Valiant Hearts / 16th of July 2014
Pope John Paul II said, whilst making an impassioned speech to the Italian Corps. Diplomatique, “War is not always inevitable, it is always a defeat for humanity”, and of the many wars waged across the expanse of human history, there are none for which this appeal is as applicable, as it is to the two Great Wars through which human suffering was taken to its furthest possible extreme. With this is mind, and with 2014 being the centenary of the start of the First World War, Ubisoft Montpellier has seen fit to remind us of the senseless violence, the human cost, of the war between 1914 and 1918 with its UbiArt framework powered, Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Ubisoft are now beginning to show another side to themselves, away from the triple-A blockbusters, and casual dancing and fitness games, where its in-house teams can explore more creative and endearing projects, all powered by this same wonderful engine. And with Valiant Hearts following hot in the footsteps of Ubisoft Montreal’s incredible, Child of Light, I really cannot wait to see what Ubisoft’s many other teams have up their sleeves for us in the future.
Arriving with very little fanfare, Valiant Hearts: The Great War, could, and probably should, turn out to be something of a sleeper hit. Now whilst its gameplay mechanics are never going to turn any heads, the end product has somehow turned out to be far greater than the sum of its parts, with Ubisoft Montpellier, using real letters sent during the war as its primary inspiration, managing to piece together a moving tale of four friends (and a dog) as they struggle to survive against thoroughly overwhelming odds.
The game sees players running through stretches of no man’s land, as German machine gun fire rains down upon them, slaughtering compatriots at every turn, though frequently Ubisoft Montpellier juxtapose this against quirky sections wherein character’s command massive, sci-fi like tanks, or drive cars to recognisable pieces of classical music, such as Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bare Mountain. Similarly, to the company’s Rayman titles, these sequences see events taking place to the tempo of the music, providing some light relief from the realities of the conflict, and potentially even heightening their impact in the process.
Visually, the game performs strongly, with hand drawn artwork used throughout, giving the game a strong comic book appearance that somehow accurately displays the varying tones of a warm Paris by night, to the hard edged, trench runs dominated by the mounds of corpses and the near inescapable influx of German artillery shells and gunfire. There are many details to heighten the experience, with hands protruding out of the piles of bodies, or the dominating, and genuinely frightening plumes of chlorine gas that signify that only death lies in wait for those that press on ahead regardless. Evidently much care and attention has been put into the project, and it has truly paid off for the development team.
The low key piano score from Ubisoft’s Chance Thomas is also worth noting for perfectly encapsulating the mood of the proceedings, with his wonderfully moving compositions providing a flawless underpinning to the visuals as much as the interwoven tale. The voice acting too is particularly strong throughout, though the majority of the communication done in game is conducted visually with images, as opposed to text or voice, the few scenes where the characters narrate their own letters (especially the ending) are thoroughly moving, and testament to the power that skilful acting can bring to the fore.
Unfortunately, not everything about Valiant Hearts is particularly strong though, whilst the setting and message of the project is executed expertly, its gameplay is rather antiquated and shallow, with the bulk of the game relying on tedious trial and error sequences that are typically frustrating affairs. Puzzle solving elements usually revolve around simply throwing objects about, or using levers and valves to ascertain the desired result. The canine companion that follows the four heroes about is itself simply a tool to overcome numerous sections of the game where he will be required to distract guards or collect objects from otherwise inaccessible areas. Additionally, the medic, Anna, has a rudimentary rhythm action mini game, whereupon she administers aid to the stricken, whether they are friend or foe, as well as one of the most enjoyable sections of the game where she drives a taxi through the bustling streets of Paris, avoiding the many obstacles that stand in her way. There may not be much in way of depth to be found here, but it is certainly varied.
An interesting addition to Valiant Hearts are the unlockable facts about the war, snippets of information that hammer home the harsh reality of the struggle and often come as a complete contradiction to what is happening on screen at the time, though perhaps that is the point of it all. The baffling oxymoronic combination of often jovial gameplay sequences with the death counts of battles waged as part of one the most bloody and brutal encounters in our history, makes little sense, but since when did the war? Videogames are rarely either educational or moving, Valiant Hearts tries, and succeeds, in being both.
The Welsh philosopher and political activist, Bertrand Russell, famously said that “War does not determine who is right, only who is left”, and with this in mind, Ubisoft Montpellier have created the most accurate and respectful war game that they possibly could, devoid of the myriad, bland action heroes and tedious set pieces that punctuate the so-called triple-A releases. And in doing so, they have carved out a valiant attempt to shine light on one of the most misunderstood and horrendously violent wars in human history, and that simply must be commended.