Valiant Hearts review
Walking the fine line between adventure game and interactive story can be tough and it can often turn people off pretty fast. It’s a line that Valiant Hearts walks along fairly confidently, with only the faintest hint of a stumble at times. In attempting to tell the story of a divided family across the French and German lines of World War I, it has lots of information to impart, but its sparse use of voice acting and beautifully ‘drawn’ and animated world binds it together rather nicely.
Sometimes though we couldn’t help but feel that the cartoon look and small comic turns of Valiant Hearts were a little uncomfortable in the setting. It can veer from the comic to the tragic quite quickly and 100 years of separation hasn’t really diminished how terrible and terrifying this period of history remains in our minds. Then again, this is a game with some genuine pathos that treats its subject with respect and empathy. If you can accept the lighter moments as symbolic of the humanity that still manages to break through in even the most tragic circumstances you should be able to get past it.
While we’ve kicked off by jumping straight into the storytelling of Valiant Hearts, what was most pleasing was that despite so much attention being paid to its art style and setting, there’s some really fun gaming moments here too. It’s a fine mixture of puzzle and adventure game, sometimes set against time limits and always offering plenty of peril. From taking out machine gun posts to escaping prisoner camps and dodging through Paris traffic to the sound of the Can Can, there’s a great mix of gameplay moments to enjoy. Plus, they are arranged and paced well enough that few ever really feel all that boring or unwelcome when they return. Ubisoft Montpellier has created a beautifully-paced game that really speeds through its six hours or so of game time, delivering entertainment and a few tugs on the heart along the way.
It’s not all pitch perfect though as we’ve suggested and much as with the presentation there are some missteps in the moment-to-moment gameplay too. The medical sequences of Anna, played out like little rhythm action games are fiddly and more frustrating than anything else that Valiant Hearts throws at you. They slow down the pace of the game to a crawl for a moment and just aren’t all that fun to play. But then Anna gets to have all the driving sequences, so perhaps the fun balance of that character evens out in the end.
And while puzzles are very much the focus progressing through the story, there are no real mind-boggling problems to solve. Most of the challenges can be muddled through in a few minutes and those with a keen enough mind will likely whizz through in no time. Throwing sticks at dangling objects and getting your dog Walt to push levers in otherwise inaccessible rooms becomes rather familiar after the first couple of times. It’s mixed in with a couple of pipe puzzles and little ‘get the sequence right’ numbers, but it never threatens to really test you as a player.
But then we come back to the presentation and the story, which really are the heart of this game. There’s not much depth to Valiant Hearts, but the story and presentation bring a lot to the experience to make up for them. The design is very intuitive, which is fortunate given that there’s very little dialogue in the game beyond the odd mumbled word and the voiceover. It leaves a lot of the work up to you so far as investing in these relationships and caring about this extended family of characters, as well as interpreting the events of the war and deciphering the mixture of real story and propaganda-inspired villainy. The comically evil Baron Von Dorf seems stripped from an adventure story or Carry On movie. That his part in the story doesn’t last until the end gives some clue as to the way Ubisoft Montpellier moves away from the heroic adventure tale and into something a little more tragic and challenging towards the end.
We would be neglecting our obligations not to praise the presence of Walt the dog a little more too. As in-game companions go he is always handy, integrated into some of the puzzle design well as both an interactive element and holder of items. With all the misfortune that befalls his masters through the game, he keeps popping up and making a difference. Walt is really just another example of how well Valiant Hearts draws you in and gives you the chance to connect with its tale. It’s so engaging through its design, music and animation that it does manage to surpass its own limitations. Ultimately it’s an enjoyable and worthwhile journey to take, particularly if you like your games to get you thinking beyond the challenges it presents.