With E3 largely having been a mixed bag of controversy and confirmation of/extra insight into what a lot of us were anticipating, that’s not to say there wasn’t a sprinkling of surprises on display. Case in point, Ubisoft Montpellier’s latest Ubiart Framework title, Valiant Hearts: The Great War. A World War 1 puzzler based on letters studied by historians over the years since the war began a full century ago. The reveal trailer made the fairly hefty promise of delivering a powerful gut-punch right in the feels and I’m entirely certain it caught a lot more attention than simply my own. Much like a shock trooper unit, Valiant Hearts found its way to the frontline quickly – being the first E3 2014 reveal to release, other than Entwined – but does it justify the combination of sadness, joy and intrigue felt by many while viewing that first trailer?
As the story begins, the scene of things to come is set as we’re introduced to Karl, a young German living on a farm in Saint-Mihiel, who has been ‘asked’ to leave France and is forced to return home where he will serve his country. Leaving behind his wife and newborn son, Marie and Viktor, as well as his father in-law, Emile. Shortly after this, Emile is also called forward to serve for France and he, too, is forced to leave behind his daughter and grandson. Being the first of five characters we assume control of, Emile carries the responsibility of being the first insight into what to expect from the game overall. Almost every aspect of the war is covered, not excluding, but far from limited to, the events taking place on the battlefield. Making his way to the town of Saint-Mihiel, Emile enlists within the ranks and begins his training, which serves as a brief tutorial for the remarkably simplistic control scheme, before being sent to the Paris to await assignment. During this time, Emile writes home showing concern for his family and consternation for the oddly high spirits he has encountered since arrival.
Soon after this Emile encounters a future friend in Lucky Freddie, an African-American soldier who volunteered with the Allied British forces for motivations few beyond revenge. With little left to lose, he is the character most frequently found embracing the more dangerous events in the road ahead. Other characters, including Ana, a Belgian student and pacifist who volunteers as field medic; George, a British fighter pilot who lied about being able to actually fly a plane; and of course Walt, the painfully endearing dog on everybody’s mind. Each brought into the fold with their own individual stories to ultimately share one unified story of fighting, surviving and living alongside one another… but I can’t sit here and explain the whole story, can I? Each character is very different, serving unique roles and causing there to be a great many ways to experience the various aspects of the events taking place.
Suffice it to say, the key component to this game is the narrative and it serves extremely well. Despite the fact that all characters, both playable and otherwise, speak – or should I say mumble – in their own respective languages (except in letters, where the narrator speaks on their behalf), the character development excels none the less. Given the situation, actions and motivations for said actions, you will be compelled to empathise and support these characters within the first few minutes of them having been on screen. It’s a big and passionate story that covers a lot of ground both emotionally and geographically.
One of the things I particularly liked about it was the grey area discussion, the moral ambiguity behind both allied and enemy forces on a person to person basis. Even though the French suffered heavily at the hands of the Germans and the game was developed by a predominantly French team who lost family in this very war, they chose still not to portray every single German as a slavering abomination with no motivations beyond the “let’s kill stuff because it’s fun!” kind we have come to expect their portrayal to be in all forms of entertainment media. This was, after all a World War, so you can also expect to see people from all over the world being represented and not just French, British, German and a handful of Americans. The gameplay, as is no surprise, is puzzle gameplay, but to call it that stirs up the wrong connotations. What’s going on here is much more than simply “oh look, a jigsaw puzzle” or “I stand here and get them to stand there and the door opens”.
Firstly, those action sequences you can find in gameplay footage have more agency than it would at first appear. There’s a nuanced method at play that makes them look intense and rehearsed while actually not being quite so straight-forward. For instance, there are charge events in the game, but carelessly running forward with no consideration for the fact that you’re being bombarded simultaneously is a surefire way to bring the story to a very anticlimactic end. The puzzles are handled in a way I could only describe as a combination between Portal and a point and click adventure. When Walt is present, you have tangential control over him and he can go places you cannot go, retrieve items and interact with objects out of your reach and carry items when you are already encumbered. The puzzles are ingenious, more varied than you would ever believe and require subconscious attention to detail. Due to the increasing complexity to some of the many puzzles found within, there is a timed and layered hint system to keep the story flowing and they even bring music into the gameplay at points. Very well. But that can be a surprise.
Strewn about each level, you will discover an assortment of items that, as well as being collectibles, also add a little history lesson to the games infobase, on things such as how ID tags changed over the years or how the Germans had the heaviest helmet ever put into production and more. Journal entries from each of the characters update frequently for those interested in how the other characters are keeping outside of knowing when they’ll next get to see or play as them, and certain events and occurrences will trigger information on whichever it may be. For instance, while walking through a muddy trench at a certain point you will be given the option to learn a little about how muddy trench life truly was for these soldiers. All of this comes with Facebook and Twitter sharing options prominently displayed for like-minded friends and acquaintances.
From a design perspective, the UbiArt Framework Engine has showcased some real talent in its three most noteworthy titles. The weird and wonderful in Rayman, the serine fairytale world found in Child of Light, and now the beautiful yet haunting theatre of war in the early 1900’s. It looks fantastic, but do not let that fool you, the things you’re going to see are not going to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. The originally composed music is fantastic. Both effective in it’s given purpose and very well implemented with that dynamic shifting for flipping tone in a heartbeat. There are also sequences within the game that use familiar classical music to play a role in what you’re to do in that given moment. Kind of like a rhythm game but nowhere near what comes to mind when you hear the words “rhythm game.”
All in all, there’s a lot I’m afraid to say here because I sincerely don’t want to spoil the game for anyone interested. Something like this doesn’t come along often and I would hate to be the guy that ruins it for anyone. What I will say is that when I finished Child of Light my first thought was “I hope there’s more of this sort of stuff to come!”. The artistic, out of left field (some might say) time fillers between big name Ubisoft franchise releases… and this confirms it. I don’t know where they plan to go next with this “let’s try something crazy unexpected” initiative, if at all, but I sure as hell look forward to finding out. I’m no history buff, I am not notably learned in this particular area of our past so I don’t know how much of the events on display here are true and how much is embellished for the sake of narrative, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the war was ‘probably’ pretty atrocious. Regardless of whether or not these particularl people existed, when we’re talking numbers of 70 million people fighting – that’s not including field medics like Ana or Dogs like Walt – my guess is this story didn’t just exist once, it did so hundreds of times.
To answer my previous question of, “does it justify the combination of sadness, joy and intrigue felt by many while viewing that first trailer?” Yes, yes it does. This is a strong contender for the most inspiring game I will play this year and if you so much as felt yourself tearing up at the reveal trailer, get ready to feel like your eyes are on fire.
A review code for the PC version of Valiant Hearts: The Great War was provided by Ubisoft’s PR team.