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Valiant Hearts: The Great War review (PS4)

Valiant Hearts: The Great War review (PS4)

We spent a good long while trying to figure out what was making us uneasy about Ubisoft’s heartfelt and well-meaning tribute to the tragic loss and human suffering of World War One. And then it hit us: it’s just not funny enough.

Before you accuse us of being stone cold bastards, don’t get us wrong; it’s not serious enough, either. The story of four individuals in World War One and their criss-crossing lives, what Valiant Hearts does is try to balance on that ridiculously thin line between being a fun game and being a meaningful one. We’ve got games like The Last Of Us, masterfully working a poignant story into some awesome gameplay, and games like Papo & Yo, tackling difficult subjects through light-hearted presentation. What games aren’t so good at is combining the two in equal measure. Considering the sensitive subject matter of war, death, love and loss, it would take a masterful touch to do it justice. It can definitely be done; something like Blackadder Goes Forth does it almost perfectly. But Valiant Hearts feels like it should have gone full slapstick and created a fictional war to play with (with an appropriately bombastic villain), or stuck to highlighting the brutality of war in the interactive way only videogames can.

For the most part, Valiant Hearts keeps its 2D platformer style, with lots of fetch quests and puzzles, many of which are based around what your doggy companion can fetch for you. A lot of these puzzles are great, drawing on classic Nineties point-and-click games like Discworld and Broken Sword. Unfortunately, while those games reveled in the often-nonsensical process of ‘give milk to cat, get scissors somehow, give scissors to dressmaker, get bees, wander around until you find someone that inexplicably wants bees’, here it really detracts from the urgency of the situation. Music will often swell dramatically as a tense situation presents itself, only to die down again as you wander around looking for something you can pick up and use. Too many times we picked up an item only to walk into the next room and simply hand it over as it was needed, and too many times we could see items in the background that would have been much more useful, but were unavailable for use. It’s a classic flaw of point-and-click puzzle games, and while the puzzles themselves aren’t bad, the pace of them is weirdly mismatched with the setting.

Despite this inevitably uneven pace, there are still sections where Valiant Hearts approaches brilliance, particularly when getting close to the heart of combat. By far the best sections are the ones that play it completely straight. Squelching through the miserable trenches trying to piece together a broken cart; digging through the maze of tunnels on the front line; pulling people out of wreckage while poison gas creeps in around you. There’s some haunting, memorable stuff going on here, made all the more engaging with the UbiArt Framework engine’s artistic capability, which surprisingly doesn’t jar at all with the context. Like modern graphic novels now use what’s often been considered a childish medium to tell some really deep stories, the unique art style is captivating. But if Montpellier had simply stuck to the story it clearly wanted to tell, and provided a means with which to explore the horror of war without cutting back to cartoony shenanigans every time it started to get a bit too heavy, we’d be looking at a much higher score here.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War_20140712225046
Of the four human characters – French Emile, Belgian Anna, German Karl and American Freddie – Anna the nurse’s segments are by far the most engaging, as she’s able to take a more outside-looking-in perspective due to the nature of her job, which feels much easier to relate to. Stressful QTE mini-games (hang on, don’t get annoyed yet) to patch up the soldiers are surprisingly good, giving you a real sense of accomplishment every time. Being called on from all different directions because you’re needed everywhere actually does a good job of inducing that panicky warzone feeling much more than some of the awkward puzzle-solving. The other guys have individual aspects to their segments as well, but being able to ding someone on the head with a big spoon, for example, kind of does the opposite of making it feel like a war.

Valiant Hearts also suffers from a very familiar Ubisoft problem: unfair surprises just for the hell of it. With something like Super Meat Boy, you can look at a level and know how to do it first time, if you’re skilled enough. It’ll probably take you a hell of a lot longer than that, but it isn’t because the game has thrown some unfair curveball at you just for the hell of it. Ubisoft’s platformers just don’t seem to know how to get through a game without trolling the player. There are a handful of sections that stick out sorely, needing you to know the level first in order to make your way through it which – in something nonsense like Rayman – is tolerable, but when you’re replaying what are supposed to be touching or engaging moments, it lifts you out of the attempted poignancy immediately.

There’s good puzzling to be had, and some engaging stories here, but a lean towards either fictional fun or serious stories would have worked better. And while this was an interesting experiment, we //really// don’t want to see a WWII game presented the same way.



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