Valiant Hearts beat fiercely

Jon Mercer
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Valiant Hearts: The Great War (PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC)
The year is 1914, and war has erupted across the face of Europe. As the flames sweep into France, five souls find their paths entwined in the trenches and across the bullet-pocked battlefields of the Great War.

The Euro comicbook look of  “Valiant Hearts: The Great War.” — Submitted image

A father searches for his daughter’s husband; a young man is forced to leave his family and fight for a homeland he long ago left behind; a daughter searches frantically for her stolen father; a foreigner seeks to settle a score even if it costs him his very soul; and a faithful dog goes wherever his nose and sense of loyalty leads him.

“Valiant Hearts: The Great War,” much like “Child of Light” from the beginning of this summer, is a downloadable title from Ubisoft, using its proprietary “Ubiart Frameworks” engine, allowing for silky smooth 2-D animation that looks like a storybook come to life. And coming from Ubisoft Montpellier (the Michel Ancel-led team behind the “Rayman” games), the visual look of the game is pure Euro comicbook. Outside of the burly male characters that wear their Bruce Timm inspiration on their sleeves, the look of the game is pure Hergé or Moebius. Bold dark outlines and lots of fine textures over simple painted colours. As somebody who has been involved in art as long as he has been playing videogames, it’s an irresistible look.

The visuals belay a story that holds two hands outstretched, holding joy in one and the sobering reality of war in the other. “Valiant Hearts” can make tears roll down the cheek of anyone with an inkling of heart as easily as it can make them leap off the couch and pump a fist in the air. The story is moved by acts of heroism and derring-do in the face of overwhelming danger, but is always quick to remind that the First World War was indeed a horrible time to live through.

Characters die, families are torn apart, and the backgrounds are filled with images of men choking on mustard gas, or being riddled with gunfire. But there is always that sensation of hope, that at the end of the long dark trench, just maybe the sun will be shining through.

Gameplay in “Valiant Hearts” is a simple, comforting affair. At its core, the game is a puzzle/platformer, sending players through obstacle courses and set pieces on their way to procure key items, or to try and manage switches in proper order. But the game’s aesthetic wraps simple concepts in such a way that it never grows tiresome. It’s easy to plough through a good chunk of “Valiant Hearts” without even realizing how much of an evening has passed. And it switches between characters brilliantly, keeping the action rolling at a steady clip.

Unlike the bulk of war games available on the market, “Valiant Hearts” in no way glorifies, celebrates or allows the player to engage in acts of violence. That’s not to say that it is a sugar-coated tale — quite the contrary. However, not once through its entirety do any of the five ever pick up a rifle. Artillery or explosives are used to clear obstacles and solve puzzles, but the level of violence perpetrated by the player doesn’t escalate much beyond cracking an enemy soldier in the back of the head with a soup ladle.

But what a sense of adventure it has! There are heart-racing chases as zeppelins rain down cannon fire, even an Indiana Jonesesque run through a mine to escape a rolling cloud of poisonous gas.

The puzzles that stand between players and victory are very much a large part of “Valiant Hearts’” enjoyment. Each character brings their own special abilities that the game likes to juggle through to always keep things fresh. Emile can dig through loose dirt with his soup ladle, Anna closes the wounds on those in need through a neat rhythm-based mini-game, and the rough and tumble Freddie hacks his way through barbed wire with a set of heavy wire cutters. As well, numerous limited-use items pop up to keep the wheels of our gamer brains grinding away. But none so admirably as the trained and steadfastly loyal war dog that often accompanies players.

Rest assured, you’ll probably be reaching for the button that lets you pet the dog quite a few times. I know I was.

“Valiant Hearts: The Great War” is a thoroughly enjoyable little title that will have the hairs on the back of your neck standing up straight whilst still trying to give you the warm and fuzzies in your chest.

It’s smartly priced at $14.99, and tells an engrossing tale that celebrates heroism and the triumph of the human spirit, while giving a pretty good history lesson on the horror of the First World War.

It’s beautifully told with respect and gusto, and the focus on brains and not bullets clashes with the setting in a way that seizes a hold of the imagination.

This is just more fuel on the fire that Ubisoft needs to be doing these sort of smaller, personal games in between all of their big blockbuster releases.

Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC (PS4 version reviewed)

Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: June 24, 2014

Rated: T for Teen.

Email Jon Mercer at thejonmercer@gmail.com.

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