Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to ensure a new core of gamers don’t go without some truly unique experiences to enjoy in the first year of next-gen console ownership, which is typically plagued with a lot of unoriginal ideas. Where past hardware has launched with a litany of sports titles, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 began life with a cadre of shooters, and options at retail didn’t get any better as the months went on. Thankfully, experimental and downloadable games have maintained pressure on the development community to continue pushing the industry forward despite a lull in next-generation software.
I’m speaking of Child of Light and Ubisoft’s latest, Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Role-playing games have seemingly stagnated in their attempts to move mechanics forward, but Child of Light presented an engrossing way of doing battle. While that game focused on forcing players to pay careful attention in combat, Valiant Hearts aims to present unique twists on the adventure genre, namely puzzle-solving and quick-time events. While both utilize the UbiArt engine that powered the fantastic Rayman Origins and Legends, I think Valiant Hearts does more with it and feels more interesting to play and look at too.
When the war starts, Karl must leave his home, his wife, and his child in France. His father-in-law, Emile, is also drafted but for the opposite side. The Germans take their own in Karl, but Emile runs through much of the war wielding a ladle after serving as a cook for the French. Players can open up a facts and collectibles menu (by pressing the Triangle button on PlayStation) and learn very real details about the battles each character gets thrust into, but Valiant Hearts displays a penchant for action that other adventure games seem to shy away from.
Often, you’ll wind up charging forward with your regiment or making careful advances to avoid enemy gunfire. The game’s puzzles change to fit circumstances outside of the player’s control and in doing so remain fresh and engaging through each of the four chapters. You might have to strike up a band in the correct order at a train station before you need to find a specific item to progress forward. The game presents comic-book cutouts of action outside of your current vicinity, so a spin in a World War I tank also alerts you to incoming enemy planes and gives you the opportunity to fire back.
You might feel like Valiant Hearts relies on quick-time events a little too frequently, but they stick doggedly to compelling sequences with forgiving checkpoints. The Walking Dead: Season One ends with a particularly gruesome slasher-mechanic to provide players with a sense of driving towards conclusion, but this production of the first Great War offers more than a few opportunities to feel like you actually took part in a big battle.
Early in the game, I was disappointed by static background changes but they quickly fade as you delve further into the story and the adventure. Anna, a field medic with great skill behind the wheel, challenges you to press buttons in rhythm with the patient’s heartbeat, but those are the most unflinching moments of puzzle-solving. Everything else requires you to run around activating switches and levers with the help of a trusty hound that assists every character at one point or another.
There are also several fantastic, musical driving sequences where Anna, behind the wheel, rescues Emile, Karl, and the dog, among others. Ubiart’s unique animation system adds to and enhances the gameplay by providing cues for interactive objects or hazards you must avoid. Gameplay frequently changes to remain appropriate to context, but I never failed to get taken in by bright flashes of fire, heavy clouds of gas, or other exhilarating sequences like the aforementioned driving.
When Anna has to navigate the road from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, I almost immediately hoped for more and the game didn’t fail to deliver. The narrative exudes hopefulness and pays off in a big way at the end, though you may decry a few sequences where the controls can’t keep up with the action. As with any adventure game, you might feel like you need to backtrack a little too much, though the potential for getting stuck is severely limited by a generous hint system. Valiant Hearts could very well be the most poignant World War I game ever made, especially as it tells a tale from both sides of the conflict without getting bogged down in the unnecessarily stupid allegiances and battles that wasted thousands of precious lives.
Review based on PlayStation 4 version. Code provided by publisher. Also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.