Connected Hearts at War
Valiant Hearts isn’t your typical war game. It isn’t a first-person shooter where you run in guns blazing. Rather, it is a slower puzzle adventure title centering on four ordinary individuals. It shares their poignant experiences during the Great War, otherwise known as World War I.
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Throughout Valiant Hearts, you switch control to each of the four protagonists and follow their lives as they intersect with one another. The first hero is Emile, an older French man who is drafted for the war. His son-in-law Karl, another protagonist, is German, and is therefore deported and drafted into the opposing German army. The narrative doesn’t take sides nor shies away from showing the personal tragedies of war: the pain of leaving loved ones and the tension of facing family on the battlefield. Emile and Karl’s stories are strong on their own, but two additional characters deliver emotional weight: Freddie, the American with a vendetta, and Anna, the Belgian nurse with a hidden agenda. As I became invested into everyone’s tragic stories, I grew to love them all. This isn’t simply a tale of good and evil, but one of inner conflict, struggles, and true heroism.
Despite its serious premise, the cartoonish visuals suggest the opposite. Ubisoft’s UbiArt framework, previously used in Rayman Legends and Child of Light, works wonders to present high-quality fluid animation. Everyone is drawn in a comic style and moves with exaggerated mannerisms. For a game set in World War I, there is surprisingly very little blood or gore. Nor is there proper voice acting aside from the narrator and Emile. Instead, everyone speaks in Banjo-Kazooie-like grunts. It’s a humorous style that lightens the dreary tone. Although it prevents the game from fully achieving realism, it doesn’t detract from the tear-jerking moments. In fact, the juxtaposed style and story made the characters more endearing, which caused heavier heartbreak any time they were in grave peril. An abundance of silence and melancholic piano and violin tunes serve as constant reminders of the true stakes of the Great War.
You play as the four protagonists to solve puzzles and complete action segments. The game plays similarly to a point-and-click adventure combined with a puzzle platformer, since you can manually move. Most sections are self-contained areas in which you must get through a situation by performing a variety of tasks. For instance, perhaps you need to create distractions to get past guards, search for civilians to help you move a statue, or sneak around an army base using disguises. Alongside these environmental riddles, you’ll often come across more cerebral puzzles like cracking codes or activating mechanisms.
Unlike other games in the genre that feature esoteric objectives, the environmental riddles are usually clear. Despite a lack of dialogue, NPCs state their needs through pictures. The challenge typically isn’t figuring out what to do, but how to achieve it. There is occasionally some adventure game logic that may be baffling to newcomers to the genre, but the game offers incremental and optional picture hints at timed intervals to guide you in the right direction.
Each character has an exclusive move, such as Emile’s ability to shovel dirt and Anna’s nursing proficiencies, which interestingly enough, play out as rhythm minigames. Usually, the game decides which of the four you play as at any given time, but the strongest puzzles utilize multiple characters at once, where you engage in faux co-op missions to get them to the goal. An additional fifth character, the adorable dog Walt, is the impetus for most of these multi-character riddles. It was always a pleasure to see this versatile and faithful companion, who plays a part in everyone’s story thread. The four protagonists otherwise control similarly and are tasked with the same actions, like finding levers and cutting wires. I appreciated the immersive replication of pulling a lever back or rotating a wheel switch with the analog stick or the Nintendo Switch’s touch screen. However, some actions aren’t as intuitive in either control scheme, particularly throwing items to precise degrees.
Although the puzzle difficulty increases over time, they start to repeat themselves, and you find yourself in the final chapter still pulling levers or performing longer fetch quests. The latter, by the way, gets frustrating as there is no inventory management. You can only hold one item at a time and must recall where you drop items.
Valiant Hearts prevents itself from growing stale by interweaving action between puzzles. Some cleverly apply the traditional adventure gameplay into stealth segments or full-scale bosses while other fun sections empower you with a tank or cannon. The weaker portions involve dodging a barrage of incoming missiles and gunfire, which isn’t easy due to the characters’ slower movements. Particularly annoying are the car chases, in which your car is constantly driving towards the screen, and you must react to approaching threats. Nevertheless, the constant gameplay shifts keep things fresh, and any losses merely return you to a nearby checkpoint.
The campaign is about eight to ten hours, which is fair given the lower price. It doesn’t lend itself to repeated playthroughs, but you can go back to any chapter to look for hidden artifacts that provide historical facts about World War I. The game is rich with supplemental background related to actual events the characters face. It’s a fantastic way to add an educational touch to a game that is so rooted in world history.
Valiant Hearts defies the traditional war game, featuring comical, fluidly animated visuals that tell a somber story about people caught up in World War I. The interactive puzzles, alongside engaging action segments, are effectively interspersed in an experience that is hard to put down. While this slower-paced war title may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s worth a playthrough for history buffs, puzzle platformer fans, or anyone who wants a beautiful adventure game with a lot of heart.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was posted on DarkStation.