, it’s me”: I really like Valiant Hearts: The Great War but I did come to a gamestopping crossroads with a ‘rhythm game’ that totally has me stymied.

Playing as the female medic, I am supposed to render aid to a wounded French soldier by hitting the directional arrow keys in certain patterns (I think) but after 500 tries (at least) I still can’t do what the game wants me to do. This has led me to move on to other games for now. Even searching on the internet has not helped as everyone seems to know exactly what to do but neglected to tell me.

If you’ve done it, with the PC keyboard, let me know. It’s stops like these that make me hate puzzle games sometimes. But everything I’ve written above still stands.


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