DLC Review-Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Ubisoft Montpellier’s exploration of the First World War (a setting not often explored in the medium) focuses on the human conflict, weaving a multi-stranded narrative based on actual letters from the front. The highlight of this downloadable title is the audio and visual design. With gameplay reminiscent of point and click adventure games, Valiant Hearts combines Historical documentary with the swashbuckling adventure of Indiana Jones. While the juxtoposition of the lightheartedness serves to give the emotional moments more impact, the humour does sometimes feel at odds with the games subject matter.
The third title to use the Ubi art engine, Valiant Hearts striking 2D animated aesthetic looks like a moving comic book (rather than the Child of Light’s watercolour visual design or Rayman Origins Cartoon style), even using on screen panels to highlight the action. The first of these titles to use multiple planes, the environments are full of minutiae that really brings them to life- civilians fleeing falling bombs in the background or soldiers charging across no-man’s land- transitioning into buildings (revealing a cutaway of the inside) or moving from foreground to background is seamless and feels like moving between the sets of a theatre production. The beautiful environments perfectly reflect the tone of the game (from the comedic sight of a French Officer shouting orders to his troops in his breeches after you’ve stolen his uniform, to the terror and carnage as as your platoon attempts to tale an enemy position). From the well known battles of The Somme and Passchendaele to lesser known events such as the Taxis of the Marne, Valiant Hearts makes the events of the First World War accessible (Each chapter has a number of information cards- like you may find in a museum- that expand on the events depicted in the game, illustrated with real photographs from the war these help ground the game in reality).
The games soundtrack is comprised entirely of instrumental pieces, using both original tracks and music from the period. Daniel Teper’s beautiful yet melancholy title track ‘Little Trinketry’ is a pino composition with string accompaniment that’s indicative of the soundtracks overall tone. There are more upbeat pieces, in one memorable sequence (that can’t fail to make you smile) the player has to dodge falling bombs and roadblocks in a taxi in time with ‘The Infernal Gallop’ from Jacques Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld (the music most often associated with the Can Can). The exceptional sound design combines the bombastic (the thunderous noise of shells falling on the battlefield and the chatter of machinegun fire wouldn’t seem out of place in Call of Duty) with more nuanced audio design- the music that plays when sucessfully completing a puzzle produces a Pavlovian response in the player. The developers decision to use spoken dialogue sparingly works incredibly well and because of this the voice acting has a much greater impact. Communicating through animated thought bubbles (talking to a guard who blocks your path a bottle of wine appears above his head as an indication of how to proceed), each character expresses themselves through their animated body language and the tone of their vocal expressions; a gruff shout of anger from a commanding officer, or a heartfelt thank you from a supposed enemy. Most impressive is the sense of personality that’s conveyed by characters that may only have a few minutes of screen time.
Valiant Heart’s follows the lives of four characters as their paths intersect throughout the course of the First World War. Email and his Son in-law Karl find their family torn apart as Karl is deported and Emil conscripted with the outbreak of war (caught on opposite sides of the conflict). Freddie, an American soldier drawn into the war by his desire for revenge and Anna, a young woman searching for her father. The colourful and stylised visual design belies a game that doesn’t pull any emotional punches. Split into four chapters (each ending with a cliffhanger styled after early adventure serials), Valiant Hearts character driven narrative explores the human cost of war- both on the battlefield and on those left behind. The narrative missteps in its cartoonish portrayal of the games “villain” Baron Von Dorf (a perfect example of Ludonarrative dissonance). More reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons than the balenced picture of the conflict presented throughout the rest of the game, adhering to gaming archetypes to provide the player with Boss fights.
The majority of the gameplay centres on finding various interpretations of keys for various interpretations of doors in the classic adventure game manner. Such is the variety over the course of the six to seven hours it takes to complete the game, I was always excited to see what came next. The enjoyable puzzles have a well balenced pitch, rarely providing frustration. For those who need it the game offers a hint system (helpfully delivered by homing Pigeon). Partially revealing the answer to a puzzle, this mechanic has a timed cooldown and for experienced players the harder difficulty setting removes this feature. The developers translation of familiar mechanics from other games onto a 2D plane provides a fresh take on the military genre. A side scrolling vehicle section where the player pilots a tank, emphasises the need to protect your troops from enemy fire as well as provide offensive support. I was equally impressed by the games unexpected transition to stealth gameplay (in one memorable moment during an escape from a POW camp, moving through a cornfield the player has to carry a scarecrow- using it as portable cover, hiding behind it when patrols search the nearby area). One of my favourite moments sees Emile tasked with destroying a German barrage which has halted another characters progress (in homage to modern First Person Shooters). Making your way to the artillery gun, the player has to find a way to manually load the huge shell. Lookingthrough the viewfinder Freddie acts as a spotter directing your shots over the radio (his instructions appearing as pictures you have to match with the landscape). It’s one of those moments where gameplay and design work hand in hand. Adding levity are music chapters a la Rayman Origins. The game uses a number of rhythm based mini-games, most prominent is a Guitar Hero inspired mechanic when Anna treats the wounded (though surprisingly tense, it feels overused). Rayman Origins and Child of Light embraced their respective genres (Rayman Origins is arguably one of the most pure platforming experiences), but it’s bold inclusions like these that help Valiant Hearts break away from that of classic side scrolling gameplay.