Everyone, meet Valiant Hearts. Valiant Hearts, meet everyone. I think you guys are gonna get along pretty well.
Of all the games that Ubisoft had on display at last week's "Digital Day" event, Valiant Hearts: The Great War was the most welcome surprise. Out of nowhere comes a gorgeous, hand-illustrated tale of lost souls finding one another during World War I.
The game, as I saw it demonstrated, looks like a 2D puzzle/adventure game; it's not really an action platformer, and while it's set during World War I, it's not really a "war" game. It stars several playable characters: Emile, a French prisoner of war; Lucky Freddie, an American soldier; Anna, a medic; and George, a British pilot. With the help of a plucky dog, they all set out on their own journeys and while doing so help Karl, a German soldier.
Each character has a special ability, and they'll all team up at various points in the story to make their way around the battlefield and help one another. There's no actual dialogue or text in the game, and characters speak in animated voice-bubbles sort of like in Machinarium. While Valiant Hearts is cute on the surface, it also has the potential to be a real heartbreaker.
The moment the dog turned up onscreen, I asked the developers if he was going to die. This, of course, mostly prompted by Call of Duty dog, who I continue to believe they had better not kill. Ubisoft Montpellier's Kevin Erwin laughed, and told me that no, the dog wouldn't die. I later pressed him for confirmation, and he began to walk it back. The dog probably wouldn't die, but they hadn't made the entire game yet.
They then asked which publication I worked for, and I said Kotaku. The devs immediately began to laugh, saying that they'd all read my Call of Duty Dog articles right as they were working on the game, and that everyone in the office became highly aware of the perils of making a war-game featuring a dog. They even took my picture to show to the team. I happily obliged, hoping that if the people making this game see the face of those their potential dogicide will hurt, they'll decide not to kill their dog.
Like Rayman and Child of Light, Valiant Hearts is another 2D UbiArt Framework game, and it has that same uncanny beauty, like watching a hand-drawn painting fly around onscreen at unnatural speeds. The music is quite nice too, mostly piano themes that call to mind everyone's favorite early 2000's film Amélie. (Okay, maybe just my favorite. Also I haven't seen it in a while. But I really liked it at the time. And I still like the music.)
Valiant Hearts is based in part on the real-world war letters of Felix Chazal, a French soldier and great-grandfather to Yoan Fanise, one of the developers I spoke with. At one point in the demo, we uncovered a digital rendition of one of Felix's dogtags, which Fanise told me was based on the real thing. He then reached into his pocket and showed me this:
His great-grandfather's World War I dogtag. Very cool.
I didn't get to see too much of Valiant Hearts: The Great War in action, but what little I saw see gave me a good sense of it. The puzzles are straightforward and the ones I saw required aiming and throwing objects around the screen in order to bypass simple obstacles; we were using PS4 controllers, and our demonstrator used the touchpad to aim. (He assured me aiming could also be done using the thumbsticks.) It looks like a charming and beautifully drawn tale, one that gives a rare personal perspective on a war that video games often ignore.
It's also steeped in history, to the point that the developers told me the French government has taken an interest in the game. Given that as France is currently getting ready to commemorate the War's centennial, their government has decided to send representatives to play the game and learn more about it.
As cool as it'll be if the French go and make this game an official part of their cultural heritage, I'm looking forward to when we'll get to play it, too. Valiant Hearts will be out on next/current-gen Xbox and PlayStation consoles and PC sometime next year.
Here are some more screenshots: