Valiant Hearts: The Great War stuck out amongst the rapidfire game reveals of E3. It looked stunning, there was a little dog and it sought to tell a moving story about the horrors of the First World War. On the first two counts, the game makes good. The latter throws up problems, both in terms of how the game treats death and also in terms of how it's been structured alongside real historical information.
You play as four characters whose lives intertwine. There's Freddie, an American out for revenge; Karl, a German separated from his French partner Marie and their son Victor and now fighting on the German side; Emile, Marie's father who has been called up to fight for the French; and Anna, a Belgian woman working as a medic and seeking her father. The story isn't particularly challenging and barely touches on moral complexity or ambiguity, presumably for fear of losing sympathy for the main characters.
The Valiant Hearts team tries to inject a note of tension by peppering puzzles and story with sections where your character is in danger. There are falling shells, gunfire spattering an open stretch of battlefield or spotlights which expose your position when you're trying to escape capture. You can see the temptation of offering an active threat to players when you're trying to talk about an event which resulted in 8.5 million military deaths and millions more casualties, but its implementation threatens to undermine the whole game. Death in Valiant Hearts is almost always a matter of inconvenience rather than poignance. You died to chlorine gas, did you? Then you'd best respawn at that checkpoint a few metres back and try again. Like all those soldiers did at Ypres.
It's the problem with having a fixed character set and a fixed narrative. There can be no real death unless the writers have decreed it and thus when the player is in control of the action there's no threat. You have a functionally immortal quartet (plus dog) roaming the devastated towns and fields of Europe. It's a dissonance which arrives early on and which the game can't overcome. In fact, in a later chapter the fail animation and the cutscene for 'succeeding' were near identical. Having one then the other in quick succession flagged up the fact I was just being asked to survive long enough for the game to take over and do the appropriate peril for me.
Better were the driving segments where the action is choreographed. You're dodging shells which land to the beats of Flight of the Bumblebee, for example. There's still the death problem but the scenes are more interesting, at least.
The puzzles themselves don't offer too much variation but they're solidly implemented. You'll usually be pulling levers, throwing dynamite sticks and turning cogs, using the dog, Walt, to access any areas too small or dangerous for a human. If you get stuck on any of them there's a hint system which throws up an onscreen alert if you haven't solved a puzzle in a certain time. Useful, but the prompting made it feel like Valiant Hearts was trying to dictate pacing; that the need to solve the puzzles was sometimes getting in the way of the story.
Another oddity is the historical information—the facts and photographs which come via Ubisoft's partnership with the Apocalypse documentary series. Some of the information is integrated into the game but other relevant archive material is flagged up as you play using onscreen prompts. The idea is that you can do some further reading about the subject if you fancy, but it also pulls you out of the story when you do.
The eye-catching art style, the adorable little dog, the choice of a traditional storytelling approach—they all hint at a desire to reach the widest possible (perhaps non-gaming) audience. Add in the factual information and Valiant Hearts feels more like an educational project—something you might find distributed amongst schools or offered through museums.
The official site refers to Valiant Hearts as "an animated comic book adventure." Several times while playing it felt as if an animated film might have been a more logical tack for the project to take. As a game it needed better harmonisation between the interactive elements and the ideas it's trying to express. As it was the tale's lack of complexity and the tension between the storytelling and the interactivity meant I didn't emotionally invest in the characters, which is what the Ubisoft Montpellier team dearly wants. I have cried over everything from Meerkat Manor to mobile phone adverts, but I remained dry-eyed through Valiant Hearts.