Impressions - Valiant Hearts: The Great War
"Some Made It. Some Did Not."
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.