Platforms: PC | PS3 | PS4 (tested) | Xbox 360 | Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier (small internal team)
Hand on heart: I've never played anything remotely like Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Perhaps that's not technically true. As a 2D puzzle adventure with simple yet engaging mechanics, we've had plenty of seemingly similar games to choose from over the last few years, but the tiny passionate team behind this UbiArt-powered title have managed to create an experience that would been laughed out of boardrooms across the industry.
Consider a game set in the grim battlefields of World War One... but with puzzles instead of visceral combat. A story that makes no-one the villain, instead focusing on the real people on both sides of the conflict and their personal dramas. A stylised and cartoony visual treat hand-drawn by a single designer, that still manages to flesh out strong characters with a bare minimum of dialogue. Featuring brainteasers that challenge players while not bogging down the all-important plot. Inspired by a small museum of correspondence and artefacts from the front, educating us about real events without becoming horribly depressing.
In effect, Valiant Hearts is too ridiculously left-field and experimental to exist by conventional AAA publishing logic, yet here it comes courtesy of Ubisoft. Having spent several hours playing the latest production build at their Guildford UK headquarters, accompanied by associate producers Gregory Hermittant and Guillaume Cerda, I can report that it promises to be rather special indeed.
You'll laugh, you'll cry and you might just learn something too - so long as the finished article matches our impressions so far.
Valiant Hearts is very much a labour of love for its 15-strong studio, drawing on an enormous wealth of real letters from ancestors of the development team alongside photographs, rare video footage and documented events to anchor players in the setting. After amassing what equates to an impressive museum of memorabilia and documentation from flea markets and libraries, the tiny development team plucked up the courage to ask Ubisoft for the green light... and unlike most publishers out there, they said yes. According to Hermittant, they've been incredibly supportive while granting the small internal studio a degree of freedom that's rarely afforded to AAA titles.
Throughout the campaign, you'll experience the reality of World War One through the eyes of five diverse characters on both sides of the trenches, whose bittersweet stories intertwine and ultimately conspire to bring two lovers together. Of course, you'll experience all the misery and horror of the Great War too, often in unflinching detail. I'm loathe to spoil major details -- after all, Valiant Hearts hinges on its cast and puzzles -- but we'll keep things as simple as possible.
Each character shares similar controls (thumbstick moves them around, while X and Square deal with interactions), yet facilitate very gameplay styles depending on their specific skillset and situation. Take Emile: a peaceloving old farmer who's conscripted into the French army and forced to leave his only daughter alone, her German husband having been deported due to his nationality. His early puzzles introduce us to the woefully brief training and tragically upbeat attitude of new soldiers with simple 2D logic and spacial awareness problems, simple to pull off thanks to streamlined real-time navigation, one-object inventories and on-screen prompts. It's reminiscent of The Cave to some extent; leaving us free to focus on the solution at hand rather than worrying about fiddly execution.
He's soon captured and forced into nigh-slavery by the German forces following a hopeless rout, though, swapping his infantry colours for rags, chains and a trusty ladle. These tools remain relevant throughout the game -- his ladle, for example, can be used as a makeshift spade to dig under chlorine gas positions or bonk a German on the Pickelhaube in a pinch. More importantly, though, he meets Walt the dog - who pulls all the characters together.
Walt really is man's best friend. He'll sniff out hidden objects and fetch them for you using intuitive on-screen commands. He'll operate levers and drag injured soldiers out of the fire. And, of course, the developers cynically put him in danger from time to time to really get our blood pumping and emotions raging. Don't you dare kill him!
Other playable characters offer a different perspective on the war, their own unique human dramas set within the well-documented carnage, while also switching up the pace of the gameplay. "Lucky" Freddy is based on a real legionnaire with extra details added for flavour: an American demolition expert who joined the French army to avenge his former life and hunt a particular German regiment.
Freddy's motivations weren't entirely made clear during the contact time (beyond a tantalising glimpse of a once happy and exceptionally wealthy man brought low... somehow), but regardless, his puzzles revolve around Worms-style artillery objectives alongside some light non-lethal stealth into the bargain. Can you topple a machine gun nest with a grenade or blow up a bridge without wielding a gun of your own? Despite his vengeful motives, Freddy never kills and there's no direct combat, instead presenting perfectly-paced puzzles based on timing and careful aim.
Hermittant told me that balancing these puzzles were playtested to destruction in an effort to make them challenging without becoming frustrating or stopping players from seeing out their emotional rollercoaster to the end. The eyecatching art direction is critical, presenting subtle visual (hence non-verbal) cues about what you're supposed to be doing and whether or not backtracking is necessary without explaining exactly what to do in patronising fashon. I'm happy to report that, judging by what I played, they're right on the money. An optional hint system is also available if absolutely necessary.
Anna, a precocious Belgian medic who enlists to return to her occupied homeland, presents yet another side of the war through her own personal story. She starts out in Paris during a well-documented and fascinating real event, wherein the French army requisitioned Parisian taxi cabs to ferry soldiers to the front. I vaguely remember learning about it during the school Battlefield trip all those years ago. Swept up in the action, she uses her medical skills and powers of observation to repair a broken taxi, before engaging in a driving section that resembles an automotive ballet set to period music. Ubisoft's skill at matching animation with a perfectly-timed soundtrack underpins the best moments of Rayman Legends, and they're still on fine silly form.
Of course, once she reaches the front lines, jollity gives way to the harsh realities of battlefield medicine. Anna saws off legs, makes makeshift crutches, administers crude anaesthetic and desperately triages wounded soldiers - both through logic inventory puzzles and a simple minigame. I don't know what happens if you fail, but expect the worst.
Valiant Hearts looks gorgeous, which is down to both the UbiArt engine and Paul Tumelaire. The creative director behind the project is singlehandedly responsible for creating every asset and animation in the game; a surprisingly easy if time consuming task thanks to UbiArt's unique selling point: allowing artwork to be instantly transferred into the game with no loss of quality at the 1080/60 performance holy grail. When I first saw Valiant Hearts in Paris last year, I had a brief chat with Tumelaire while he was sketching a steam train on his tablet. This time around, his locomotive had become a scenery object, backdrop and platform in the production build - losing none of the fine detail in the process. We're thrilled to see both Child Of Light and Valiant Hearts make devastating use of Rayman Legend's foundations, and hope they're the first of many. Inexpensively license it to indie developers, please Ubisoft!
The comic book art style was also a conscious decision, not just to streamline production, but to pack the game with metaphor and meaning. As an example, Cerda explained that all the main characters are designed with no visible eyes, which symbolises their desire to hide the horrors they've witnessed from others. However, children and animals do sport large expressive eyeballs... I'm not going to patronise you by explaining why, but be aware that every tiny detail has been laboured over for a reason.
On the subject of tiny details, Valiant Hearts is full of collectible items with optional text descriptions that flesh out the reality of soldiering and trench warfare. Many players will gloss over it, but I found these morsels of information truly fascinating as it helped to fill gaps in my own knowledge while subtly reminding us that The Great War really happened.
The characters aren't elves or space marines. They're inspired by real people who actually lived, struggled and died in World War One - and makes their plight hit home all the harder. Indeed, I genuinely believe that schools could set Valiant Hearts as the best history homework ever, as it manages to entertain and educate without being... well... without being edutainment.
Valiant Hearts releases on June 25th for PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. It shouldn't exist by conventional logic, but we're so very glad it does. Here's hoping the finished product can live up to its clear potential and the expectations of the passionate artists behind it. Will it be replayable? Can it provide a satisfying resolution? Will it provide decent value?
"There's room for all kinds of game in this industry," Hermittant told me. I hope Valiant Hearts proves him right.