War is by far one of the most commonly depicted scenes in video games. Physical conflicts are, after all, far more easily portrayed on-screen than emotional ones, and whether it be Contra or Call of Duty, the mere sight of an enemy swinging or firing a weapon at once tells the player exactly what the situation is and how they ought to respond.
But despite the level of realism and attention to detail that goes into today's multi-million-dollar military shooters with their high-tech weaponry and twisting, convoluted plots, none have ever succeeded in creating as harrowing, engaging and visually stunning a portrayal of human conflict as Ubisoft Montpellier's World War I title, Valiant Hearts.
Spread over four chapters and lasting roughly six to seven hours in total, Valiant Hearts drops players into a series of events taking place on and around the Western Front, putting them intermittently in control of four human characters and a faithful dog named Walt. The basic gameplay itself is standard puzzle-adventure fare involving fetch quests, costume changes, stealth sections, and items which must be found, lobbed or manipulated in order to overcome obstacles, and characters - Walt included - are controlled with a simple set of commands. It all works well and will come as second nature to anyone who has spent any decent length of time with a controller in their hands.
As well as items necessary to progressing the plot, however, the game world is littered with trinkets and objects that reveal factoids about the Great War and give players a better idea of what life was like for those it consumed. Hastily made urine-soaked masks used to lessen the effects of chlorine gas; helmets that kept some of the shrapnel off but offered virtually no protection from bullets; objects fashioned out of old shell cases; eagle-eyed players who find these items are rewarded with a richer, more immersive experience, and are even given an achievement for reading (or at least opening) many of the logs. There is a wealth of information to be had here, though it never intrudes on the play experience and can, though it would be a genuine shame to do so, be ignored if the player so wishes.
Powered by UbiArt Framework, the same engine behind Child of Light and Rayman Legends, Valiant Hearts runs wonderfully smoothly, maintaing a silky 60FPS throughout, and the settings--from the dank trenches and POW camps to the vibrant towns and French countryside--are a pleasure to behold, with action popping in and out of frame on multiple layers to give a sense of scale and depth to this otherwise flat comic book-style adventure. Characters, too, are chunky and for the most part lovable in their design, drawn with thick black outlines and conversing in unintelligible, at times comically accented, tones.
Make no mistake, though, Valiant Hearts may start off gently and contain plenty of whimsy and bright colours, but before long even this cartoonish take on war becomes surprisingly dark and introduces themes and concepts that even veteran war-game players may find uncomfortable to muse upon for too long. Death is everywhere--not so much for the player since the game seldom becomes overly tricky, but for those who struggle alongside the characters you control--and when you start to see entire squadrons charging blindly at the enemy and being mowed down one after the other by machine gun fire, it soon becomes painfully clear what a senseless, bloody affair World War I really was.
Where Valiant Hearts differs from most war games, however, is in its story and focus on the human element. This is a war game, yes, but aside from a couple of brief sections in which you gain control of a tank or are asked to pinpoint and shell enemy machine gun nests, never will any of your characters wield a weapon as such, nor are there ever any clear lines drawn between good and evil (with one jarring exception, but more on that later). There is no single, overwhelming menace here, no terrorist organisation that threatens the freedom of one particular country; these are just individual people with their own goals, which the war continues to confound. The game frequently has you switching sides and observing life under different banners, the behaviours and emotions of soldiers on both sides eerily similar, before quickly having you launch or defend against some attack.
To suggest that Valiant Hearts' gameplay is quite on par with its story, art style or haunting soundtrack, however, would be a stretch. Though it plays well throughout and there are enough moments of brilliance and originality to bring a smile to your face, the game ultimately suffers from a lack of variety, with the same basic puzzles and mechanics being used so often that after a while the mere sight of a switch, cog or lever is likely to draw sighs from the player rather than stimulate feelings of excitement or anticipation.
The game's characterisation, too, at times strays a little too close to that of pantomime for comfort and there are brief spells where gameplay feels worryingly disconnected from its own roots. Breaks in tension are essential elements in any good video game, and many of the slightly more comedic interludes are quite enjoyable, but it can be jarring when the discovery of a card that tells of how soldiers would often die caught on barbed wire is closely followed by a battle with a cackling, maniacal German general driving a flame-thrower equipped tank.
Thankfully, these minor hiccups are few and far between, and upon reaching the game's final chapter only the most hard-hearted and emotionally desensitised will find themselves in need of a hook to pull them in. Almost out of nowhere, Valiant Hearts builds to a magnificent climax, with the reality of war hitting as hard as the shells that rain down on cartoonish, yet strangely frightening battlefield, and the game's final moments are so flawlessly executed that they legitimately warrant a second play-through just to be seen again.
Valiant Hearts may occasionally stumble along its way, and it may not be quite the emotional journey that its promotional trailers led us to believe, but it will nevertheless leave a mark. Thankfully, though, it's the kind that most will be glad to keep.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available to buy now on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 (version tested), and PC, priced US$14.99.