Friday, September 4, 2020

Valiant Hearts: The Great War

 Valiant Hearts The Great War.jpg

All Quiet on the Western Front: The Videogame

On June 28, 1914, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb Yugoslav nationalist, assassinated the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, in Sarajevo, while dining on a sandwich, inciting the First World War, initially termed the Great War. To commemorate the conflict’s centenary, Ubisoft Montpellier developed the action/puzzle game Valiant Hearts: The Great War, which follows several different characters on both sides of the conflict, eventually porting it to the Nintendo Switch in a bundle with fellow Ubisoft title Child of Light. Is the game a fitting tribute to the memory of the war or does it do injustice?

Valiant Hearts is divided into four chapters in turn split into several sections, with the player alternating between controlling four different characters: French soldier Emile, his German son-in-law Karl, the American soldier Freddie, and the Belgian nurse Anna. Each character can also give orders to a dog named Walt, necessary to solve the puzzles that frequently come throughout the game. The narrative is generally enjoyable and never feels dull, given the alternation between perspectives, not to mention historical tidbits and diary entries by each character, with only a few minor errors in the text.

Each character has specific moves: Freddie can cut through barbwire with pliers, Karl can punch debris to get past it, Emile can dig through soft ground with a shovel, and Anna can tend to the wounded with timed button presses. There are also plenty of minigames, such as dodging obstacles, bombs, cannonfire, and such while driving an automobile, and the occasional boss battle that requires throwing dynamite to damage the enemy when it explodes. Fortunately, in regards to some of the gameplay such as driving down a road, there are mid-minigame checkpoints that effectively minimize wasted playtime.

Moreover, if the player finds himself or herself stuck on certain puzzles, the game gives a visual hint after a minute or so, with a higher difficulty setting disabling these hints. Granted, some of these tips would at times have benefitted from textual descriptions, since I found myself stuck on one without referencing the internet, and in places such as passageways difficult to see, there are no hints at all. Regardless, the mechanics generally serve the game well, and the constant automatic record of the player’s progress even more minimizes wasted playtime, with hardly any cheap puzzles.

Regarding the save system, there’s unfortunately no way to record progress manually, alongside the absence of an in-game clock and aforementioned potential to get stuck at times without hints being available, but the other areas of control are generally good, with the ability to pause anytime, the ability to skip cutscenes, and so forth. Ultimately, Valiant Hearts interfaces decently with players.

Valiant Hearts doesn’t have a lot of memorable original music, aside from a beautiful piano theme on the title screen that plays at certain points during the narrative, although there are plenty of public domain tunes such as France and America’s national anthems, some classic music such as the French can-can, “Flight of the Bumblebee,” and so forth. The voice acting, which mainly consists of narration during cutscenes between the gameplay, is good, as are the voices for the various characters of different nationalities, and overall, the game is easy on the ears.

The visual presentation is also above average, focused on 2-D artwork, with nice and diverse color schemes that very well paint a picture of wartime Europe. The character sprites also contain an interesting, if slightly unusual, design, where no characters have eyes, with helmets covering them in the case of soldiers on the different sides of the conflict, along with some standard videogame effects such as sprites disappearing and reappearing when going through doors. There are also colorized photos accessible in the game menus when looking at facts about the First World War, not to mention good 3-D effects in regards to the scenery and fluid animation of the scenery. Ultimately, a great-looking game.

Finally, playtime runs about six hours, with the primary sidequest being the collection of artifacts that reveal additional tidbits about the Great War, players able to jump to certain chapters and subchapters and/or view the cutscenes without the need to redo the gameplay. There are otherwise no special achievements, but the game definitely has a sense of lasting appeal.

In the end, Valiant Hearts was one of the more enjoyable non-RPGs I’ve experienced in a few years, given strong suits such as its accommodating gameplay, the excellent storyline with endearing characters, and the beautiful audiovisual presentation. It does, however, have some minor issues regarding things such as the lack of text for the hints (which are otherwise very helpful at points), the inability to record progress manually, and the absence of significant original music. Regardless, I don’t regret experiencing this game, and while I hate to make the analogy, it’s in my opinion what Ico should have been, given the less-frustrating emphasis on puzzle-solving and similar storytelling.

This review is based on a playthrough of the physical European Nintendo Switch version bundled with Child of Light, purchased by the reviewer.

The Good:
+Puzzles are enjoyable, with good in-game hints.
+Game fully pausable, scenes skippable.
+Mid-minigame checkpoints.
+Great story, with historical background.
+Good public-domain soundtrack.
+Pretty visuals.
+Artifact collection adds lasting appeal.

The Bad:
-Textual hints would have been nice at times.
-No manual saving.
-Not enough original music.

The Bottom Line:
What Ico should have been.

Score Breakdown:
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Game Mechanics: 8.0/10
Controls: 7.0/10
Story: 9.5/10
Music/Sound: 9.0/10
Graphics: 8.0/10
Lasting Appeal: 9.5/10
Difficulty: Variable
Playing Time: ~6 Hours

Overall: 8.5/10

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