Finding a good squad-based RTS since Company of Heroes and Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War has not been easy. In point of fact, it’s gotten pretty darned difficult. So imagine my surprise when The Valiant popped up on our radar. I wasn’t quite sure how it would turn out, but it looked to have most of the boxes checked. Squads? Yup. Heroes? Yup. Exciting gameplay that is easy to learn but difficult to master? Ehhh…
The Valiant puts players in the armor of Theoderich von Akenburg, a knight from one of the crusader orders operating in the Holy Land between the Fourth and Fifth Crusades. In the wake of an attack on an enemy fort, Theoderich and his commander, Ulrich von Grevel, come across part of an artifact known as the Rod of Aaron. Ulrich quickly goes power mad, forcing Theoderich to leave the order and return home to the Holy Roman Empire. Five years later, Ulrich starts rampaging across the Germanies, looking for the remaining pieces of the artifact. Enlisted by a monk who wants to stop Ulrich, Theoderich takes up the cause and embarks on a campaign taking him back to the Holy Land, with stops in Italy and the Byzantine Empire along the way. Over the course of sixteen missions, you’ll face treacherous mercenaries and alpine barbarians, recruit a band of heroes who’ll accompany you on your adventures, and gather up equipment to make yourself even harder to kill. And when that’s all done, you can go into multiplayer and test your skills against other players, or take on the “Last Man Standing” horde mode with two of your buddies.
There’s no shortage of eye candy in The Valiant, even if it’s not necessarily as flashy as other titles. Character animations are nice and fluid, though the characters themselves may feel a tiny bit blocky. Still and all, there is a lot of character in the designs, and they’re distinctive enough you won’t have trouble remembering what certain characters look like. Weather effects are well done, as well as special effects like fire and shrapnel from siege engine projectiles. Of particular note is that parts of the map where you’ve had a big fight previously look like there’s been serious battle, with bodies laid out everywhere to mark your passage, though actual blood does seem to be oddly minimal. Cutscenes which preface the current scenario make good use of the game’s engine, while cinematics resembling illuminated manuscripts help fill in the details between scenarios. If there’s any stumbling block, it’s in the UI, which we’ll get to a little bit later.
There’s a good amount of work to be found in the audio. The voice cast does an excellent job and deliver a range of good performances. There are a couple wince-inducing lines here and there, but for the most part, you’re getting well developed characters. The music is appropriately swelling and orchestral at times, moody and subdued at others. You can easily pick up the clash of arms, the barks from units as they warn you they’re about to die, and the crash of rubble and debris as you trash an enemy structure.
As hinted at in the opening, when looking at The Valiant‘s gameplay, you find some problems. These are not life threatening or enjoyment killing, but they definitely hinder the fun, and they do so in some deeply ridiculous ways. The first strike is the lack of a manual save mechanism. There is clearly a hidden checkpoint autosave system in place, as evidenced by the question of whether you want to resume play from a checkpoint should you quit out of the game earlier. I can appreciate the desire not to let players scum save their way through the game, but having to redo an entire mission because you misinterpreted the situation at a critical point is not something which engenders a sense of enjoyment.
The second strike comes through playing the campaign. For a good chunk of it, you’re capturing various “replenishment camps” which allow you to heal up troops who’ve been injured (which is good), but do not allow you to purchase new troops (which is less good) despite the functionality being there. You’re given a very limited number of regular troops every scenario, and it feels like if you pick the wrong ones, you’ve fatally hobbled yourself, which basically requires the aforementioned scenario restart. Looked at another way, you’re constantly shackled to certain regular troop types because your hero units are basically the same unit types with special abilities which also grant basic enhancements to those regular types. Without corresponding regular units, the hero unit enhancements feel wasted even though they’re applied to the hero itself. Speaking of the hero units, you can respec their skill trees at the start of each mission, but it almost feels like you have to specialize in a single tree rather than spread your points out to create well rounded characters.
The third strike comes in the actual implementation of your troops and the clash of arms you’ll be regularly engaging in. The maps are big, to be sure. And as such, this is one of the few games where cavalry units really can shine as both combatants and as scouts, covering a lot of territory quickly to locate the enemy, yet have the means to take some hits before withdrawing. All units have both vigor (stamina, essentially) and health bars. Hero abilities can help replenish vigor, keeping units in the fight longer, as well as unique “vengeance” attacks that charge up as you fight. Rarely do you have to stand your ground to the bitter end, and often falling back to let units replenish their vigor is a sound tactical decision, however much it might draw out the ultimate length of the scenario. And certain “elite” units as well as enemy boss heroes can drop pieces of gear which you can pick up for later use for your own heroes, modifying their abilities and damage output.
However, this is where the UI begins to hamper gameplay. Regular units and heroes can pick up consumable weapons like throwing axes and “Greek fire” bombs to help deal with charging enemies. The problem is that using consumables requires you to either define a flight path or circle of effect, and by the time you get around to doing all that, the enemy units have already cleared their way past where they could be damaged by it and thus wasting the weapon. Ambushes are theoretically possible, but in practice, you’re more likely to be ambushed than pull one off yourself.
As for structures like watchtowers, palisades, and fixed units like catapults, you don’t get a whole lot of opportunity to build them. The few times you do, if you misplace the structure, you’re pretty thoroughly screwed because the game gave you the wrong information about the direction the enemy was coming in from. By the same token, in at least one scenario, if you don’t have the camera pointed just the right way, you’re going to waste a lot of time trying to batter down gates with catapults because you need to lob them against the gate specifically rather than the indestructible gatehouse around it.
It’s good that we’re getting games like The Valiant again, after what seems like a long drought in the RTS space. For fans of the genre as a whole, this is certainly one to take the edge off if you’re tired of playing Company of Heroes for what seems like the umpteen millionth time. Just keep in mind that it’s a lot more up close and personal, and that the fighting still moves fast even when the troops are using swords and crossbows.
Axel played The Valiant on PC with a review code.