One hundred years ago last week, Archduke of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Franz Ferdinand was shot in Sarajevo by a young Serb named Gavrilo Princip. While the newspapers at the time assigned it no real importance, the resultant tension would shortly boil over into the largest war known to humanity until that point.
It’s therefore fitting that one hundred years later, Ubisoft – a French company – should release a game which, while illustrating the broader horrors of the conflict, also homes in on the specific stories of several of its participants.
Valiant Hearts is an adventure game based on the UbiPlay engine, also used for Child of Light, which tells the tale of many sides in the Great War. Karl, a Franco-German expelled from his homeland at the outbreak of hostilities and a German soldier. Emile, an elderly Frenchman drafted and sent to the front. Freddie, an American volunteer in the French forces who’s out for revenge. Anna, a young aristocrat seeking her father. Walt, a rescue dog separated from his handler and now travelling with the other heroes. Between them they tell the story of the Great War, and the individual stories which made up its gruesome fabric.
The main crux of gameplay is solving puzzles in the world, with some mild action based around knocking out unaware soldiers added in for fun. This can involve sneaking past enemy troops to steal medical supplies, digging through collapsed tunnels to avoid ugly gas attacks and even action segments based around dodging shell fire. The puzzles never tax the brain too much, but they have some clever moments, often based around commanding Walt to perform various actions.
The true triumph of Valiant Hearts is in its story. It has the ability to induce all sorts of emotions, and indeed does so, but the overriding sense is one of abject horror at what happened across the four years of war. Commanding soldiers in an RTS is one things but exploring their personal history gives every event an emotional gravitas it would otherwise lack.
However, also well worth mentioning and very admirable is the way encyclopedic entries have been included every time any major event or technological innovation is introduced. Games have tried to educate before, but the results have, for the most part, been poorly-made edutainment games with the focus very much on the “edu” rather than the “tainment”. Valiant Hearts manages the achievement of both including a lot of information alongside a strong gameplay style, but also making sure the player can wallow in history or play the game depending on how they feel. Historical data is hidden away in a menu option, but it really adds value and length to the game for those willing to learn.
The graphical style is remarkably well done and hits exactly the right mix of realism and escapism – it would have been difficult to create a personal story and keep the player focused if hyper-realistic gore were the presentational style, so the washed-out cartoon look which could almost be made of craft paper is very appealing indeed. It gives off a sort of otherworldly feel – and indeed there are elements to the game which deviate somewhat from history – which is at once charming and emotive.
Supplementing the superb graphics is an excellent period score, using piano, orchestral tracks and diegetic martial music to bring the sound of the trenches to the modern era – and it’s not all depressing. Upbeat marches accompany such scenes as an underground German bunker, and French troops waiting to depart from a station. The problem with many modern video game soundtracks – unmemorable tunes – is overcome with ease, and many tracks, both haunting and rousing, will be in your head for some time.
To use a worn out cliche, Valiant Hearts takes players on an emotional rollercoaster ride. It never shies away from the brutality of war, and what people will do as part of it. Quite the opposite – its personal storytelling brings those realities closer than simple depiction of gore would have done. But it does not forget one fundamental truth. However flawed, we are all human, and that basic humanity can cross any boundary.