Thursday, March 26, 2015

Heartfelt History Brought to Life - The Valiant Hearts Take Your Time Review

Quick Note: Old school adventure game steeped in real history, Valiant Hearts is great for anyone looking to relax and learn at the same time. If you're jonesing for deep action and fast paced game play, look elsewhere, but this game is proof of how a fun game can be entertaining to the point you don't even realize you're learning something.   

History is such a large and vast subject that it is so hard to dive into without skipping entire sections of it or glossing over details. So making a game aimed at one specific historical event is a daunting task for any studio. However, Ubisoft Montpellier has pulled it off with Valiant Hearts by focusing on the characters affected by the Great War while presenting the game in such a way that you learn something without even realize you're being taught.

Valiant Hearts spans the time from the start of World War I through just before the United States joins the war, with the story and characters inspired by the events of The Great War as well as letters and other pieces of memorabilia from those who lived it. The characters are fictitious, but they are so well written it and carry so much of the weight of the time period it doesn't matter. 

Throughout the course of the game, players will jump perspectives between four characters that are connected through an overarching narrative. Emile is a Frenchman with a young daughter who is pregnant with her husband Karl's child. Working on the family farm, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand turns France into a paranoid country, one that forces all immigrants, including the German native Karl, out. 

The art style is unique and works to accentuate both the horrors of war and the human element very well.
It's at this point that Emile is drafted into the French army and the game really kicks in, leading Emile to various historical battle sites within France and Germany. Along the way Emile meets American solider Freddie, who has been living in France for some time, and military nurse Anna, whose father has gone missing. Throughout the game the player will spend time with each character and learn more about the circumstances that have put each individual into this terrible time in history. Though mechanically there is very little variation between them, each character has a unique personality and back story that makes them stick out and feel real. I found myself quite often empathizing with each person's plight as the story moved forward, and the way each character connects with another is fascinating. Each character also spends time with the dog Walt, who has a helpful personality of his own and helps tie all the characters together. Needless to say, by the end of the story I teared up because I felt so much for each of these people I played as. 

The depth of the story and characters is even more surprising when you take into account the cartoon art style. Utilizing the same engine as Child of Light and Rayman, the game is 2D and colorful, with the barren and grey battlefields broken up by vibrant red airplanes and explosions. The characters also do not talk, which means each scene is acted out. This fits well with the art style of the game, giving it an almost puppet show like feeling. I think it was smart to only use one voice actor for narrating between scenes, because otherwise the dissonance between the art style and voice acting would cause Valiant Hearts to lose some of it's charm and feel more generic.  

Puzzles are entertaining, but not really brain busting.
Game play wise, Valiant Hearts isn't new or complicated. Since each level is 2D, the game requires the player to move the characters back and forth to collect items and solve puzzles. These puzzles often utilize the environment as hazards, showing just how dangerous it was for the people involved,, which helps not only invest the player into the characters, but also better understand their plight. Most of the puzzles are fairly simple, such as collecting item A to get item B from another person and use item B to leave the area. However, there are a few that had me scratching my head more than once. Thankfully, the development team saw this ahead of time and instituted a simple hint system that delivers more hints the longer the player is stuck.  

Walt to the rescue!
Walt also comes into play with the puzzle solving, helping get to items that are hard to reach due to location or enemy proximity. All you really need to know about the game play is this: if you like puzzles and old school point and click adventure games you'll be right at home. 

Aside from the characters, the best part of Valiant Hearts has to be the collectibles and the history they deliver. The team at Ubisoft Montpellier partnered with a World War I documentary crew behind Apocalypse, a five part look into the history of World War I. Each artifact has a significance to it in the fact that it has history behind it. 

I learned more from this game on World War I than my entire educational career, and it wasn't painful for a second.
On the one hand, reading about these historical facts is immersion breaking and takes time away from the game. But this was never a problem for me. Each fact was fascinating, especially since I knew very little about World War I to start with. Each collectible added to my knowledge. Each location unlocked new information for me to read and absorb, which in turn made me realize just what trouble our cast was in. It's hard to instill learning into a game without it feeling forced or tucked away from the player, but the historical accuracy of the game alone helps the player learn about the time period while enjoying the game and the story, and the optional collectibles help build a better understanding of the whole picture while teaching the player, if they so choose. It's a brilliant balance, one that many serious games should look at. 

Despite pulling you away from the action for a minute or two, the collectibles are tied to so much interesting information it's worth the break.
I keep making comparisons between Valiant Hearts and educational games, and there's a reason for that. Though Valiant Hearts isn't a game made for educational purposes it certainly taught me a lot about The Great War that I did not know before. It's like watching a very good, historically accurate movie: you come for the engaging story and leave with more knowledge than you intended without feeling like someone has preached to you for hours. It's a fragile balance that is walked well in Valiant Hearts, and if you're looking for an interesting story with compelling characters, I implore you to give it a shot. You never know what you'll walk away from the game with.

8.5 out of 10

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