Wot I Think- Valiant Hearts: The Great War

By Alec Meer on June 24th, 2014 at 5:00 pm.

Wacky, wacky World War 1. Should I be weeping or clapping with joy? Valiant Hearts is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played, but I’m not sure what it wants me to feel. One minute I’m being shown the terrible price of war – witnessing the hideous aftermath of a gas attack or using a bonesaw to brutally save the life of a shelling victim – and in another I’m defeating a magnificently-moustachioed German zeppelin commander by making a dog play a church organ at him.

Most of the time I’m scouring the ground for a lever that will open a door or raise a lift, however. Despite deviations into stealth and the lightest touch of combat, and despite breathtaking scenery, this is at heart an extremely traditional, open-the-locked-door puzzle game. It can be a bit of a drag because its puzzles are usually immediately obvious but take a fair bit of schlepping about to achieve, yet continuing to play is absolutely irresistible because Valiant Hearts looks and sounds so good.

Using the 2D animation-like engine that powers the most recent couple of (brilliant) Rayman games, this looks like a French cartoon come to interactive life. Les Triplettes de Belleville as a side-on point’n'click adventure starring a revolving cast and slowly spanning the length of the Great War, if you like. There are even occasional musical interludes, including a high-speed car pursuit down the Champs-Élysées staged as a vehicular tango.

That particular setpiece is representative of Valiant Hearts as a whole, in fact – the sound and vision as the cars slide, the Moulin Rouge music booms and bombs drop in the distance is majestically bold and inventive, but the driving itself is highly irritating rhythm action-lite, dodging left or right as pop-up icons denote which direction the next enemy vehicle will arrive from. Immediately following this stylish silliness, we’re healing the horrifyingly wounded out on the front line, with bone-setting and bandaging achieved via another ill-fitting rhythm action minigame.

I’m not hugely familiar with modern bandes dessinées, so perhaps this sort of rapid-fire tonal switching is in the bones of Valiant Hearts’ inky inspirations, but I did find it destabilising here. This is Asterix bookended by sporadic tragedy, not Journey’s End. It’s not even the final episode of Blackadder Goes Forth – it’s more like Horrible Histories starring the A-Team, all ‘toonish maimings and madcap DIY escapes. I reiterate that so that you know what you’re going into, because I must admit I’m affected by having seen the trailers and thus left expecting out-and-out Wilfred Owen fare.

No way was I stopping playing, even when the puzzles were at their most banal and the rhythm action field medicine sections at their most seemingly endless. A major publisher trying something like this? Something that looks like this? Something that has a big, open heart throughout its surprising/excessive length? Something that has extremely capable protagonists of various genders, ethnicities and allegiances without screeching about it, without treating any one of them as less than equal to the others and without fudging anything in the name of tokenism?

Ubisoft have come under scrutiny, including of course on this site, for the contentious reasoning they’ve given for their upcoming games’ character choices lately, so it’s extremely heartening to see that there are people within the company making a game that quietly gets it right, and makes it seem like the most natural thing in the world at the same time. That’s all we ever wanted.

There is a semi-playable dog too, but this isn’t War Horse – instead he’s an anthropomorphised super-chum whose grinning appearance and Lassie-like heroism has me now wondering whether this is designed to be first and foremost a kids’ game. If it were, the excess of oft-jarring wackiness makes a lot more sense – lure the wee ones in with Tin-Tin-like derring-do and slapstick, and then whisper dark truths about Europe at War and the cost of conflict into their ears. This would also explain why most of the puzzles are so easily solved.

Playing Valiant Hearts myself, wanting to be moved more than I wanted to repeatedly pull levers, I felt confused and sometimes frustrated. In five years’ time, perhaps I’ll play it with my then-six-year-old daughter, telling her about the evil that men do as she commands the dog to pull an instantly-healed soldier from the wreckage, or lobs a toylike grenade into the engine of an oversized blimp, or makes a huge church bell plunge through three wooden floors to create an exit.

Perhaps we’ll pause between puzzles to read the carefully brief notes about the real-world scenarios they’re set in, what led to them and what they did to people.

Perhaps she’ll ask me questions about why nations fight each other, about why anyone thinks taking someone else’s life solves anything. Perhaps this would then seem not like an artistic adventure game with a bizarrely shifting tone, and instead like a Lego game with a message. An important game.

If that kind of scene happens anywhere, to anyone, in the wake of this gorgeous, odd, awkward game, it is absolutely justified in everything it does and every seemingly odd decision it makes.

As it is, played as a lone adult, Valiant Hearts is a truly wonderful spectacle, backed up by truly wonderful music and deftly simple-but-effective characterisation. The often repetitive and perfunctory puzzles grate, and the giddy switching between the tragic and the absurd creates frustration, but there is no world in which I’d let those factors make me miss what Valiant Hearts gets right.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is released tomorrow.

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69 Comments »

  1. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    After watching the trailer, I was impressed, but thought “wow, this is going to either be a spectacular game or a spectacular disaster.” Glad to hear it’s more the former than the latter.

  2. Michael Fogg says:

    it’s surprising that for an anti-war themed thing the soldiers of either side are portrayed as faceless hulking brutes

    • ZIGS says:

      Maybe that’s the point?

      • Michael Fogg says:

        not drafted schoolboys?

        • Volcanu says:

          Schoolboys were not drafted/conscripted. Not in Britain, the US, Germany or France.

          Yes, many lied about their ages and volunteered, and yes, many recruiting sergeants turned a blind eye to such things and it was a tragedy that young boys died at the front.

          But it’s not true that countries called up school kids and marched them off to die at the front.

          • Michael Fogg says:

            not like when you turn 18 or even 20 you suddenly become an adult = OK to be killed

          • thebigJ_A says:

            The Kindermord would like to talk to you.

          • soldant says:

            thebigJ_A: Reliable sources suggest that they too were volunteers. Not conscripts.
            (Assuming you’re talking about the First Battle of Ypres here)

          • thebigJ_A says:

            Of course. They weren’t conscripting heavily in the early war on any side.

            They *were* encouraged to volunteer, and they *were* shoved off to the front barely trained. And they mostly died, arms linked and singing, the flower of their educated youth. (and I fail to see what the distinction of them being volunteers matters, especially given the German pre-war system. They were called to fight, even if not specifically “called up”)

          • Volcanu says:

            @ Michael Fogg – nobody claimed that it’s “ok to be killed” as long as you are an adult. I certainly didn’t so please don’t infer that I did.

            @ the thebigJ_A

            You do realise that the ‘Kindermord’ was largely a propaganda device created some weeks after the battle, and there is little evidence that it ever actually took place the way the subsequent German communiques span it?

            As soldant points out the university and college students who fought were volunteers, not conscripts. Also the reserve regiments involved in the multiple actions (in multiple locations) that were amalgamated and embellished by german propagandists into one fictional action at the nicely teutonic sounding Langemarck, were comprised of c.18% college students (including their teachers). The whole invention of the ‘Kindermord’ myth was to detract attention from any questions about the competence of German general’s in the wake of the heavy casualties being suffered. The Nazi’s subsequently made much of it too – it having a romantic and tragic quality to it.

            As for why does the distinction between being a conscript or a volunteer matter in the context of the awful tragedy of WWI? Well it doesn’t particularly in terms of the human cost or the waste of life. However, it DOES matter in relation to Michael Fogg’s erroneous claim that schoolboys were conscripted and sent to the front. In fact in England the school leaving age was only raised to 14 in 1918.

        • altum videtur says:

          This ain’t All Quiet on the Western Front, if that’s what you’re asking.
          But I do agree. War ain’t about burly old dudes dying horribly but with dignity.

  3. DaviDeMo says:

    I don’t get it… Is it good or bad?

  4. altum videtur says:

    Honestly not sure what to think about the seeming dislike of sudden tonal switches in games. I thought that was normal in fiction? It certainly seems to be regarded as valid at least, if Tarantino’s popularity is any indication. It’s jarring and absurd and I think it is very much meant to be exactly that because that feels truthful to a genuine (if fictional) experience.

    Eh. Fuck do I know.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I wholeheartedly agree, you wonderful bastard.

      • gwathdring says:

        There’s a difference, though, between allowing for humor and tragedy both and having jarring shifts in tone. Not having played the game, I can’t say where I would place it but I think it’s safe to assume the author understands that works of fiction don’t need to be monotone to be good, but that rather they thought the way it happened here was ineffective.

        In particular, the article stresses the fluffy mechanical handling of severe occurrences and how that mixes with the jarring tonal shift.

        • LennyLeonardo says:

          True true. And I guess, to address the OP’s point, perhaps games fall foul of this more often because they are interactive, and so tonal shifts can be less precisely directed.

    • Stupoider says:

      There’s nothing genuine about Tarantino.

    • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

      No, you’ve got it right. I can’t speak for how it feels in this game in particular (excellent review, Alec), but I just finished reading With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge, and war seems to be continuous tonal shifts; boredom, bombs and shrapnel, no food or water, then suddenly out of the thick of battle and resting on a pillow, eating delicious cuisine.

      Also, if you’ve never read that book – and you’re interested in World War II and history – you really can’t go wrong picking it up.

      • The Random One says:

        I haven’t played the game either, but I think there’s a difference between a tonal shift that makes sense in context and a jarring one that is so weird it gets you out of the story. Of course, a jarring tonal shift can be put to good use in a war story – see Catch-22 – but it doesn’t feel like that is what’s happened on this game.

        • Gap Gen says:

          The thing I’ve heard is that the comedy baron bits undermine the parts where war is seen as a terrible thing. Tonal shifts are fine if they complement each other, like the dark comedy in Breaking Bad, but when they actively contradict what came before, there’s a problem.

      • Wowbagger says:

        Indeed, it is a very good book, better than I was expecting even. Was my first proper read in to the Pacific campaign and did a good job of having both a personal narrative and a bigger picture.

    • toxic avenger says:

      –redacted–

  5. Xyviel says:

    I have to say, this review is far more interesting and detailed than the one over at PC Gamer. This is why I read RPS.

    A bit disappointed though by the game. I’m still picking it up, but I had hoped for more positive reviews.

    • KenTWOu says:

      PC Gamer review is really awful. Complaining that characters’ death is not a big deal in a story driven adventure game is stupid. It’s like everybody knows how to avoid this issue flawlessly and only Ubisoft Montpellier doesn’t.

      • Xyviel says:

        I still read PC Gamer but only out of nostalgia, as it was the magazine that I read throughout my tween/teen years. But the quality has been so subpar these past few years, especially the US version, that I’m glad RPS exists to get reliable information and reviews on games. I don’t know if there are any other English language sources that are *really* worth looking into.

  6. Snow Mandalorian says:

    Games like these, The Walking Dead, and the Wolf Among Us might benefit from a mere theater mode. I want to me immersed in the world, the characters, the lore, but I don’t want to be bored by the tacked on “gamey” bits that serve no purpose other than trick us into believing we’re actually playing a game rather than watching a semi-interactive story. This game looks and sounds breathtakingly beautiful, why not just go all the way and just make it a standalone animated movie? I don’t want to “play” the tacked on uninspired interactive portions. If there’s barely a game here, just let me watch instead.

    • Xyviel says:

      That’s an interesting comment. I’d love to see a WWI-themed Telltale-style adventure game.

    • Meneldil says:

      This is nothing like the Walking Dead though. Mostly because it is a proper point ‘n click/puzzle game, but also because of the kinda childish design.

      As an emotional person, reading about WWI can bring tears to my eyes. All the wasted lives, all the misery.
      Except for on of his trailers, Valiant Hearts doesn’t move me, saddly.

    • sophof says:

      I think you are too easily dismissing the effect gameplay has on how you experience the story. The telltale games quite often enforce what the character experiences through QT events for instance. There’s many that you can’t win and their difficulty scales neatly with the difficulty the character is having. Or in a fist fight it is possible to beat the other to a pulp perfectly, but more likely you’ll miss a few marks and come away bloodied. It all feels pretty natural to me.
      In addition, all the small choices you make (even if they don’t really affect the direction the story takes) give you ownership of the story in a way a mere ‘theater mode’ would never be able to do.

      The tricks are simple and obvious, but they do work and add something.

  7. swimming anime says:

    Always funny to see a professional Gamesman totally gobsmacked at the idea that a video game is for children.

  8. bangalores says:

    Wow. Who ever thought the first game to get WWI right would be a 2D side-scrolling puzzler.

    • thebigJ_A says:

      Doesn’t read like they got it “right” to me.

      Unless you consider tragedy handled by simon says games interspersed with slapstick to be “getting it right” re: WWI. Fair enough if you do, but I don’t.

      • mechabuddha says:

        Have you been in the military? Have you ever fought before? Sometimes the only way to get through the dreadful is with some slapstick whenever you can. Go on YouTube and you can find countless videos of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan singing stupid songs or acting in silly skits.

        • caff says:

          Or read the late, great, Spike Milligan’s war autobiographies. Hilarious.

        • malkav11 says:

          Or watch Blackadder Goes Forth, as referenced above in the article proper. I always felt that the first three Blackadder series were fun historical goofs (albeit with carnage-laden endings), but in many ways Goes Forth was WWI in a nutshell. And still very funny to boot.

          • boyspud says:

            The ending to Blackadder Goes Forth is absoultely superb too. After all the jokes and silliness they really did not gloss over how horrible it was.

          • soldant says:

            All of that series was brilliant. It successfully captured the horror of WW1 through comedy – like when they’re standing over a ‘model’ (1:1 scale) of ground captured in the last push measuring a few feet in length. Hilarious at first, but poignant after you stop laughing.

      • Gargulec says:

        The thing is, sheer terror and sheer, if at times, very bitter comedy are both very emblematic ways of portraying World War I in fiction. There’s a very good book on that (Fussel’s “The Great War and Modern Memory”), published forty or so years ago. It did date a bit, but none-the-less it does a good job of showcasing the major trends in portraying and remembering the Great War in western culture.

        Both Remarque and “All Quiet on Western Front” and Graves with his self-admittedly humorous “Good-bye to All That” speak about the terror of the war with strong voices, only in different ways. There is nothing insulting in remembering (and playing out) not only the horror, but also absurdity of war. In fact, I’d even say that portrayal without either would be grossly incomplete, silencing one of the more important, memorable voices about the memory of the war. And even then, the comedy needs not to be a morbid, macabre one. “The Good Soldier Shveik”, one of the most important and touching books on the World War I, and one that I am most deeply familiar with of all the above, is, aside from a few shockingly austere moments, entirely slapstick, and yet none less moving and none less telling because of that.

  9. Synesthesia says:

    Someone recommended this podcast the last time this game was mentioned, so i’m passing the torch. I got hooked on these. If you are interested on WWI’s history, this is as good as any place to start.

    It’s the series called blueprint for armaggedon. http://www.dancarlin.com//disp.php/hharchive

  10. Emeraude says:

    To beat a dead horse (and because I need to vent, sorry about the thread pollution I guess): I’m kinda mad, I really wanted to play that, but uPlay, no buy.

    • rpsKman says:

      There should be a crack available, but I understand. Having to use a shady copy to be able to play a game I purchased that didn’t work really pissed me off, so I’m still on the fence.

    • Shadrach says:

      Uplay is a POS software, but at least they have some decent bandwidth now, you don’t have to wait 30 minutes for the client to just update…

  11. baozi says:

    I liked the trailer on their website a lot. It seemed remarkably grown-up. Very emotional.

    The music from that trailer is Dream Within Dream by Ian Livingston, by the way. Thought I was listening to the Amélie soundtrack for a moment.

    • rpsKman says:

      The French version is cliché and tries to be a tearjerker so bad… I’ll have to try the English.

      • baozi says:

        Guess I’m a sucker for that kind of thing, then :D

        But still, it’s not something that I’ve seen in games a lot, so for me at least it’s a welcome change.

  12. Meneldil says:

    I expected a lot from Valiant Hearts and saddly, I’ve been – slightly – disappointed.

    I guess part of the problem comes from the child-oriented / educative value. The game is torn between its will to explain the Great War to children (a goal admitted by the devs when I interviewed them) and the seriousness of its topic.

    As Alec say, at one point you litterally waltz with cars in Paris, after throwing coal at pigeons dressed as french soldiers, then two minutes later, your sawing the arm off an injured soldier.
    Later, at the Sommes, where – as the narrator explains – 200 000 brit soldiers lost their life, you shoot cartoonish planes with your even more cartoonish tank to protect the soldiers following you.
    Then, on the gruesome Chemin des Dames, you see your comrades being torn to pieces, obliterated by machinguns and what not. But you don’t feel anything, cause they all look the same and grunt the same weird sentence when you try to talk to them (“Viv’la fran”, “enavant”).

    Overall, Valiant Hearts is a decent puzzle game – I’ve finished it in two sessions -, but I wish it could have chosen more clearly what it wanted to be about. Especially after having witnessed the enthusiasm of many of the developpers.

    But maybe I’m not the kind of person the game is aimed at. I know it’s gotten support from many 14-18 associations, and is supposed to be shown to kids during the 100th anniversary of the war.

  13. Laurentius says:

    So this is game about I World War that is reduced to western front ? Of course, who am i kidding ? And this praises for inclusivness ? Ridiculous.

    • Meneldil says:

      Why ridiculous? The game is about the life of 4 (5, if you count the dog) characters who strive for a same goal. The way they constantly meet and then get separated again is already putting a hard strain on the overarching story.
      It would have been even more ridiculous and/or far fetched if they had added a Russian, a Serb, a Czeck, an Austrian or a Turk.

      Furthermore, the game is made in France, where the memory of la Der des Der is still vivid. The Great War isn’t much of a big deal in Eastern Europe, where memory is overwhelmed by WW II.

      But I guess the game must suck, if it doesn’t include the Eastern Front. Even though you find letters from Russian, Austrian and Serb soldiers.

      • Laurentius says:

        “The Great War isn’t much of a big deal in Eastern Europe, where memory is overwhelmed by WW II.”

        Thank you expert. I mean expert on being insenstive prick.

        And my point still stand, it’s game that is about I World War but in fact war is reduced to western front. It’s obvious and disappointing, thay can make game about whatever they want, but the way they tackled the subject and praise for inclusivness is fucking ridiculous.

        • Meneldil says:

          RPS praised them for inclusiveness (I guess adding a black and a woman is enough to deserve praise those days). None of the devs I’ve met made such claim. Though they also tried to shove as much of the war as they could (Vimy is in here, despite being a mere skirmish in the grand scheme, they’ve added letters from soldiers from all around the world, Indians, french colonials, Anzac, etc). They even kept the British pilot in the game as a cameo after deciding to get rid of his plotline.

          That being said, you don’t answer my main point: how to make a believable story about half a dozen characters striving for a same goal if you include both fronts, and even more nationalities? Good luck finding a way to make all those characters meet without shattering the suspension of disbelief.

          But I guess you also think all WWII games are shite because none of them include all fronts, right?

          If this was a Wargame/RTS or anything claiming to cover all of WWI, I could understand your anger. As of now, bitching because a game that centers on a few individuals doesn’t cover all WWI fronts makes no sense.

          • Emeraude says:

            Don’t you understand ? If you can’t tackle all of it, there’s no point in addressing any of it.

            Every endeavor at remembrance should be perfect and all encompassing, or not be.

        • El_Emmental says:

          And when a western studio will try to feature the eastern front, you’ll immediately jump the gun and call it offensive and disrespectful of all the casualties on the eastern front, because it isn’t 100% accurate or doesn’t follow the version taught in schools these days in these countries (too often glorifying the military feats of their nation, and trying to whitewash the generals).

          There’s a massive difference between denying an entire front existed, and not featuring it in a game because it can’t properly be covered within the scope of the game. But I guess it’s easier to look for any possible criticism (no matter how poorly legitimate it is) and run with it to make you look good in front of others.

          “Oh look, they haven’t listed that battle where 50 000 soldiers from country A died, what a bunch of assholes” – meanwhile, you’ve done nothing to educate the average Joe about WWI (who isn’t going to dive into thousands of pages of text), just sitting on your arse and pointing everything that “could” have been done.

          Sadly, tons of people do the same: screw context, screw how hard it is to create content and still sell it enough that you don’t go bankrupt, if you don’t do exactly what I want (without knowing anything about game development), you’re a despicable failure and only deserve our hate.

          -

          Like when countless people said Ubisoft had “infinite money” and infinite developers (“just look at the credits !”), that making an entire female character cost literally nothing… Games apparently appear out of nowhere for these people, you just “do your geeky things” on the computer and boom, VIDEO GAME.

          They refuse to acknowledge an AAA budget is never below 20 millions of dollars, they refuse to acknowledge every AAA project could be the last of the studio (hello unemployment ! devs have families too) if it fails to sell enough, they refuse to admit complexity exist in this world.

          Sure, no playable female character on the AssCreed covering the French Revolution is a terrible planning (the Marianne from the “Liberty Leading the People” or Charlotte Corday taking out Marat FFS) ; if there was one era that needed its female assassin, it was this one. But that doesn’t make the cost (in terms of money, availability and time/delay) of an additional character disappear.

          You can criticize the planning, the game design, but do not become a complete tool by pretending game development doesn’t have massive constraints and huge risks (for everyone, publishers included).

      • Xyviel says:

        I wanted to write back a similar post, but CBA.

        Well done.

  14. DestructibleEnvironments says:

    Someone should haver mentioned that this is only playable with Uplay. And I just bought it at GMG with a 25% off voucher. Grumble grumble.

    Oh someone already said in this comments thread.

  15. Jackablade says:

    I’m imagining that these Rayman engine titles are like Double-Fine’s Amnesia Fortnight games. Both this and Child of Light more like experiments built from the sorts of weird and wacky concepts that such an event spawns, rather than full commercial games. The results are each a bit awkward, a little broken and in need of some more time and money, but imbued with an enormous amount of passion that’s rarely seen in commercial games.

    Here’s hoping that they each do well enough to warrant another batch of games and that they’re given just a little bit more support to really shine.

    • Meneldil says:

      The passion is indeed here. The dev’s office is full of WWI items, and most of them speak most passionately about their little game.

  16. Emeraude says:

    Having witnessed someone play it today, I don’t think the issue is so much the tone discrepancy as the overall clumsiness of the treatment.

    It’s a very earnest piece, obviously well-intentioned but it doesn’t have the level of mastery in either storytelling or game design to really do what it set out to do.

    Worth looking into if only for those very few moments where it hits just the right notes, as long as you can disregard the rest.

    Edit: I’m kinda weirded out by some of the things not mentioned – especially what I would call the crimes of the armies against their own respective soldiers/citizen, given that their sheer level of absurdity does elevate the horror to new heights without having to show anything gruesome.

  17. Likethiss says:

    Alec Meer you are by far my favourite writer in all of games journalism. Thank you for your good work!

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