Since it made its bow underpinning Rayman Origins back in 2011, Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework has become an increasingly important tool for the studio. In the time since that release we’ve seen Rayman Legends and Child of Light, two of the most beautiful games I’ve ever had the fortune to enjoy, spring forth to delight my eyeballs with their aesthetic goodness, and now it’s time for the fourth title powered by the versatile 2D engine to hit console near you in the guise of Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Like Child of Light before it, Valiant Hearts tones down the incredibly colourful palettes of the Rayman titles for a slightly darker, but no less impressive display of visual awesomeness, with stunningly crafted backdrops once again showing off the strength of the framework.
Although there are many visual similarities between the four titles, Valiant Hearts: The Great War differs wildly from the other games in the UbiArt stable, focusing on a narrative driven experience wrapped in puzzle/adventure gameplay – and the results are simply wonderful.
As the name suggests, The Great War takes place during the events of the First World War, with historically accurate settings and battles featuring throughout; however the underpinning story is a work of fiction created by Ubisoft Montpellier. That’s not to say, though, that the game doesn’t offer plenty of insight and, dare I say it, educational material that’ll delight inquisitive minds. Each mission brings with it a slew of facts and bite-sized snippets of information about the location, the war and its effects on the local area. No matter how familiar you may be with World War I, there’s bound to be something in here that’s unfamiliar, and that’s part of the game’s charm.
The game focuses on the lives of Karl, a German, and husband of Marie, deported from France ahead of the war’s commencement and drafted into the German army, Emile, his father-in-law, Anna, a Belgian student who does what she can to help the war effort serving as a nurse, and Freddie, an American who joined up with the Allies after his wife was killed in a bombing raid by the Germans. The star of the show isn’t the human’s however, it’s Walt the medic dog, who’s happy to obey your commands and help out wherever he can throughout.
There’s always a danger in puzzle driven adventures that players will become frustrated if unable to figure out a problem, but Ubisoft Montpellier has moved to pre-emptively address that issue with an optional hint system here. Should you struggle for a little too long on any given mission, you’ll be able to jump into your menu and reveal a tip designed to lend a helping hand. If that’s not enough help, another wait will reveal in more detail the process needed to get through the level. It’s a solid way to ensure that players don’t ever feel like the game is getting away from them, and the fact that it’s not too in-your-face means that you can happily ignore prompts if you want to figure things out yourself.
For the most part, the puzzles are relatively straightforward here, usually amounting to basic enough brain teasers or logic problems, but there are times when you’ll find yourself struggling to piece everything together, no matter how easy it may be; and that’s something I ran into a couple of times during my play through, which resulted in several face palm moments when shown what I was doing wrong.
When not solving puzzles the player is typically tasked with exploring the area, searching for an item or taking part in one of the fun little mini-games that litter the title, ranging from driving sections to basic QTE-driven sections. Like the puzzles, few of these offshoots from the main gameplay are all that taxing, but they do serve to break things up a little and encourage players to find out what lies ahead.
Despite the undeniably enjoyable nature of the gameplay, Valiant Hearts: The Great War doesn’t exactly break any molds. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before, no unique gameplay mechanics and very little to really get the adrenaline pumping, but because of the peerless execution of the game’s narrative, it’s almost impossible to put the game down.
Literally everything about the story here is best-in-breed. The way the characters’ paths cross as they head towards their ultimate goals might sound a little convenient on paper, but it works beautifully. Despite none of our heroes saying all that much beyond the occasional phrase here and there, often au Francais, it’s impossible not to love each of them in their own way… which makes the game’s culmination all the more notable.
I won’t spoil it for you, but prepare for a deviation from the typical endings you’ve experienced down through the years. Perhaps only 2K’s Spec Ops: The Line has managed to deliver the same kind of unexpected punch to the gut in recent years, marking this as one of the bravest titles for quite some time.
It’s nice to see a WWI game that doesn’t have us running around shooting Germans for a change, and there are moments here that subtly remind us that, despite being on opposing forces, the similarities between the souls drafted up to fight for their nation’s ideals were plentiful. After so many games that have reduced the lives of the combatants of The Great War to little more than kill counts, it’s refreshing to see one that serves to remind us of the human cost of war.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a wonderful piece of entertainment. It might not inspire on the gameplay front in places, but the way the narrative slowly pans out, interspersed with puzzles and sub-sections, ensures that it’s a title well worthy of experiencing. It’s not your typical game, but it sure is a memorable one.