Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

Written by Rick Lane

July 10, 2014 | 09:05

Tags: #rayman #sniper-elite #valiant-hearts

Companies: #ubisoft #ubisoft-montpellier

Now, comedy and World War One are not incompatible. Anyone who has seen Blackadder Goes Forth will know this isn't the case. But the reason Blackadder's comedy worked is because it was used to highlight the sheer absurdity of the First World War, how a volatile mixture of patriotism, vain imperialism, rapidly advancing technology and suffocating traditional tactics combined to form a horror-show where generals thought that walking soldiers toward machine-gun fire was a winning strategy. In short, it was gallows humour. The characters used it as a form of escape, but for the audience it served to emphasise the ridiculousness of their situation.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review
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The problem with Valiant Hearts is that is uses comedy as an escape for the audience. Every time it approaches the war at its darkest; the mud, the artillery, the inconceivable death-toll, it pulls back, throwing you some comical aside to lighten the tone. I've even seen some critics describe Valiant Hearts as "charming" and find myself deeply uncomfortable with that descriptor. World War One was a lot of things. Harrowing, surreal and, as Blackadder shows, utterly ludicrous. But I highly doubt that ever once was it charming.

And this is a damn shame, because at times the contrast between those pleasant animations and the horror of the events is very powerful, particularly at the end. It nears that same clarity of juxtaposition the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir used to such devastating effect. But only intermittently.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review
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As Valiant Hearts struggles to hit the right tone, so it struggles to find a systemic strength. Approximately fifty percent of your time is spent solving puzzles, with the remaining half is split between a stealth, "action" sequences where you try to survive trench assaults, and those strange musical driving sections I mentioned earlier. All of this it achieves to a satisfactory degree, but nowhere does it excel.

That said, I am sure of where the game is at its best, and that's when you're solving puzzles with the aid of a German medical dog. The dog can access areas you often cannot by squeezing through conveniently placed tunnels. In addition, you can order him to fetch items and pull certain switches. This inclusion of a second semi-playable character to the proceedings adds sufficient complexity to the puzzling to make it genuinely compelling, as you navigate some pretty expansive areas, slowly figuring out how all the different pieces you pick up fit together. For the most part the puzzles are nicely balanced too, providing a sufficient challenge to your mental faculties without obstructing what is ultimately a character piece.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review
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There are a couple of other niggling issues with Valiant Hearts I want to mention. The first is the truly bizarre decision to have Emile's letters dubbed into English by a man with a heavy cockney accent. Of all the things that interrupt the tonal consistency of Valiant Hearts, this is the worst. The other is simply, argh, collectibles. Please, all games, stop with the pointless collectibles. Valiant Hearts' can be defended to an extent by the fact that they're linked to historical fact-sheets that are included in the game. But stopping every five minutes to read them makes the whole experience intolerably slow. Moreover, they wouldn't be necessary at all if Valiant Hearts succeeded in conveying its message in the way it clearly wants to.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review
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It's important to emphasise that Valiant Hearts isn't ever a bad game. But it doesn't achieve what it sets out to do; convey the horror of war through an aesthetic we usually associate with childhood joy. It's particularly interesting to compare Valiant Hearts to the last war game we reviewed, Sniper Elite 3. Sniper Elite is entirely cold and mechanical, concerned only with bullet trajectories and Nazi anatomies. It contains the merest scraps of humanity, but it succeeds in what it attempts. Valiant Hearts, on the other hand, is almost too human, afraid to look the cold and brutal war-machine in the eye. And this, sadly, is where it falls down.
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