Swirling around social feeds last month was a link to an article entitled '20 Photos that Change the Holocaust Narrative'. Snapshots used to shake us out of the stark singular imagery history would define that time with, widening the lens to remind us of the people who suffered, lived and loved over those years. Reigniting emotional context where once was objective observation.
I'm reminded heavily of those pictures in my time with Valiant Hearts, Ubisoft Montpellier's 2D puzzle adventure that charts the Great War - a subtitle used to be historically accurate rather than glorifying the period - over the course of a year from four different perspectives. Notably, while you'll see death, destruction, you'll never fire a single bullet, kill a single person. You'll laugh at times. Be overawed come certain vistas. While communication between characters is mainly through puzzle-aiding pictograms, all feel fleshed out as personalities. While the visuals are cartoonish, everybody and everything feels real. It's an artistic rendition of reality, a portrait of human life during a conflict that swallowed the world.
"It's a game about war," says associate producer Gregory Hermittant. "Not a war game." There's clear distinction. This isn't Contra with a WWI makeover. You never pull the trigger of a gun during the game. Given the studio's background, it's maybe not surprising they taken this tack. This is the team that tackled politics and propaganda with only a camera and the truth as investigative journalist Jade in 2003's Beyond Good & Evil. A similar distinction marks Valiant Hearts. Even in the game's opening tutorial, as farmer Carl is dragged away from his family and conscripted to join the army. When learning how to strike enemy combatants using a mannequin at the training compound, he never uses his rifle's bayonet, instead elbowing his opponent out of the way. Come enemy encounters, you can knock them out to sneak past, but not kill them. Yet you'll witness whole platoons mowed down by machine gun nests, watch artillery fire turn encampments to dust. You may pull your punches, but the game doesn't.
While the characters you experience these moments with are fictional, the situations are based on fact. Each chapter section comes with a text folder detailing key elements of that particular engagement that makes for sobering reading. A game about war. Not a war game.
The game dazzled at Ubisoft's DigiDays event last year, only overshadowed by the excellent Child of Light. But while that critically-acclaimed title's credits roll through multiple names, in Valiant Hearts you'll have a single name for the art, and only a handful of others for the whole production. This was a passion project. Originally a lunchtime distraction from bigger productions by one of Montpellier's staff toying with Ubisoft's UbiArt Engine, the project grew as more people joined in the ‘hobby', until it evolved into a fully-fledged game. An indie-flavoured title to get the creative juices flowing between the bigger Triple-A projects. Dropping on a headset and playing through an hour or so of the game at Ubisoft's offices, it's easy to think that this game will leave the more memorable impression of the two on us.
The game flits between the four different characters, charting their progress and eventual crossovers via map and voiceover between chapters, which always tie their progress in with particular flash points of World War I. Your interaction with all this is mainly through puzzle-solving. A slower pace arguably not conducive to the setting, but it's given proper context. While some of the puzzles encountered took a short while to work out, they won't escalate in complexity as the game progresses. A conscious decision by the team, who feel its more important for ‘everyone who plays it' to see the story through to the end. Luckily the story is crafted in such a way that we feel fully invested, puzzle work just elusive enough to continue to engage our brain... and keep us from worrying about what the ending is going to be.
Each of your controllable characters have particular skill sets, tailored to their personal story. Early on Emil's captured and forced into drudgery by the enemy, yet on his escape when his camp is attacked, he uses his cooking implements to dig his way through collapsed tunnels. Anna's a doctor who must scrounge equipment by exploring her surroundings to find battlefield debris, reset bones and stitch wounds via a time-based mini-game. It's with her that we get an early example of the creators' deftness in showcasing the whole spectrum of emotions that came with war: Anna absconds from Paris in a stolen taxi, as part of a fleet transporting soldiers to the frontline. It's a moment we won't detail, as, with such much about Valiant Hearts, it's worth experiencing the first time on playing it.
American soldier turned French Legion volunteer Freddy is perhaps the closest you'd get to a traditional role; he can cut through barbed wires and is a dab hand with grenades. Yet even his drive for joining up is personal, a need for revenge that's gradually revealed through brief cut-scenes. Then there's Walt the Dog, who in a way ties these characters together. In our brief time he becomes an essential part in puzzle-solving, simple commands getting him to sit or investigate your surroundings. It's completely optional to pat him every time he comes to your side. It's telling of how much we're touched by the game already that we make sure to stroke his head every chance we get.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War will release next month. As with Child of Light, we think it's going to be an easy recommendation when it launches. And we're certainly going to spoil as little as possible until you have a chance to experience it.
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