If there’s one concrete thing I can say about Child of Light, it’s this: be very, very glad the rest of the IncGamers staff talked me out of writing a review written in rhyme. Ubisoft’s beautiful JRPG experiment is written in a sing-song rhyming style, and after playing it for even twenty minutes, it’s very hard not to start talking in rhyme. Seriously, I’ve been doing that all the time– oh, bugger. Although I suppose it’s not such a crime.
I suppose the other concrete thing to say is that it’s phenomenally beautiful, to the extent that I’d be very, very surprised if this isn’t hands-down the prettiest game of the year. Every time trailers or screenshots have cropped up for this I’ve made mention of how unspeakably gorgeous it looks, and that’s something I’m going to say again here.
Part of the sheer beauty is down to the use of UbiArt, previously used to stupendous effect in the recent Rayman games. Here, the beautiful watercolour art is dynamically affected by lighting – and light plays a huge part of the game. Seeing these gorgeous backgrounds and characters change in tone and illumination as the lights adjust around them is a hell of a thing, particularly when they’re in motion at the same time.
Child of Light puts the spotlight on Aurora, daughter of an Austrian duke who finds herself dragged into the mystical land of Lemuria. She assumes it’s just a dream, but rapidly learns that if she wants to get back home, she’s going to have to save Lemuria from the Queen of the Night by finding and returning the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.
Which is very fairy-tale, and the whole game has that tone. Lemuria has a lot of dreamlike qualities, and that isn’t just due to the plot – the painterly art could be taken from illustrations of a Grimm’s compilation, the animation is careful and deliberate, and even the most incidental bits of writing support the experience as a whole. There’s even something of this in the movement as soon as Aurora learns to fly (which is very, very early on) and you swoop dreamily through the environments, looking for hidden chests and secret items. Aesthetically and atmospherically, Child of Light is a masterclass in design.
It’s not, however, a game aimed squarely at children, and the rather clever combat system speaks to that.
The closest comparison I can make is probably to Final Fantasy X, in that you can swap in party members whenever you like at no cost, and in that it’s largely about manipulating turn times. Let’s have a look at a battle screenshot so that I can try to explain how this works:
Right. That bar down at the bottom? That indicates how far people are from getting a turn. Everyone has a little icon on it, and they start on the left. They gradually move towards the right at different speeds, based on stats and buffs and the like. When they reach the start of the CAST bar, battle pauses and you can choose what action they take – attacking, or casting a spell, or using an item, or whatever. They then carry on moving to the right (with some actions taking more time than others, and thus slowing their progress) and when they reach the end of the CAST bar, they actually complete that action and hit the enemy in the face. So far, so Active Time Battle from basically every SNES RPG Squaresoft ever made.
Where this gets interesting is that, if someone is hit while they’re in the CAST stage of their turn, they’re interrupted and and flung halfway back the WAIT bar.
Suddenly, things take on a bit of a different tone. If an enemy is about to use an attack and one of your characters has just been asked what action they take, should you risk casting a spell or using an attack, in the hopes that they’re going to hit your other party member? Or do you Defend – an instant action that raises your defence and moves you back to the start of the WAIT bar, but speeds up your next turn?
You actually have even more control over the proceedings than this. The mouse is used to control Igniculus, a little firefly chappy who’s helping you out. Moving him over an enemy and holding down the left mouse button has him emit a huge amount of light, slowing the enemy’s progression along their turn. Which means that the combat, really, is all about not getting interrupted, and making sure you’re interrupting the enemies as much as possible so you don’t take damage… unless they have nasty counter-attacks upon being interrupted, in which case you might have to rethink matters.
It’s a wonderful, clever take on traditional JRPG combat that provides something pretty damn unique.
I’ve spent awhile raving about how Child of Light does pretty much everything elegantly and cleverly and beautifully, so it may come as some surprise that… well, I actually didn’t enjoy it very much. Which is really confusing, because I don’t know why.
Maybe some of it’s down to the plot. I like the ridiculous stories of JRPGs, and I like getting invested in the stupendously stereotyped characters and their incredibly obvious character arcs. Here, there’s not a great deal of character growth or surprises, and most of the characters are really based around one character trait, or flaw. It’s a bit Wizard of Oz. This isn’t a bad thing – if anything, it works well within the fairy-tale construct of the entire game, and expecting more out of an RPG that’ll maybe last 12 hours is perhaps a bit much – but it’s perhaps not for me.
Maybe it’s the pacing, which is a little bit off. Pretty much the entire game revolves around the combat, and with maybe two exceptions, you’re basically progressing in a fairly obvious direction across a beautiful environment, fighting enemies and then a boss, and then you’re into the next beautiful environment. The last boss fight pretty much comes out of nowhere (I expected one more dungeon before that, at the very least) and the game is so keen on letting you level up, with at least one of your characters gaining a level after every single fight, that those level ups don’t feel particularly special. You get another point to throw into a skill branch of your choice, but that’s usually just a minor stat gain, so it never really feels big.
Maybe it’s the difficulty of the combat itself, which is really rather low unless you’re fighting a boss, at which point the combat system really comes into its own. This can be mitigated somewhat by playing on Hard, but that leads to a few frustrations of its own: there’s a fair bit of focus on elemental damage (changed, for each character, by equipping them with different crystals) but remembering what each enemy is weak to and what each character has equipped can be a bit of a chore. But then, most of the enemies are actually skippable through use of Igniculus outside of combat, because he can stun them and let you move past, so…
Maybe it’s the fact that the game is full of sodding giant spiders. At least they’re beautifully drawn, beautifully animated eight-legged monsterbeasts, though.
You begin to see my issue. Child of Light has issues, but none of them are particularly catastrophic, and by all rights I feel like I should love it – it’s a beautiful, unique game with some clever features and design tweaks – but I don’t, and I don’t know why. I respect it. I want to see more of it, because if years of experience with Ubisoft have taught me anything, it’s that any sequel will refine these ideas into an ever-more-glorious whole. For now, though… well, Child of Light is special enough that it’s going to get an awful lot of love, and it’s doubtless going to be someone’s game of the year. Alas, it won’t be mine.