Candied, crushed sago't gulaman
If you were to tell me that a game about one of the bloodiest and most horrifying atrocities that humanity has inflicted upon itself turns out to be such a memorable experience with only a handful of instances of cartoon violence caused by you as the player, I would have slapped you to wake you up from the fever dream that you would have been suffering from to even string together those concepts.
And then after playing said game, I would have apologized to you profusely for lacking faith in the ability of game developers under a AAA publisher to create something so confoundingly compelling within the backdrop of a freakin’ world war.
Perhaps Ubisoft Montpelier’s decision to set Valiant Hearts: The Great War during, well, The Great War (that’s World War I, for all of us ignoramuses) was enough of an initial push into new territory that helped ease me into taking the chance at the game. There have been countless titles, not just in video games but in TV and film as well, that explore all the dimensions of the second World War. So just having this quirky little gem shine some light onto the less glamorized major global conflict of our species’ sordid history gives me one reason to nod my head in approval.
What’s more immediately gripping though once you actually start the game is the visual style. It’s the UbiArt Framework engine put to good use in creating a charming hand-drawn comic book-like world with lovingly crafted caricatures for you to control and interact with.
For a game that tackles such a serious subject matter, it’s quite the surprise to see an artistic direction used for the game most would associate with children’s storybooks. This decision proved to be a good one. Not only does it mark a distinct look for this puzzle adventure game, it also draws the player closer to the characters on a surface level with how visually appealing they are. It’s easier to get attached to them when they take on a more universal appearance, as Scott McCloud would argue in his seminal work Understanding Comics.
With the exception of narration and read out letters, there is a complete lack of comprehensible oral dialogue. The visual cues then become all the more vital to relating to each individual’s personal struggle in context with the larger conflict that has swallowed them.
As stirring as the original musical compositions are, the pieces that probably make the longest lasting impressions are those played in the car chase scenes. Whether you’re blazing past French soldiers in cabbies rushing to the frontlines or escaping the mad bombings of a German zeppelin, you’ll be weaving through obstacles to the tune of some classical music’s most popular pieces. It’s an oddly satisfying soundtrack that gives some urgency and light humor to the situations, and in one specific transition, leads up to a chilling punctuation.
The way Valiant Hearts plays with your expectations is done so well not just in its presentation but also through its mechanics juxtaposed with the overarching narrative. In the theater of war, it’s so easy to resort to placing a gun in your protagonist’s hands, and let him massacre his way to some moral victory. Here, you’re dragging out survivors stuck underneath piles of rubble and noxious mustard gas, making a daring escape to reunite with your family, and patching up soldiers on both sides of the conflict.
You still get your fair share of armed assault, and there must be a statement somewhere in having you actively engage with it as the burly no-nonsense American volunteer Freddie. His story also goes down the most traditional route, featuring a dead lover and a mustache-twirling vaudevillain. It could be said that these parts are the weakest in the game, as they fall victim to tired tropes. I agree with the criticism on most levels, but I can understand the developers wanting to include the real aspects of personal loss that leads to vengeance and the opportunistic cruelty of megalomaniacal leaders. It just veered off too much into trite territory that it was hard to get invested in that particular storyline.
Another stumbling block appears in the form of arbitrary puzzle segments that only seemed to pad the game’s length. The mechanics play out like classic adventure games where you need to fetch certain things for NPCs, and you do that by using other items in the area to solve basic puzzles, completing them in such an order to get past the area. With the exception of one or two puzzles, advancing throughout the game is fairly easy, so puzzles that require running back and forth and timing item usage can get tedious, especially when your efforts turn out to be for naught.
Softening the blunt impact of these minor problems are the hidden collectibles scattered throughout the story. These aren’t just your generic shards or audio logs, though. Instead of gating powerful abilities and items or important character motivations with stock items, each collectible in Valiant Hearts is unique in its form and narrative function. You’ll pick up a urine-soaked rag, a piece of German propaganda, letters from soldiers to their loved ones, and a host of other tokens from the time that inform you of the horrors that threatened to snuff out humanity and the hopes that kept it alive. They are stashed away in the most appropriate of circumstances, so discovering them leads to greater insight in the events currently taking place as you play. However, they are never so necessary that you would feel lost if you were to miss them.
And yet reading about genuine articles that tell of an officer’s grave concern about his family’s well being or a conscript admitting fear of dying alone in a foreign land is haunting, enough to make you want to scour each level to find every single one. Accompanying these items are history cards found in the pause menu. These tidbits of information that read with the collectibles paint a fuller picture of the tragic events of World War I, bringing more weight to the individual plots of the main characters. My only issue with this element is that it could have been integrated with the interactive experience, although I can imagine that would require an even defter hand considering the delicate balance the visual storytelling tries to maintain with as little text as possible.
Despite such faults, Valiant Hearts manages to deliver a 5 hour emotional tug of war and a heart-rending conclusion, thanks mostly in part to the strengths of the main cast, the way their relationships develop, and the refreshing modes of play more focused on saving lives than taking them. If only the earlier acts of aggression were entirely removed, the one final stroke of violence might have had more weight. Nevertheless, I was all choked up by the time the credits were rolling.
The saying “war is hell” is easy for your typical shooter to spout off, but to say it in earnest with no inkling of glorification demands more effort. Valiant Hearts struggles to accomplish this, but eventually earns the right to declare that statement.