Into the Trenches
Ubisoft has pulled a one-two punch with Child of Light and Valiant Hearts. Both games combine moving stories with beautiful music and gorgeous 2D graphics powered by the UbiArt Framework. But while Child of Light was a fantasy, Valiant Hearts is an all-too-real drama about the absurdity of war. It's a true art house game, using cartoonish visuals to comment on the grim reality, almost like what Art Spiegelman's masterpiece graphic novel Maus did with the holocaust.
While Valiant Hearts is an adventure game at heart, it plays utterly differently. For one thing, it's a sidescroller. For another, there's no inventory management - you can only pick up one item at a time, and most of the time that's all you'll need. Puzzles could be a matter of throwing a stick of dynamite the right way, or finding a replacement lever. Actually, there are a lot of levers that need replacing in this game. Probably because everything is always getting bombed.
There's also a surprisingly large amount of action, from sneaking past soldiers, to trying to avoid enemy fire, to running away from the ever-growing shadows of falling bombs. Many adventure games try to incorporate action, but it rarely ends up working so well. Here, the action and puzzles flow and weave together in a way that feels organic. Puzzles become punctuated by the threat of death, to the point where avoiding death becomes part of the puzzle. It makes sense for both the story and the theme, and also allows for surprisingly diverse gameplay. There are several driving sequences where the music and gameplay are synchronize perfectly - much like what Ubisoft Montpellier did with the musical levels of Rayman Legends last year.
A Terribly Tragic Tale
Valiant Hearts features four playable characters: Emile, a cook who is drafted into the French army; Karl, Emile's son-in-law, who is drafted into the German army; Freddie, an American volunteering to fight with the French in order to get revenge on the evil Baron Von Dorf who bombed his wife; and Anna, a battlefield nurse whose father was captured by the very same Von Dorf.
A steady fixture helping all of these characters is a lovable and extremely intelligent dog. This dog is one of the finest canines I've ever seen in a video game. His A.I. is simple, but I can't imagine the experience being the same without him. The dog helps you gather items you cannot otherwise reach, distracts guards while you're sneaking, pulls levers for you, digs up collectibles and even barks at threats you may not be aware of. If this game is to be believed, this dog probably single-handedly won every battle in WWI.
He's even a source of moral support. The player can rub his tummy with the action button at any time, which is simply adorable. And when you complete puzzles, the dog sometimes jumps for joy. Yes, this pooch may not have a name, but he is most definitely the game's true hero.
A War Game That's Anti-War
This game is set in WWI for a reason, and it's the same reason why there aren't many other games that are. The Great War was so harrowing and so pointless that it caused an entire generation to become disillusioned with life. It wasn't like WWII, where there was a big baddie like Hitler that players would want to bring down. WWI had no clear villain—just a lot of killing with no real purpose. This makes it unsuitable for gung-ho titles like Call of Duty—a series that arguably glorifies war—but it makes it the perfect setting for a game like Valiant Hearts.
Beautiful story and graphics; gameplay is surprisingly diverse and well-paced
Narrator is a bit hammy; the gameplay sometimes contradicts the anti-war message