Platforms: PS3 | PS4 | Xbox 360 | Xbox One | PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier (internal team)
Games tend to shy away from World War One as a potential setting, and it's easy to see why. The miserable, hopeless carnage of trench warfare simply can't equate to fun or entertainment in a traditional sense without totally trivialising the conflict, instead only allowing niche titles to explore it in any meaningful way.
So it's refreshing to see a small Ubisoft Montpellier team approaching The Great War from an entirely new perspective, a 2D puzzle adventure that focuses not on the battles, but on the people, teasing out the humanity behind it. Valiant Hearts is very much a labour of love for its 15-strong studio, drawing on real letters from the front lines that never made it home for inspiration, and real events and photographs to anchor players in the setting. Throughout its ten-to-twelve hours, you'll experience the reality of World War One through the eyes of five diverse characters on both sides of the trenches, whose stories ultimately conspire to bring two lovers together. Thanks, in no small part, to a heroic dog.
"We take you from 1914 to 1918," director Adrian Lacey told us during a recent preview event in Paris, "and basically these five protagonists intertwine as they go through their journey. The foundation of the story is to bring Karl [a German soldier] and Marie back together, it's a love story, and it's how all the perspectives of each character goes within that story. Their perspective of the war, why they're in the war."
The idea for Valiant Hearts is based on a series of letters and correspondence sent out from soldiers and military personnel that never arrived at their destination, granting the dev team a wealth of human stories to draw upon. "The letters were different elements that were found from different people, sent out but getting lost," Lacey explained. "We started reading through a handful of them, and picking out little stories that we found interesting, a different perspective on the war. One of the guys has stuff from his great great grandfather and grandmother, we work a lot with historians, we found a lot of this stuff." Alongside the letters, Ubisoft are doing their best to ensure historical accuracy with input from historical experts and period photographs, capturing some of the pivotal events and offensives of the conflict.
When it comes to gameplay, Valiant Hearts is described as a "2D puzzle adventure," functionally playing out a little like Limbo or The Cave but with an emphasis on logical problem solving over platforming. Each character progresses through the levels by completing a series of environmental puzzles, using their unique abilities or equipment to advantage as the battles or grinding misery of everyday life takes place around them.
The first character we saw in action was Emile, a French prisoner of war put to work as a cook by the Germans. Shackled and bound, he slowly limps around the tutorial stage making food for the troops (rotate wheel to pour water, light fire, add sausages - simple introductory fare), but the first heavy British artillery bombardment sees his position all but destroyed and the troops routed. Emerging from the rubble free and unharmed, he was then able to start escaping through the bombed-out facility, using his physical strength to manipulate munitions carts to counterbalance platforms and activate lifts. It's clear that his chapter will revolve around non-violent physics puzzling, with the occasional 'what next?' logical moment thrown in.
"Lucky" Freddy, meanwhile, is very different. A former Foreign Legionnaire driven to the front lines via a fleet of volunteer taxis (this really happened), he's an expert with explosives, and uses a satchel of grenades to manipulate the environment in fairly drastic ways. Aiming his ordinance with the thumbsticks or DualShock 4 trackpad, Freddy destroyed obstacles and freed a ladder to bypass a German machine gun nest, distracting and sneaking past some guards before blowing up a bridge. With both light stealth gameplay and artillery-esque aiming, there'll clearly be plenty of variety on the gameplay front throughout the five chapters. That said, we hope that the puzzles become more interesting and nuanced than these simplistic early obstacles.
Each character's story is connected by a dog, colloquially referred to as "Walt" or "Walter" by the team (though this may not be his official name). This canine companion is a "loving" and "giving" friend who doesn't need to be babysat, instead helping out your character by digging up hidden items, alerting you to important puzzle solutions and occasionally fetching useful things. Again, the PS4 touchpad provides a more tactile way of engaging with your furry pal, such as cuddling and petting him with finger strokes or lobbing a bone for him to bring back, tail wagging. The dog will also be playable in his own chapter, as far as we know.
"I wanted to do a dog for a very long time," Lacey continued. "Dogs were regularly used in the trenches to transport messages back and forth, but they were also used for psychological reasons, so you have empathy, to maintain empathy. It creates a bond. It's that emotional attachment we like to play with." Frankly, we love him already. Can we keep him?
The relatively simple gameplay we saw was only a tiny sample of what to expect from the finished product, especially since it's very much still a work in progress. Indeed, its stylish artwork was still being created live at the preview event itself by a single designer, Paul Tumelaire, who was hard at work translating a photograph of a train directly into a hand-painted scenery element thanks to the versatile UbiArt Engine.
"It's very easy," he told us, still sketching away with his stylus. "I draw this train, and after the drawing is a good size, I just click and import it into the engine. For artists like me, who've been working on games for a long time, it's fantastic." Artists can turn their work directly into sprites or backgrounds without losing a single virtual brush stroke, allowing genuinely beautiful games to take shape with less fuss than using traditional development tools. It took Ubisoft long enough to fully embrace Rayman Origins' UbiArt engine, but the results are visually superb. Tumelaire also told us that letters, documents and stories passed down from his great grandfather also helped to inform the game, even including a real medal that players can find in the game as an artefact.
Valiant Hearts is out next year on current and next-gen digital distribution platforms, effectively meaning PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC (Steam was explicitly mentioned, if you're not digging on Uplay). It's being designed with an episodic release format "in mind," though we suspect that buying all of the content will add up to the price of a single digital release if Ubisoft ultimately go down that road.
It's great to see Ubisoft supporting smaller, more innovative projects alongside the major franchises, and the developers are thrilled at having the opportunity. "Having worked on Triple-As and lots of different kinds of games, I think it's really interesting to explore these subjects and the emotions that come with it," Lacey concluded. "It's a different approach, and this kind of game allows us to explore that much better. It's just more fun; it's a small team, very iterative and very fast - and it's fun!" We hope that the finished article manages to fulfil its ambitious remit by providing engaging gameplay to match the storyline and art direction when it releases next year.
Disclosure: Ubisoft paid for return Eurostar travel to Paris, one night's accommodation and refreshments during the Digital Days 2013 preview event.