The E3 trailer for Valiant Hearts: The Great War was one of the highlights of the week; a haunting piano melody, a solemn voice over and the inclusion of a pining dog promised a game with an emotional punch big enough to break the most steeled of hearts.
The first impression the game gives is good and 20 seconds I was ready to blub, as a family is ripped apart and two friends are sent to fight on opposite sides of the war. However, as the game begins, the emotion drains away and you are left with platforms, puzzles and occasional action sequences.
The story follows five characters; Emile is a French farmer conscripted to fight, Karl, married to Emile’s daughter, is German and is signed up to fight for the other side, leaving his wife at home with their baby son. They are joined by George, a British aviator, Anna the French nurse, Freddie, the American out for revenge and a faithful dog.
Over the course of four years they must travel across war torn Europe, depicted as a side scrolling landscape dotted with platforms, ladders, puzzles and enemies. The platforming is extremely simple and there is no jump so you are limited to climbing over small obstacles or up ladders, and the puzzles are also less than taxing. The object needed to progress is usually nearby and if you’ve been playing video games for more than a few years, you can almost read the developers mind and will instinctively spot areas you should investigate.
The difficulty of the puzzles doesn’t seem to increase either, with the developers developers instead adding more stages to a solution. Rather than fitting A into B, you have to find C, exchange it for D and then arrange some pipes for E which can be traded for B. The only time I was totally stuck on a puzzle it was because the game suddenly added a new action my character could perform at just one location, which was not hinted at in anyway. I spent a good hour running about trying everything I could think of, before one of the game’s designers explain the solution to me.
The puzzling is broken up by occasional stealth and arcade sections, mostly when playing as Freddie. You get to drive and fire a tank in two sequences, but pushing the stick and continually hammering the fire button will get you to the end of the level just as well, so little skill is required. Anna has a heartbeat-driven button matching mini game to heal the wounded and, although nothing graphic is shown, it is rather disturbing to hear the soldiers cry as you remove bullets and perform amputations by pressing square, circle, triangle.
The characters do have short lines of dialogue but none of it is subtitled and a lot of it is barely audible, so that unless you are fluent in French and German and have extremely good hearing then the odd word is all you will catch. Tasks are instead given to you via icons in speech bubbles appearing over an NPC’s head. For example, a German soldier wants food so an image of a Bratwurst being forked into his mouth is shown.
The music is wonderful and always suits the on screen action. A particular highlight is an into-the-screen taxi race through Paris, set to the Can Can. It’s almost a rhythm action game with obstacles appearing in time with the music and then, for a little variation, it segues in to waltz and two taxis hem you in on either side. As the music plays the cars sway from side to side and you must match their moves, as if you are dancing. The level ends with one last frenetic blast of the Moulin Rouge classic with the bombs and obstacles timed to the music.
Running on the UbiArt engine, the game looks like a graphic novel and many times the play area will split as if two panels of a comic were on a page, giving you information about an activity off screen. The parallax layers give a wonderful sense of depth and for the most part the horrors of war are portrayed quite accurately.
However, there are a number of moments that feel out of place, perhaps even disrespectful of the subject matter. The comedy bad guy Baron von Dorf is particularly hammy and there are a number of animations of which are meant to be amusing but clash with the serious topic of the game.
It doesn’t help that, despite the massacres going on around your character, you don’t kill any enemies. Emile knocking out soldiers with his ladle is about as violent as it gets and even when you wire a bridge to explode, the soldiers will notice run off before you detonate the dynamite.
You also get to control order the dog, Walt, and make him push levers which are out of reach. It’s a perfectly acceptable game mechanic but when Valiant Hearts shows you pictures of real soldiers suffering in terrible conditions, controlling a yappy dog to move platforms seems at odds with these images. Perhaps I am being a little sensitive but I would have preferred the game to be completely serious rather than have Gurkhas punch the air and doing a jig when they have successfully placed some dynamite.
The plot, based on real letters, is rather convoluted with characters almost reaching their goal only to have it snatched away from them, others apparently being killed and some extremely coincidental chance encounters. As you progress through the game you will unlock new diaries for the characters, but there are no branching stories and only a few items to collect per chapter which unlocking entries in the historical database. Replay value is very limited, then, especially if you can remember the solutions to the puzzles.
However, the final chapter does a lot to redeem the game and has the largest emotional impact, with Karl, Emile and Anna’s stories all coming to the climactic and distressing conclusions. The final action of the game really delivers what the trailer promised and I’m quite happy to admit there may have been one or two sniffles and manly deep breaths.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is, to use a topical analogy, a game of two halves. One half is serious, with heart-breaking voice overs, battlefield massacres and historical facts, while the other half features comedic bad guys, platforming and a dog that does a “Lassie” and yaps at the heroes to alert them of the game’s equivalent of Timmy being stuck down a well.
Individual elements of the game are superb, but the juxtaposition of a grim war and puzzles and platforms just doesn’t quite work, and the game as a whole cannot live up to the emotional heft and gameplay of the last twenty minutes.
Version tested: PS3