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- Child of Light – Review - 7 May, 2014
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Child of Light was, to be kind, an unexpected move from Ubisoft. Seemingly the antithesis of their “blockbusters only” policy, since its unveiling late last year it has been viewed with raised eyebrows by the gamer community. A nostalgic JRPG set in a fairytale world, featuring a young princess as the protagonist, worked on by a small select group of artists and developers and penned by the writer of White Male Power Fantasy Far Cry 3? An odd duck to be sure. For many it was viewed with trepidation-it could easily have been a case of a big publisher jumping on the twin bandwagons of “indie success” and “retro appeal”; a cynical move to hook in an audience growing ever-more weary of a bloated, over-saturated triple-A gaming market.
It was incredibly refreshing then to discover that, in many ways, Child of Light is exactly what we hoped it would be.
The set-up is simple: Aurora, daughter of an Austrian duke, falls deathly ill awakening in the land of Lemuria; a fairytale world of magic that has decayed under the rule of the usurper Umbra. It is up to Aurora to save the land by returning the sun, moon and stars stolen away by Umbra’s dark forces and restore Lemuria’s true queen to the thrown.
It’s solid (albeit well-worn) material that has a clear focus and tells itself well. One of the defining traits of the narrative is that it is written entirely in rhyming verse-as a form of interactive epic poem. It’s a cute idea that gives proceedings a sense of identity and hammers home the core “bedtime story” concept. For the most part it is serviceable, unfortunately there are instances when a rhyme feels forced or the meter wobbles that crop up a little bit more than I would’ve liked to see. Frustratingly most of these could’ve been fixed with a slight tweaking of a line or two. However, as bad as it gets it never feels like a deal-breaker.
Alongside this the game is scattered with moments of gentle wit-such as a Jester chronically incapable of forming rhymes and Aurora’s constant exasperated efforts to convince the locals that she is not a princess (her trademark crown features the word FAUX stamped across its inner rim)-that colour episodes which could easily fall into mawkish and melodramatic territory; even if it stretches a few jokes beyond their sell by date.
From its announcement one of Child of Light’s most remarkable features was its visual design. Featuring a gorgeous hand-drawn aesthetic (thanks to the UbiArt Framework the artists and designers were able to transfer concept art and character designs directly into the game); Child of Light is a treat for the eyes. Each area of Lemuria’s world is brimming with character and the washed-out watercolour tones really sell the notion that you are traversing a once beautiful land turned rotten. Broken temples and dark forests fill the screen, providing incentive to explore every nook and cranny to see just what the art team has to offer, as well as feeling a million miles away from the usual high-end, photo-realistic polygon playhouses that litter the market.
Enemy monsters and allies alike are bold and striking-from fantasy mainstays such as giant spiders to Lemuria’s answer to dwarves and elves-the character designs throughout are arresting and unique. Despite this however, I do wish that an Art Director or Supervisor had produced a final pass on each design, if only for the sake of consistency. Several times it becomes noticeable that certain characters are drawn by different artists which could’ve been avoided with one last round of revisions.
With that in mind it is somewhat hypocritical to discuss how wonderful young Aurora looks in motion. Unlike her companions Aurora is realised in 3D. Now, whilst this can jar with her paint and ink surroundings it gives her access to some wonderful animation-in combat when struck Aurora drops her crown and immediately dashes to pick it up. Likewise, when attacking the way she heaves up her giant sword and falls forward as she swings it is delightful, and has a wonderful economy of character to it-she’s a small girl in over her head, trying to do the best she can. Child of Light is peppered with such small moments that really give it a sense of identity and craft. It’s a passion project and that shines through the entire game.
But it isn’t just a stellar art style that sells the game. Special mention has to go to Montreal-based musician Coeur de Pirate who composed the score. If the visuals suggest a world slowly dying then Coeur’s elegiac work fills it with an almost tangible melancholy, before switching to a much more upbeat style for combat. A personal favourite of mine is the boss theme “Metal Gleamed in the Twilight” a ballsy little earworm that makes every encounter feel suitably epic and really gets you spoiling for a fight.
Simply put the music in this game is a triumph from top to bottom, with only the occasional jump as certain tracks struggled to loop in battle, marring it.
Despite initially billing itself as a traditional JRPG Child of Light would much better be described as an interesting chimera of 2D platformer and turn-based combat.
As Aurora you explore the world of Lemuria, running and jumping across various environs, opening chests and negotiating various hazards such as spikes, lava and other platforming staples. You also encounter the odd puzzle now and again although many of them suffer from a lack of imagination and difficulty. Yes shining a light on an object and directing its silhouette is a nice riff on the classic “redirect the light” puzzles so many in the Legend of Zelda series are guilty of, but by the time I’ve done it in three or more separate instances I don’t need any help figuring it out thank you.
Shortly into the game you are gifted a pair of fairy wings allowing you to fly, opening up each area massively. For the most part your time will be spent traversing to the next battle or story point however there are a wealth of hidden collectables, chests and passages to uncover, as well as optional mini-dungeons, challenge rooms and boss fights that flesh out the experience-it’s diverting but lacking in any great depth.
The real meat of the game, however, is to be found in its combat system. Borrowing liberally from Grandia (anybody else remember that?) battles are turn-based affairs wherein both you and the enemy share a timeline.
At the bottom of the screen an action bar with a large “Wait” section and a small “Cast” section is dotted with portraits of each of the combatants. Once a character (good or bad) has reached the “Cast” section they pick an action-attack, defend, casting spells, using items and so on-with each action taking a specified length of time. Upon reaching the end of the section the character deploys said action.
However, at any time they can be interrupted by another character attacking them, shunting them back into the “Wait” section, and cancelling their attack. It’s a simple system that manages to keep things from feeling too static whilst adding a layer of strategy to things. By careful management of abilities and characters (who can be freely switched in and out of play) it is possible to gain the advantage by repeatedly interrupting and pushing back enemies-effectively preventing them from ever getting a move in. It can take some time for players unfamiliar with the set up to get used to it, but when you manage to successful juggle helpless enemies back and forth it is an incredibly satisfying experience.
To assist you with this Aurora is joined by her firefly friend Igniculus. Controlled with the right thumbstick (or by a second player with another controller) Igniculus can shine his light over friend and foe healing and slowing each respectively. Whilst many earlier fights don’t really require his assistance as the game goes on careful use of him can quickly turn the tide of battle making him an important asset to you.
Alongside this there is a rudimentary crafting system in place that sees you combine various stones into new forms that can be attached to your party to give them various boosts to their stats/resistances and so on. It’s an elegant approach that keeps things streamlined and avoids the convoluted micromanaging of other titles in the genre.
Overall Child of Light’s combat manages to be engaging and entertaining. I would recommend JRPG veterans play on the hard difficulty setting if they want to feel any kind of challenge, but for newcomers it provides a perfect jumping-on point. In fact I would go so far as to say that Child of Light has become my new go-to game for those unfamiliar with turn-based RPGs but are interested in seeing what all the fuss is about.
Child of Light ultimately feels like a success. Whilst it may not feature a story of remarkable complexity it presents it with an earnestness and gusto that makes up for its shortcomings. Whilst some players may be disappointed to hear about its lack of depth I see its simplicity as allowing it to maintain a clear focus, avoiding the needless clutter that many larger games (casually glances toward Ubisoft’s own Assassin’s Creed series) accumulate-and at a run time of between 10-15 hours it lasts long enough to satisfy without outstaying its welcome.
Child of Light for better or worse is a simple game. Small and well-crafted it was never going to be something that would have mass-market appeal. However, for those willing to dip a toe in they will find a game brimming with charm and character that has plenty of fun to offer. Not merely a palette cleanser between now and The Next Big Thing it works hard to forge an identity for itself, without the need to become a massive million-dollar franchise or fill every second with shallow bluster and pizzazz.
No, in a time when an entire industry is choking itself to death on the idea of the next gargantuan blockbuster franchise Child of Light is more than just a gem of a game. It’s a flame burning bright, in a cold and dark night.