Impressions – Valiant Hearts: The Great War

By Nathan Grayson on September 10th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

How is your heart feeling today? Mine’s relatively normal, thanks, but then I’m just sitting in a living room with far too much caffeine coursing through my veins. World War I, though – now that thing required some heavy duty hearts. Bullets whizzed, trenches flooded, friends smiled and laughed in one moment and cradled each other’s dying bodies in the next. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is an extremely promising-looking adventure puzzler about the latter. People. Five human beings and their experiences during the war that sadly did not end all wars. Also, there is a big ol’ puppy and he is delightful. Call of Duty dog ain’t shit. And it’s all being put together by people who worked on the likes of Beyond Good and Evil, Rayman Legends, and King Kong. Read on for my impressions of Ubisoft’s secret weapon.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War doesn’t look like a war game.

And that’s because, to hear the folks at Ubisoft Montpellier tell it, it’s really not. World War I is the backdrop, but beyond that, the adventure puzzler is kind of like The Walking Dead. Characters come first, and typical tropes of the genre shamble in at the back of the pack or don’t show up at all.

And yet, despite the cartoony art style and focus on heartfelt interactions over shooting until eagles cry and Uncle Sam gives you his beard as a trophy, Valiant Hearts really isn’t much like Walking Dead either. Dialogue is nearly non-existent, with Ubi instead opting to take inspiration from the likes of Machinarium to produce a mixture of audio cues and visual language.

It’s a minimal approach, but it may well end up being all the more affecting for that reason. The story will focus on five characters – a French prisoner of war, an American volunteer fighting in the name of his deceased wife, a medic beset on all sides by the horrors of war, a British aviator who lied about knowing how to fly, and a lovesick German soldier – and their intertwined tales, all of which involve the aforementioned Battle Puppy in some way or another.

It’s a great setup in a surprisingly underused (at least, by games) setting, and it’s rooted in real tales from the time. Producer Yoan Fanise even brought along actual letters sent by his great grandfather from the frontlines, many of which directly inspired scenes in the game. He positively buzzed with energy as he flipped through his stack of photos and postcards, eventually producing his great grandfather’s worn, barely legible dogtag. He survived the war, thank goodness, but it was still a chilling sight to behold.

Moments later, we encountered the very same dogtag in-game, presumably in much better shape than the body that once wore it. The French POW, Emile, began his section peeling potatoes and wheeling massive stew cauldrons as Germans guffawed and chomped on pretzels (the game certainly isn’t without its lighthearted moments) in the background. Then some kind of huge blast hit, and the laughing stopped. And so did everything else.

Emile nearly got a headstart on the whole “being six-feet-under” thing that dead people like to do so much, but he was rescued by Valiant Hearts’ loyal canine companion. Tugged from the snow-strewn rubble, he then pet the Red Cross wonder-pup (something you can do any time you feel like it) and played fetch with him using what – in retrospect – I’m fairly sure was a human leg bone. At the time, however, I was just like, “D’AAAAAAWLOOKITTHEFURRYTHING” – proving that, even during times of haunting madness and total emotional destruction, adorable fuzzy creatures still drop the average human IQ by at least ten points.

Emile’s section was otherwise simple, but it was more about establishing a tone and flavor than leaving armies of brain cells bleeding in craters from mortar blasts of obtuse puzzles. Before long, he dug up a dogtag and – sure enough – it was an exact replica of the one resting in Fanise’s clenched fist. The game treated it not as some monumental occasion, but as a rather matter-of-fact truth. “If things had gone a bit differently,” it seemed to say, “this game’s creator might not even exist today.”

As Emile approached the remains of a transport track, he balanced a section that could no longer support his weight by dragging a mine cart onto one end of it. Then he lurched his way to the top to survey the war waging below. The remains of a massive anti-air gun watched alongside him, unfeeling, as a terrifyingly colossal zeppelin rolled into view – eclipsing even the dreary clouds that eclipsed the sun. The moment left me feeling positively puny. I’m pretty sure that was the point.

American volunteer Freddie’s demo section was even shorter, and thankfully a bit easier on my not-so-valiant heart. Fanise explained that each character has different puzzle-solving abilities, and all the while Freddie clipped his way through barbed-wire fences, hurled explosives, and generally did his best to survive in a paradoxically green, lively field. He was no Rambo, however, so his (still rather simple) puzzle involved waiting for a gun emplacement to reload so he could climb up behind it, stealth past another soldier, and then drop down and wire an entire bridge to explode. That was the end of his admittedly less impressive bit, but Fanise promised much more complexity in later areas.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War certainly looks impressive, but the demo only clomped around on the surface of what has the potential to be an extremely deep, nuanced look at a wildly complex subject. Simply talking to the Fanise revealed the crushingly powerful passion driving this project, and though the team is only ten people strong, there’s an excellent pedigree behind it. This one certainly isn’t at a lack for promise, is what I’m saying. But can it follow through? Sadly, I didn’t see enough to get a positive read one way or the other. I’m crossing my fingers until my bones ache, but the rest is up to Ubisoft. Valiant Hearts will be out sometime next year.

But hey, if nothing else, at least it’s got a really, really great dog. Sorry, Riley. You’re already old news.

Look for a video (!!!) interview with Fanise very soon.

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34 Comments »

  1. Lars Westergren says:

    Wow, this sounds like it could really be something. Lovely artstyle. I’m really starting to like Ubisoft again.

    • Makariel says:

      Same here. I will never forget their horrible drm schemes, but since playing Rayman Origins I’m sure there must be at least some lovely people working at ubi. My heart is looking forward to Valiant Hearts.

    • Stardreamer says:

      Oh here we go. Did we learn nothing from EA’s little ‘Aren’t we awesome?’ spell of a few years ago?

      A couple of charming Indie-style games and you’re ready to forgive the years of being treated worse than something you scrape from a shoe? In my books this company has years of atonement to go through before I open my wallet to them again.

      I’m not normally like this with companies but Ubisoft have been special kinds of awful. They don’t get to forget that within a few months of them being less awful than normal.

  2. Gap Gen says:

    Zouaves! Sold.

  3. bstard says:

    O valiant hearts who to your glory came
    How noob we where to join this trenches game;

    Like the screenshots art style and the New Way our garlic frends @ Ubi are doing some special productions now. Keep it up!

  4. GernauMorat says:

    At one ponit the Germans banned Wurst as they needed the guts for airships

    http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/23/wurst-zeppelins-german-sausage

  5. wodin says:

    As long as there are no historical errors I’m happy..

    • misterT0AST says:

      Actually historical research shows that people in that period did in fact have eyes.

  6. Orageon says:

    Here is a trailer, but it’s in french :
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QBFiR1WYBDY

    It does not contain gameplay, but nice music and if you understand french you might even shed a little tear in the end.

    • Emeraude says:

      Here is th English one (seems like the US one is rated higher on the ESRB or something).

      • Adventurous Putty says:

        Yes, because we don’t want the kiddies exposed to anything that might make them antiwar, do we?

  7. Emeraude says:

    I love that they’re making a game on the Great War that seems focused on individuals yet isn’t be about the combat, but actually about the war.

    If I make sense.

    Wondering how much Tardi’s looming presence will be felt on this game…

  8. guygodbois00 says:

    Well, that video interview with Fanise can’t be soon enough, Mr Grayson.

  9. Emeraude says:

    It’s a great setup in a surprisingly underused (at least, by games) setting.

    I think it has to do with the fact that you can’t point at anyone in the field as the “bad guy”.

    It was an absurd war. On every level. And all the more horrifying for it.

    • gunny1993 says:

      War gets awfully uncomfortable when you start looking at the enemy as individuals.

    • InnerPartisan says:

      I’d say that in World War I, everyone was the “bad guy” – except the poor bastards who did the actual fighting, of course.

      • Emeraude says:

        Yup, as I said: “in the field”.

        And mostly agreed, far too many higher up on that war would have deserved to be condemned for crime against Humanity (yeah, I know, just makes NO sense whatsoever from a legal standpoint, but you get my meaning… I hope).

  10. JFS says:

    World War I Machinarium adventure sounds like something. I hope Ubisoft doesn’t mess it up. I’d somehow be more comfortable if this was done by a different dev/publisher. I just don’t feel like I can trust Ubisoft with their new “look we’re indie and artsie as well” schtick.

    • The Random One says:

      Which publisher(s) do you think would be abler to deliver a game faithful to these concepts?

  11. Emeraude says:

    I’m somehow disappointed by the English title now that I’ve seen the French one.

    “Unknown Soldiers: Memories of the Great War” sounds much more fitting I find.

  12. stiegosaurus says:

    Wow, this looks identical to ‘The Behemoth’ art style ( Castle Crashers ) I hope they employed that guy, otherwise this is QUITE the rip of the style.

    Still looks incredible though! Very stoked.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      No, it doesn’t. Unless by ‘identical’ you mean ‘is also a cartoon’.

  13. Commander_Zeus says:

    Looks fascinating – the art style looks like a Sylvain Chomet influenced bande desinée.
    And as has already been said, a Great War set Machinarium sounds like a great platform for telling a story.

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  15. Chris says:

    “Who lied about being able to fly!”

    Nearly pissed myself laughing.

  16. belgand says:

    Ubi Art? And this right on the heels of Child of Light, which is also coming from Ubi Art. It feels like the game industry is aping the film industry once again, except without quite as linear a path. Now that indie games are a trendy thing (e.g. early-90s) we get the major studios making their own indie imprints to push games in hope of getting that money now that the blockbuster era isn’t quite having the returns it used to and the costs of production are going up and up. It’s like a great big stew of various things that the film industry has already been through (or has failed to learn from given the large number of remakes and sequels affecting both film and games right now). You’d think that the gaming industry could perhaps learn from film, but no. It seems they have yet to do that.

    Most important question: does this make Tom Francis the Godard of the gaming industry? Now that Sir, You Are Being Hunted is out and about we might even have a full-blown New Wave on our hands.

    • Stardreamer says:

      Interestingly, I think the game industry is finally doing what gamers have been screaming at it to do for years. It may look like a cynical move to ensure their survival but Indie games are so much more interesting than the AAA pulp that we’ve been telling the Big Publishers to take those multi-million dollar budgets and make lots of great little games. I see this as them finally responding to the inevitable progression of an industry that has found a way to evolve away from their ossified, risk-averse production lines.