I’m halfway through Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft Montpellier’s adventure game set during World War 1. Billed as a “story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart”, VH‘s heart is in the right place — but its execution can be frustratingly inconsistent.
As with Ubisoft sibling Child of Light, VH‘s most noticeable strength is its presentation. The art is as lovely as its subject is grim: in eight hours, I’ve already taken 286 screenshots (several are at the bottom of this post). Environments are packed with detail, from the lights of pre-war Paris to a lonely skeleton buried beneath a trench, not far from a rusty shovel. Since that sequence calls for you to tunnel under the same trench, the shovel is a sobering touch. Who was that luckless sapper? We will never know — and that, I think, was the developers’ point.
At Valiant Hearts‘ best, its mechanics reinforce that point. In an inversion of video gaming’s usual power fantasies, some of VH‘s most effective sequences involve artillery, machine guns, and the helplessness and fear they create: at one point, I crossed through a machine gunner’s field of fire, realised I’d have to make a return trip, and felt a rush of dread. On another occasion, as I prepared to rush past another MG nest, my hands went sweaty on the controller. How much worse must real soldiers have felt?
However, VH‘s puzzles — bread and butter for an adventure game — are a mixed bag. My favourite puzzle so far required me to find a clean sock for barter… simple enough, except the only sock around was snagged on a roll of barbed wire. When I grabbed it, a historical blurb popped up to inform me about barbed wire and the soldiers who died on it. When I carried the sock, it buzzed with flies. Clearly, I had looted it from a man who died on the wire — with his body gone, only the putrid sock was left. The game never spelled it out, but that one item spoke volumes.
More often, though, VH relies on typical adventure game fare, such as a preoccupation with switches and levers. In other games I would not bat an eyelid at finding a gear in a closet, hauling it around a trench, and using it to operate a door, but here it produces a mismatch between theme and mechanics. A second, similar failing relates to narrative. One of VH‘s principal themes is the humanity shared by both sides — one of the protagonists is a German married to a Frenchwoman; another is his French father-in-law. That makes it all the more jarring when the antagonist turns out to be a cackling supervillain with a penchant for bizarre steampunk weaponry, and as with my previous complaint, I feel this dilutes the story that VH tries to tell.
I should be clear — I like Valiant Hearts, and it does a lot right. But I can’t help but feel that with just a little more focus, it could have been even better.