Valiant Hearts: The Great War – Final Review

Aesthetically, Valiant Hearts: The Great War is wholly remarkable and memorable, boasting rich, highly detailed environments and rather charming character design, a design which absolutely clings towards the light hearted. But just as there are light-hearted attributes, some more mature environmental designs are also in place; deep, labyrinthian, trenches are explored one moment, the player character wading through pools of collected water, pools also contaminated by mud and other repugnant substances, the end result being an atmosphere of sorrow and oppression – were the soldiers really forced to endure such conditions? It is a very distressing thought, and the game must be praised for raising this question, praised also for this immense success in environmental storytelling; much is said without the utterance of a single word. Additional displays of bleakness and environmental storytelling also exist, the most impactful being a mission towards the narrative’s conclusion, where the player character is forced to press onwards in the company of fellow soldiers, advancing even as the opposition has dug in, occupying a very advantageous position, mounting their machine guns in full view of the player character and his comrades. Impactfulness arises when one sees the mountain of corpses dispersed throughout these environments, a frightening, tangible reminder of the sacrifices these individuals made, laying down their lives for a mostly trivial, unnecessary war, brought on by pacts and alliances, even as the makers of those alliances never find themselves situated in those deep, dreary trenches, overflowing with repelling viscera, illustrating a sharp divide. Again: this division is principally achieved by environmental storytelling. When this is paired with the environmental richness, Valiant Hearts shows consider aesthetic ambition, as is further observable whenever more tranquil, urban environments are explorable; far away from the fronts, here is relative peace, and the existence of these sequences heightens diversity, as do the acts of exploration in the detached countrysides of France. It is difficult to communicate the resounding visual and atmospheric successes made within the title, wholly, boldly original.   

At the center of the narrative are a handful on individuals, each with their own distinct backstories and motivations – all of these characters are compelling, though some develop more than others as the narrative progresses onwards, and collectively they strongly anchor the narrative proper. First introduced are a trio dwelling within the verdant fields of France, one individual being compassionate Emile, a Frenchmen living with his French daughter and her German husband, Karl. As damning warfare eventually erupts, Karl is stripped of his happiness, removed from his wife and their youthful son, forced to enlist within the German forces, they having little interest in his personal concerns: for the army’s higher ups, the happiness of soldiers is immaterial. And so, he leaves, Europe fully engulfed in war, a war drawing Emile towards the French forces. Karl is intimately connected to his father-in-law, in that they both disdain the war, a common perception for the time: the war was a pointless one, regarded with near universal dislike by soldier and citizen alike. Being forced to engage in combat – as is the case with Emile and Karl – is thus a distressing affair, involving the betrayal of principle; tension abounds. And just as soon as Karl and Emile are introduced, another central character fast enters the picture – Freddie, an American, who, surprisingly, initially regards the war with zeal, not delighting in the violence so much as delighting in the negation of violence, the salvation of citizen, soldier, and countryside. While undergoing demoralizing affair after demoralizing affair, his spirits do not flag entirely, and he ultimately assists a Candain regiment in obtaining considerable ground for the Allies. Camaraderie unites all of these individuals. Karl and Emile are already linked by nature of their mutual relationship to the woman, her child. But more astonishing is the hastiness with which Emile and Freddie grow to become compatriots, literally a band of brothers. Another linking factor for these men, meanwhile, is a smallish service dog, who not only serves a gameplay function but also serves to evoke reassurances – man will always have the unjudging support of man’s best friend. Finally, there is Anna, trained in medical practices and accordingly of great value – medics were direly needed, of course, owing to the near constant brutality wrought by war. Guided by her role to preserve these men – and to relocate her displaced father – she is a mostly altruistic figure, who makes many spirited contributions even as she never ventures towards the front, never navigates the vast trenches.

While each of these central characters display repeated profundities and complex motivations, the precise communication of their narratives is a failing, largely attributable to the overall pacing, highly flawed. Before every mission, a narrator provides a brief overview of the mission proper, its historical contexts and what precisely is the nature of the characters’ relationships to these environments. With spirited and inspired voice-acting, he also grounds the narrative spatially and temporally, doing a consistently remarkable job, even as these cutscenes are typically very short in length. The problem arises when considering the brevity of the narrative proper, missions broadly, some completable in ten minutes, five minutes, far before the player can adjust to the environments explored, the state of mind of the character controlled. This is an odd design decision all around, and it bears similarities to mobile gaming, where the player can boot up a game, mess around for ten or fifteen minutes, and then promptly place the phone aside. There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach to game design, but this is a full-fledged home console experience, and this design philosophy seems incompatible with the expectations of dedicated console gaming. Seemingly, though, this model has its advantages: rather than growing accustomed to any one environment, new environments are constantly thrust upon the player, the end result being a destruction of repetition or the creation of staleness: diversity expertly abounds, and awe is repeatedly evoked, owing to the sometimes clashing nature of these environments – one transpires in snowy wastes, for instance, another in a sunny, bombed out urban area. Worse still is the erratic, almost unpredictable nature of this narrative, as it bounces around from character to character seemingly without any coherent thought towards the overall mission flow, the end result being a Frankenstein of sorts, the narrative being a composition of compelling wholes, but wholes which are lazily stitched together; there is a sharp lack of focus and direction. Moments of greatness do transpire, though, as is the case whenever the central characters actually interact, something which fortunately happens fairly frequently. In the narrative’s opening, for instance, Freddie and Emile meet for the first time, Emile manipulating the environment to distract Freddie’s oppressors, the entire scene having an almost comedic, light-hearted tone, as those harassers are blasted with steam from a locomotive, sending them scattering. More poignant interactions characterize the narrative’s conclusion, as when Anna saves Karl from his sicknesses and injuries, reviving him to the delight of wife and child. On and on go these compelling interactions, but their potential impactfulness is stunted by the bizarre, almost incomprehensible narrative structure, making a potentially great, revolutionary and inspired narrative into a merely good narrative.    

It is easy to gloss over narrative failings because they are countered by many resounding narrative successes. Not so easy to gloss over, though, are the gameplay failings, which are quite abundant. To give an easy classification, the game follows the tropes of the 2D puzzle-platformer genre, though subverting it in some ways, in that elaborate platforming sequences are completely absent, this absence meaning that almost the entirety of gameplay is spent on puzzle-solving, save for the moments of quiet, uninterrupted exploration. Environments are explored, items are discovered, NPC’s are interacted with – this constitutes Valiant Hearts’ gameplay, abounding in genre tropes and never offering any gameplay innovation, rarely fostering player engagement. True, some moments of satisfaction inevitably arise, as whenever a particularly devious and elaborate puzzle is solved, but these moments of joy are typically fleeting, oftentimes being irregular and lazily, insufficiently distributed. As more explicit illustration of these gameplay systems, consider a thread which emerges multiple times throughout the narrative, a thread reminiscent of those found in The Legend of Zelda series, specifically the much derided trading quests; obtain one object, trade that object with an NPC to receive a new object, travel with that object to a new NPC, and so on – these sequences emerge frequently, and they are unenjoyable, largely because of their abundance; if but one or two of these quests were present, their potential resonance would escalate tremendously. But it is not to be. In quite a compelling departure, though, the gameplay is often of a quieter sort, not exactly relaxing in tone, but certainly rejecting the bombastic – most of the time. Developers today seem obligated to include louder sequences, seeing in loudness player engagement and the evocation of tension, anxiety. Fair enough. But here, these louder sequences seem out of place, even as they are riveting; if the game were exclusively quiet, then it would more seamlessly seize upon a uniquer identity, rejecting conventional game design. Instead, rather than being quiet always, there is a sharp vacillation of quiet and loud, which heightens further the narrative’s unpredictability, an unpredictability which inevitably results in a wonderful overabundance of surprises: will this mission be of a somber sort, or will it feature rampant violence and devastation? The gameplay, then, is not completely disastrous, but it is a pale shadow of environmental design and world-building.

No matter the extent of narrative or gameplay failings, Valiant Hearts is abounding in admirable sincerity, touching upon World War I as subject matter with striking uniqueness, at times expertly capturing its bleaker moments, other times countering that bleakness with levity, as is observable by the interaction of the narrative’s central characters, occasionally humorous, pointing towards the existence of a flame of hope that war has not yet extinguished. The developers, then, treat the war, its survivors and victims alike, with respectfulness, fully acknowledging the formative nature of the conflict. The narrator’s compelling delivery – almost always grave and somber – further accentuates these strengths, he speaking with such an earnestness that one might think even he was embroiled in that conflict of a century ago. The cutscenes accompanying his speech, meanwhile, are wonderfully stylized and imaginative, even as they feature minimal animation; they evoke place, grounding the narrative. But certain narrative ambitions are of course unrealizable – Valiant Hearts has a T rating, that rating bringing with it ample limitations on what precisely can be communicated. Accordingly, the grisly realism characterizing Battlefield 1 is rejected here, meaning the game’s potentially distressing nature is minimized. But this minimization, again, results in a unique tonal identity, and the developers absolutely pushed the limits inherent to a T rating, this progressivism most observable in the narrative’s closing moments, which boldly display mountains and mountains of corpses strewn about recklessly, mountains only increasing in size by nature of the commander’s insatiable belligerence. Emile, now at his breaking point, acts in rage and in courage, finally killing that officer, this being a pivotal moment, which establishes an immensely effective narrative conclusion. The developers could easily have written away his affair as ending in happiness. But instead – clinging to realism – he meets with death; this mature, unflinching bleakness is a wonderful attainment. World-building, presentation, characterization, conflict, gameplay, music, atmosphere – the game excels in all of these areas at least to some degree. One monumental failing, though, is attached to the overall enjoyability. In many video games, immersion is easily achieved, and once the player experiences that immersed status, it is quite common to lose hours upon hours in any given play session. Valiant Hearts fails to strike this immersive chord, the game at times a slog to play through, rarely rewarding. It is difficult to communicate from where this boredom springs from – logic says gameplay should excel, what with the vacillation of quiet and loud, the vacillation of exploration and puzzle-solving. But here, logic is rejected, unintentionally or no. Were the gameplay more engaging, Valiant Hearts might seem a masterpiece, already being impossibly close to receiving that vaunted designation. But with its artistry, maturity, and beauty, its deft evocation of place and overall earnestness, repeated successes are made here – genius and creativity abound.

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