Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

Games using Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework are almost immediately recognizable because they resemble a moving 2D painting or drawing. Child of Light, for example, had a watercolor kind of aesthetic that was really pleasing. Valiant Hearts, on the other hand, has more of a “hand-drawn” look to it, and this ultimately proves to be its downfall. This is a game where the aesthetic and the message are so completely at odds that the game doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to accomplish, so all you’re left with are a few adventure game sequences that spiral into unenjoyable minigames. It’s a shame, too, because this is one of the few games willing to venture into the nitty-gritty of World War 1.

World War 1 and cartoons

Believe it or not, a WW1 game presented with cartoon art isn’t something I’m immediately turned off by; the art itself is instantly charming, and I’ve seen enough games pull off the impossible that I really do believe that it could have worked. It doesn’t work here, though, mostly because the art style allowed for some questionable design decisions that undermine the game’s atmosphere and message and that wouldn’t have been possible without the game being a cartoon.

Mumble war is mumble hell mumble

The first horrible design decision was removing dialogue almost entirely during gameplay. Instead of actual dialogue, characters speak to you through symbols and occasional mumbling (that’s usually indecipherable, though you’ll occasionally recognize words or phrases). Had this game sported a more realistic art design, there’s no way anyone would have thought this was a good decision, especially since the symbols become increasingly vague. At one point, I had to solve a puzzle by finding a pipe for a chef, but I couldn’t actually tell he wanted a pipe because the picture in his dialogue bubble looked incredibly strange. Fortunately (and at the same time, unfortunately), Valiant Hearts is an incredibly forgiving, easy game, so this is really less of a problem than it probably sounds.

Instead, the biggest problem with the lack of dialogue during gameplay is that it completely removes your emotional attachment to the characters and reduces them to meaningless cartoons. Even the moments that were supposed to be heart-wrenching left me completely detached from the situation because of how little characterization they received thanks to all of the mumbling. In fact, outside of their readable diary entries and the narrated cutscene openings to new scenes that explain how they feel about certain things, they receive zero characterization at all. By the end of the game, I had developed more of an emotional attachment to the pet dog than to any of the human characters.

Since no amount of writing really explains what Valiant Hearts is like to play, here’s a video of a few of the more common types of gameplay.

Cartoons are invincible

Again, I have no problem with the idea of a World War 1 game sporting characters who look like cartoons. However, they also act like cartoons, and this completely undermines the darker story that the game tries to tell. Between bouts of chlorine gas and dying soldiers around you that serve to remind that war is all about death and misery, the big bad villain who you spend most of the game chasing survives grenades (in enclosed spaces!), aircraft crashes, and direct mortar fire by simply flying away at the last possible second like the villain in an old-timey cartoon show. The only thing that could have possibly undermined the game’s tone more is if he had shook his fist while escaping and shouted (or per the game’s approach to voice acting, mumbled), “Next time you won’t be so lucky, heroes!” Your playable characters are similarly immortal, surviving ridiculous circumstances again and again to the point where you never feel that they’re ever truly in peril.

The main characters also avoid killing

One of the things that I felt that Valiant Hearts did very well at times was avoid presenting either side of the war as being pure evil or pure good. Not only do you control four characters who act on both sides of the war, but you’ll actually help and be helped by soldiers from the other side on rare occasions. On the flip side, all four of your playable characters slavishly avoid directly killing anyone, and it’s as though the developers didn’t want you to get the idea in your head that they’re every bit as capable of murder as the other soldiers. In that sense, they’re presented as uniquely “good” in a way that simply doesn’t mesh with the world; as the soldiers around your playable characters shoot and are shot at, your playable characters are armed with a shovel, a ladle, wire cutters, or medical equipment. None of them ever shoot a rifle or stab an enemy, and even when they’re sent to blow up a bridge with people on it or throw a grenade into a crowded area, enemies always manage to (cartoonishly) run off and avoid the blast. The only deaths your characters ever cause are indirect and/or accidental, and this seriously undermines the darker tones of the game.

Okay, on to the gameplay

It’s simply not possible to get an idea of what it’s like to play this game outside of watching someone else actually play it. Because of that, I included a non-spoilery video above that highlights some of the more common gameplay modes. To be perfectly honest, Valiant Hearts would be best described as an adventure game laced with half-baked minigames that randomly pop up over the course of the story. That being said, the adventure gameplay works fairly well despite the game being 2D, with the limited scope of each area you find yourself in being just about perfect for finding items and figuring out where you need to take them. Really, the only problems with these adventure sections is the aforementioned lack of dialogue, the ambiguity that the icons occasionally create, and the first dial puzzle.

The first dial puzzle involves roman numerals and numbers. I assumed that both were parts of the combination that I had to enter using the dial, but it turns out that I was supposed to magically divine that the developers intended the roman numerals to indicate which number was where in the actual combination. Once you’ve picked up on this, the dial puzzles become pitifully easy much like the rest of the game, but the design is still questionable for those who dislike using built-in hint systems (more on the hint system later).

Then there are the minigames

Everything that steps outside of the adventure gameplay turns into what amounts to a minigame. There’s the driving minigame where you have to dodge obstacles by swerving left and right, the timing minigame where you have to wait for an enemy to reload their gun to run forward (occasionally using wire cutters or a shovel/ladle) and/or dodge mortar shells by watching for their shadows, the “timed puzzle” minigame where you have to manipulate objects in a certain amount of time or automatically fail, and the QTE minigame where you have to hit buttons/keys as they’re shown on the screen. That last one is particularly egregious, being more present than QTEs have any right to be in a game; every time you have your “medic” character help someone, that help plays out as a QTE. Given that we’re talking about a good fourth or so of the entire game, that’s pretty awful, not that the other minigames are any more fun. Granted, they’re mostly bearable and exist as filler so that this technically qualifies as a game and not an animated movie, but there was no point where I was ever having fun playing them.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

One of these things is not like the others,
one of these things just doesn’t belong.

The always-present hint system

As I mentioned earlier, Valiant Hearts has a hint system. You’ll never forget this fact for a moment, because if you take a minute to figure out a puzzle, you’re bound to see a prompt reminding you that you can use the hint system. These pop up so frequently that you’re almost tempted to use them just to shut the game up, and you continue getting more and more specific hints until the game just decides that you’re an idiot and should have the solution handed to you on a silver platter. Thing is, this isn’t a difficult game. Outside of the first dial puzzle, everything in this game is pitifully easy and likely to challenge almost no one. Why was a hint system even needed in the first place, much less one so determined to make its presence known? Hand-holding is one thing, but this is more like Ubisoft reaching through the screen, grabbing my wrist, and trying to drag me through the game at the pace they demand. Is it such a bad thing to wander and enjoy the scenery or take your time instead of running through the game as fast as possible? Ultimately, I can’t hold the hint system against the game because it’s purely optional, but I’d really like future games with hint systems to make them less ubiquitous.

Graphically pleasing drabness

As I mentioned earlier, I have nothing against this game’s art style. Yes, I hold it responsible for many bad ideas that hold this game back from being the dark tale of war horrors that it could have been, but it’s pleasing nonetheless; I really, really like the UbiArt Framework, and both Child of Light and Valiant Hearts have featured interesting graphics because of it. Overall, I prefer Child of Light’s approach a bit more because it was more colorful and creative (for example, it had a water spatter transition effect that I loved), but Valiant Hearts’ lack of color definitely suits it.

One thing I found especially interesting about the character design was that no one’s eyes were ever shown during war, always obscured behind eyebrows, hats, glasses, or something else. You can see eyes in certain flashbacks that take place prior to the war, however, so this is obviously a deliberate design decision that gives the war a disturbingly impersonal feel, almost like everyone has given up something human about themselves. Adding to this interpretation is the fact that the dog (who is present and helpful throughout most of the game) doesn’t ever have its eyes obscured, not even when wearing a gas mask. While I don’t feel that the art design benefited the game in the end despite its unique visuals, I definitely enjoyed that particular touch.

The music is equally great

The music is another thing I felt was done slightly better in Child of Light, but I did get the impression that there was quite a bit more variation in Valiant Hearts’ soundtrack. It alternates between slow piano tracks and more bombastic orchestral tracks (and at times, even complete, eerie silence), and while its themes are less immediately memorable than Child of Light overall, the end of the game is made absolutely beautiful because of how perfect the accompanying music is in the last 5-10 minutes.

Here’s what you should do:

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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