Platforms: Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC,
Reviewed On: PC
Multiplayer: 2-player Co-op
Ethereal. Beautiful. Wonderous. Fantastical. Dream-like. These are just a few of the words that I can use to describe Ubisoft’s Child of Light which has been built upon the outstanding UbiArt Framework engine, the very same one used to craft the truly brilliant Rayman: Legends.
There is no other way to begin a review of Child of Light than talking about it’s utterly unique and enchanting graphics. It’s like a child’s fantasy brought to life through delicate watercolors and lovingly detailed animation, a painting in motion that frequently forced me to stop my progression in order to admire the backdrops. Although it’s a subtle style, favoring gentle colors over bold, it somehow demands your attention. The push for complete realism seen in other titles can produce breathtaking results that impress entirely through their level of detail, but thus far those types of game have rarely ever managed to elicit the same sense of joy that Child of Light can through its visuals. The sumptuous graphics are backed up by superb audio design, the slapping of the lead character’s bare feet on the ground and gentle tinkling of a piano perfectly suiting the visuals. Indeed, every piece of music throughout the entire game is pretty much perfect. Indeed, this is one of the few gamers where playing it could be aptly described as an experience, a rich treat for the senses. And yes, I know that sounds presumptuous.
You take control of Aurora, a child princess with fire-red hair who lives in Austria in the year 1895, a somewhat surprising choice of background setting, even if it barely impacts the story. One day Aurora goes to sleep, and never awakens, finding herself in a strange world named Lemuria instead, which has had its moon and stars stolen by an evil queen. To the outside world, and especially Aurora’s father, she is all but dead, a still form upon a bed. The stage is set for a magical adventure in which Aurora must not only save Lemuria, but also herself by returning the sun, moon and stars to their rightful place and defeating the evil queen. The story is kept simplistic, and that proves to be a wise choice as it helps keep the child-like sense of wonderment alive, the idea that you’re living through one of the tales told to you when you were lying in bed. There’s almost no voice acting here, rather conversations are handled by static text and rhyming dialogue. It’s a novel idea to have the characters speak solely in verse, and one that often succeeds in enhancing the story-book atmosphere. Indeed, I found myself repeating the dialogue in a sing-song voice on more than one occasion, greatly enjoying the way it flowed from my tongue. However, the entire concept is rather spoiled by the fact that the writers so obviously put more emphasis on making everything rhyme than in actually writing sharp dialogue that even makes sense, resulting in numerous sections that made me wince. Imagine if I had spent all my time attempting to make this entire review rhyme rather than trying to convey important information, or even insuring it was coherent. The desire to make sure every piece of dialogue rhymes often feels forced, and comes at the expense of developing characters or painting more detail into the world.
And yet there’s a question that must be asked; would I really want to lose the rhyming dialogue in order to gain a deeper storyline with stronger characterization? Truthfully, I don’t know that I would. Child of Light’s narrative is painted in broad but effective strokes, following a simplistic, predictable path that is actually somewhat surprising in its lack of darker contrasts so often seen in classic children’s tales. Aurora may never get her charming personality explored as much as characters in other games, yet she’s far more likable than most, as are the entire ensemble of quirky people who join you on your quest, and that’s a direct result of their strange speech patterns – it makes them unique, utterly different in an industry filled with generic personalities who all follow the same beat. There’s Zubrella, for instance the jester who can’t rhyme properly,a trait which sometimes frustrates the other characters, and Finn the cowardly mage who is looking to find his courage through adventure. Perhaps had the developers simply given over more time to writing conversations between the characters to flesh them out my criticism would be redundant.
Exploring 2D world of Lemuria is a mixture of light puzzle solving and equally light platforming. At around just an hour into the game Aurora is granted the power of flight, allowing you to soar through the heavens and opening up the areas you can explore. The mixture of lovely graphics and audio makes exploring Lemuria a wonderfully relaxing experience, free of the break-neck pace so often used. There’s even a small selection of side-quests on offer, and while the rewards for completing them aren’t all that interesting they’re worth doing simply because they add a little more detail to the story, as do collectible confessions found floating around the world. At your side is a trusty companion named Igniculus, a glowing ball of energy that can be controlled using the right analogue stick or keyboard, depending on how you’re playing. His function is to light up dark areas, collect Wishes, blind foes to allow you to ambush them and help out in certain puzzles. He also serves as a way of allowing for co-operative play, with the second person taking control of Igniculus and flitting around the environment. The inclusion of co-op is a nice touch, but as the second player being in charge of Igniculus isn’t all that fun as his role is fairly limited.
Come across a patrolling enemy on your travels and you’ll be transported onto a battlefield on which to fight using a system that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever played a JRPG. Combat is sort of turn-based with three foes facing off against two of your party, with elemental effects playing a large role in proceedings. Certain enemies are weak against fire, others against lighting and so on, and thus you mix up physical attacks with spells, always looking for a weakness to exploit while keeping your own party health with potions. The selection is relatively limited but every move and every character feels neatly balanced so that no option ever becomes truly redundant throughout the course of the game. Rather than presenting you with a myriad of different things to play with the developers have opted to keep the setup simple in order to create a beautifully balanced game.
If it all sounds very familiar you’d be right, but that’s far from everything Child of Light has to offer in its combat. At the very core of it lies a timeline situated at the bottom of the screen which dictates when each character can unleash an attack, guzzle a potion or cast a spell. Different enemies and different members of your team travel across this timeline at varying speeds, and at the end of the bar is a red section called Casting. When a character’s portrait arrives at the beginning of this section time pauses and they can choose from a list of actions, each of which takes a certain amount of time to complete. Defensive moves like healing or creating a shield are always either instantaneous or very quick – a smart choice on the developers behalf – while the rest of your repertoire is more varied. Generally speaking the more powerful the move, or if it affects multiple targets at a time, the longer it takes to charge and unleash. The catch is that if a character is hit during the casting phase the action they’re charging up will be interrupted, resulting in them being sent back down the timeline.
Every battle, then, feels like a tense game of chess as you try to disrupt opponent’s attacks, correctly anticipate their moves and plan out your own. Is it worth going for a hard-hitting fire spell when a creepy spider might just be able to cancel it with a weak but quick strike? Will you enter the casting phase in time to successfully halt a foes potentially devastating strike with a super-quick melee? Maybe you should just hunker down under a shield instead, which will also allow you to move along the timeline faster on the next turn. Learning the ins and outs of the timeline system is integral to Child of Light, and gives combat a completely unique feeling, one which succeeds it making it more dynamic and exciting than turn-based systems usually are. The proudest moments come from perfectly timing a big move that not only does huge damage, but successfully disrupts all three opponents at once. Having several characters in a casting phase at the same time is incredibly dramatic, leaving you to stare at the little red zone, hoping beyond hope that you worked everything our correctly, otherwise a world of pain awaits. It’s a truly ingenious system.
Igniculus also plays a role in combat, as you can hover his glowing form over a victim to slow them down, a power limited by a bar in order to ensure it can’t be utterly abused. Again, it’s a great system that forces you to examine each enemy and decide who needs to be slowed down in order for you to gain the most benefit. At first it may be tempting just to try to hold up the monster furthest down the timeline, but you’ll quickly grow to understand that such a thing is a pointless endeavour if it’s not going to allow you to foil the attack. No, instead you need to be more careful, patiently using Igniculus’ ability to allow you to gain the upper hand. Furthermore the firefly can also be used to provide minor healing to your party, and can gather up mana and health from two plants either side of the screen, which do eventually regenerate but not until quite some time.
The choice to limit you to having a mere two members of your party in a battle at any given time is a rather strange one, and in truth given the nature of the combat it really feels like having three in play would have allowed for more flexibility. However, Child of Light is rather generous in comparison to other RPGs in that it allows you to swap characters mid-battle without penalty. This means you can quickly jump over to someone like Rubella in order to use her speedy melee attack to interrupt a big enemy.
All in all Child of Light’s combat system stacks up very well, and feels like plenty of time and passion were devoted to making it as balanced as possible. If I have but one criticism to bring forth, it’s that the combat doesn’t change very much throughout the course of the game. There’s almost zero new moves to be unlocked, instead you can only upgrade existing ones by making them a bit more powerful or allowing them to be cast on everyone, rather than a single target. New enemy types are introduced at a decent rate, but even they don’t alter things greatly, nor is their much of a challenge, even on the hardest difficulty. The end result is that battles near the end of the game can often feel much like ones from the very beginning, and there’s not much incentive to deviate from tried and test tactics.
As an RPG of sorts there’s the typical levelling system in place, allowing you to spend points earned by beating up the bad guys. At first glance it seems like a very in-depth system with a vast selection of things just waiting to be unlocked, but first impressions are often false, as is the case here. Each character’s skill menu is split into three different linear paths, each of which is bulked out by basic health, magic and strength upgrades that are some small in their improvement that you’ll barely ever notice a difference, especially as you’ll find yourself levelling up every few battles. Only occasionally in each tree is there an opportunity to power up an ability. Indeed, because levelling occurs so often and the difference doing so actually makes, plus the lack of any particularly interesting things to spend points on, I actually began to detest heading into the skill screen, the exact opposite from what I should have been feeling.
While there’s no equipment to be changed things are slightly spiced up through the inclusion of Oculi, special gems that can be gathered from chests around the environment and then combined to create more powerful versions of themselves. Each character has a total of three slots for Oculi, allowing you to add things like fire damage or resistance to earth-based attacks. It’s a basic, but solid idea, although an indicator during combat to remind you which Oculi a character is equipped with would have been appreciated.
Ultimately Child of Light’s biggest flaw lies in its desire to show you everything it has within just the first few hours. Unobtrusive tutorials guide you through the basic foundations of the gameplay pretty quickly, leaving you to use the same mechanics over and over until the end of the game. Even Aurora’s ability to fly is introduced within an hour of playtime. Despite the strong ideas presented and the solid foundations laid, Child of Light has little depth to offer. The new characters that join up with you later provide more options in combat, but even on the hardest setting there’s really ever a need or reason to diverge from tried and tested tactics. It needed to spread itself out a little more, and create a better sense of progression, perhaps offering more unlockable attacks and abilities to use in battle or powers to use while exploring. Whatever you do, though, don’t take this to mean that Child of Light somehow isn’t fun to play – it absolutely is. Even with this relatively significant weakness Child of Light is an absurdly enjoyable game. I was pretty much lost in its world and gameplay until the very end nearly 12-hours later, absorbed in the gorgeous art and enchanting story.
Not only does Child of Light serve to cement Ubisoft as one of, if not the, current greatest large-scale developers, it also happens to be a great game in its own right, the magical blend of audio and visuals creating a game that’s worth playing simply for those two factors alone, and yet on top of that you’ve got a strong combat system, too. It’s not the deepest RPG, nor the strongest storyteller or most accomplished platformer, but it has what so many other games lack; heart.
+ It just looks so damn good!
+ Great combat system.
+ Fairytale atmosphere.
– Rhyming can feel forced.
– Story isn’t all that strong.
– Not much too it.
The Verdict: 4/5 – Great
Child of Light is a brilliant little game brimming with heart, one that you owe it to yourself to play.