With Ubisoft increasingly cementing itself as the Prince Philip of game publishers, barely able to escape one controversy before another emerges, you can be forgiven for harbouring some suspicion for Valiant Hearts: The Great War. It is, after all, a puzzle game with rhythm-action sequences, set in WWI, and published by a company which these days can't even release a piece of box art without having to explain why it isn't racist.
It's a combination that's as likely to induce scandal as Mel Gibson hosting the Golden Globes. Happily - remarkably - there are no reasons to get angry here. Far from it. It should actually be a source of considerable pride for Ubisoft, because this game handles its subject matter better than almost any of its peers, offering a multitude of unusual and touching perspectives on the Great War under the disguise of a pretty rudimentary 2D puzzler.
Freddie is an American fighting for the Allies in Europe voluntarily, harbouring a vendetta against a particular German baron and able to snip through barbed wire with his cutters. He's good friends with Emile, a French farmer who finds himself wrenched from his fields and family and onto the battlefields with minimal training.
Good with broken levers. Emile becomes a POW in the process of looking for his son-in-law Karl, a German living in France who's forced to fight against his adopted countrymen. Ana, a Belgian nurse living in Paris who's forced to flee the capital when war's declared, gives first aid to French and German soldiers alike when she finds herself in the eye of the storm. George is the typical British RAF type - except he actually can't fly a plane, bless him.
Intersecting the lives of all these characters is Walt the dog. He is a dog. Already there's clear air between Valiant Hearts and other historically accurate war games, which tend to focus on getting the equipment right rather than the tone. These are five untold stories from the Great War, overlapping cleverly and always avoiding game-ified characterisation ("He was just another recruit... until he single-handedly defeated thousands of German troops and won the war, all on his own").
The only real dialogue through the game comes during cutscenes, delivered by a kindly old History Channel voice as he explains how what you just did relates to all the other characters. In-game, folks communicate via visual speech bubbles which illustrate their thoughts and desires. A portly French officer might indicate that he has a soft spot for red wine, for example, and that will in turn inform you that locating said red wine and presenting him with it would distract him long enough to sneak past him.
NPCs will also indicate your progress in a larger puzzle: during one sequence you enlist local civvies to help push rubble away from a tunnel. Initially they'll show the problem that they need you to solve, then as they join the push, they'll show how many more are needed to shove it clear. A simple system, and surprisingly elegant too.
The game also makes fine us of the always-beautiful UbiArt Framework Engine. Having treated us to psychotropic settings in Rayman Legends, the Ubisoft Montreal widens the shot in Valiant Hearts, adds several background layers and lavishes incidental details on every scene.
Some, like the wounded soldiers hopelessly reaching to the air on the fields of Ypres, you can't help but notice. Others, like the bowed heads and obscured eyes of every adult (intended to indicate shame at the war's existence. Kids maintain their wide-eyed innocence) you might not. But even if you don't process every detail that thoroughly, they'll affect you just the same.
"This game handles its subject matter better than almost any of its peers"
Sadly, the effects some of Valiant Heart's puzzles cause are less than desirable. They're a curious bunch. Most verge on too easy - find an item, give it to someone, progress. You'll breeze through these before the first of three time- deployed hints appears, and you won't mind at all, because you're involved in the characters and are enjoying taking in the scenery.
A few are very good indeed, like a sequence that switches between Emile and Freddie on two sides of an enemy encampment, using Walt as a go-between to ferry explosives. These occur when the chapter's gathered momentum, thus don't want you to stop in your tracks staring at a broken lever or a locked door, and they perfectly judge your ability to think on the fly.
Slightly too many are difficult in a way that makes you question the game's logic, rather than lament your own pitiful IQ. Example: a locked door requires a numerical combination to open. You've just walked past three paintings, each with one Roman numeral and one number. Easy, you think. Add up the numeral and the digit in each picture - nope. Enter just the numerals, in the order you saw them? Nope. Just the numbers, then? Nah. Okay, just the numbers, but in reverse order? Try again.
As the game will eventually tell you, it's looking for a random order. Moments like this, and several others where logic seems to have been jettisoned in the name of difficulty, won't halt your progress (thanks, Hint Pigeon!) but they won't yield any satisfaction either.
We're sure some people will lambast Valiant Hearts based on moments like the rhythm-action driving sequence a la Rayman Legends' beat-matching levels, or the QTE bandage-dressing Ana performs. But that's missing the point.
This isn't just a WWI game; it's a WWI game releasing on its centenary and intended to commemorate, not simply recreate, those events. It does that wonderfully, musical car chases, duff puzzles and all. The level of research evident here, the fact that the story never takes sides, never asks you to shoot identikit soldiers and never credits you, the player, with turning the tide on the conflict, is a big deal.
Never syrupy, sensationalised, or clichéd, but dulled by puzzles that veer between easy and illogical.
- Each of the five characters tells a story worth knowing.
- You've done it again, UbiArt.
- Though you're surrounded by death, you're not a killer for once.
- Puzzles are often quite basic - this is no Portal 2.