Child of Light is a fine-tuned passion project courtesy of Ubisoft Montreal. It plays like an interactive fairy tale that cleverly blends the genres of platforming and traditional turn-based RPG. It recycles from the best of these genres to create something wholly original. Visually, Child of Light is a masterclass in artistic engineering. The soundscape is equally captivating. The final product is a fresh and unpretentious journey (unlike so many other art-games that are overly impressed with themselves) and a whole lot of bang for just 15 bucks. Yet although I enjoyed my time with Child of Light immensely, I come away every so slightly unconvinced. I can’t shake the feeling that some further crafting with a fine-tooth comb would have propelled this splendorous quest to an even higher echelon of masterwork.
You control Aurora, a princess and daughter to an Austrian king. Aurora falls into a deep sleep on Good Friday (inevitably only to rise on Easter Sunday), presumably never to awaken in her father’s arms again. The frame of the fairy tale is a simple coming-of-age narrative that – aside from the weighty Holy Days allegory – remains largely successful because of its simplicity.
However, the plot lacks a degree of depth as consequence to this unfussy fairy tale sensibility. There is a large cast of controllable supporting characters at your disposal, but what little development time each character is allotted ends up feeling contrived or even unnecessary. Much of the dialogue, for that matter, is more distracting than it ought to be. Fortunately, the game’s pacing is superb. Aurora never gets mired down in any one particular activity for too long, whether that’s exploration, battle, or chatting.
The entirety of the game’s text is written in some sort of rhymed verse. This is admirably ambitious, and the rhyming structure gives the game a charming lyrical quality. But I stress “some sort” as there seems to be no discernible meter at play. Couplets and rhyming pairs dominate the writing, but I wondered where the stresses were meant to fall, if anywhere at all. For this reason, often the rhymes seem forced, or at worst, cheap. The poetry relies heavily on hyperbaton and anastrophe, obscuring meaning on a first read. Since the text materializes and disappears in tiny chunklets, I wish there had been an option to either rewind the text or later peruse large portions of what was read in the past. I wanted to see the bigger picture in context, especially since writer Jeffrey Yohalem referred to Child of Light as an epic poem. I wanted to get to know the “epic” as a piece of writing better than I was able within the game itself.
The plot triumphs most in its singular objectivism. Aurora begins the game as just a young girl, and when she wakes up in the strange land of Lemuria, all she knows is she wants to be reunited with her father. Aurora never deviates from this goal, though she evolves along the way. In control of Aurora, the gamer grows to appreciate this straightforwardness. Every fairy tale must have a moral of some kind, and if you dig deep enough, Child of Light has one tucked away. Without spoiling very much: time goes on and some things you cannot change – so move forward.
But there is still plenty to explore off the beaten path. Exploration is another one of the game’s strongest aspects, beautifully combined with some stunning visuals. When you first take control of Aurora, the game is unsettlingly quiet and it feels a tad like Limbo. Aurora moves cumbersomely and feels vulnerable. A little less than an hour into the game, Aurora’s mobility transforms in a lovely way. This moment early on is certainly for the better and showcases how poignant Child of Light can be when all its pieces really come together. To some, what I’m referring to is hardly a spoiler, but if you’re as easily swept away as I am, don’t let me be the one to disenchant you now.
Child of Light was destined to be labeled an art-game months before release on the basis of its visuals alone. This wouldn’t be without good reason. The game utilizes the UbiArt engine, which allows for the import of physically handcrafted concept art directly into the game. These works of concept art are then layered and textured to create some truly breathtaking vistas. The style is whimsical, yet somber. Aurora is trapped in a painting, as thrilling and terrifying as that sounds. There isn’t a location that lacks for illustrated splendor. Exploration is therefore motivated by the art. Child of Light entices a gamer to search every inch of the world via the power of its visuals alone. Hidden treasures litter the world in copious amounts, but I would argue to simply gaze at the Lemurian vistas is the true reward.
Traditional roleplaying is the counterweight to the brilliantly conceived platforming. Battles are cut-away trysts initiated by encountering foes in the field. Weirdly, there isn’t a way to surprise enemies with a strike of your sword. You just…kind of have to run into them from behind and hope they don’t see. Fortunately, you have a little elemental sidekick by the name of Igniculus who can illuminate himself to temporarily stun foes with the press of a button. I still think a simple sword swipe would have been more effective and direct in a game that is otherwise mostly straightforward.
The battles themselves should be second nature to any gamer who’s played a Grandia game. There is a time gauge at the bottom of the screen that icons for both enemies and allies move along. The larger portion of the gauge is designated as “wait” time, and the remaining is “cast” time. When Aurora (or an accompanying party member) reaches the end of the wait period, commands can be input. Every command then takes a pre-determined amount of time to cast. Every character moves along this bar with varying degrees of speed, and often enemies are faster. Fortunately, Igniculus can help curb the tide a bit. It takes some exercise in coordination at the beginning, but by controlling Igniculus with the right stick and using the left trigger, you can blind enemies and slow down their progress along the time gauge. But fair warning: Igniculus’ power also has a limit.
The most fundamental strategic twist to battle is the art of interruption. Any damaging move executed on an enemy or ally still waiting to use another attack will “interrupt” his or her casting process, knocking the damaged recipient back towards the beginning of the wait bar. In Grandia, only specific command types had this cancelling effect, but in Child of Light, any and all attacks will perform an interruption so long as they connect. It is vital that the player be vigilant about time management. Child of Light is never dastardly difficult, but it’s no breeze either. Battling with reckless abandon will cause enemies to stack attacks against you while they pummel you and interrupt you every turn. I met with the Game Over screen for this exact reason more than a few times.
Aurora will gather a sizable band of misfits to accompany her on her quest. Each has very unique abilities, though admittedly some allies are more useful than others. For instance, Finn is most similar to a mage class with access to fire, water, and lightning elemental spells. Incidentally, successful battling relies heavily on the exploitation of these elemental weaknesses. There are also plenty of enemies resistant to physical attacks entirely. Finn was in my party very often. It should also be noted that Child of Light actually opts for two-person battle parties. This limitation encourages careful party planning but discourages experimentation, especially with some of your allies relegated to strictly supporting roles.
Outside of battle, oculi can be equipped and crafted. Think of oculi as the equivalent to accessories. Every character also has access to an expansive skill tree that branches out into three paths. You will level fairly quickly too. Since this is only a 10-15 hour quest, I found the constant leveling to be welcome (and frankly awesome). It seemed to me I could upgrade my characters after every few battles. I truly prefer this incremental approach to a more drawn-out system that rewards a player with hefty milestones after long hours of play. But in Child of Light, leveling always feels fluid and balanced.
If this all sounds very JRPG-esque, that’s because it is. This was apparently Ubisoft’s intention – a major goal, in fact. Child of Light indeed has the potential to bring the best of Japanese roleplaying game mechanics to a whole new audience. The welcome side effect of this is that Child of Light also proves that successfully crafted JRPG-ing need not be J-exclusive. Between Child of Light and South Park: The Stick of Truth, Ubisoft has made a case for itself as a traditional RPG-making force.
The final components of Child of Light I’ve neglected up until now are the most refreshing two. Child of Light features an excellent musical score, pitch-perfect also for its simplicity. Aurora’s Theme is the dominating motif throughout the game. The theme has traces throughout the entire score along the journey. Somehow, the music always comes back to her theme. The score is always in service to the game’s melancholy temperament. Aurora’s journey is a melancholy one, and she searches onward despite the many distractions of puzzles, battles, and dialogue. The music impressively searches and circles back to center in much the same way. The music is not only pleasant and accessible, but also remarkably cohesive.
Finally, I’d like to take a moment to applaud Child of Light for generating an experience that features a decidedly non-sexualized heroine. Aurora is in search of her father. Along the journey, Aurora is granted brief glimpses of her father back in Austria, who is heartsick and bedridden at the loss of his daughter. Aurora’s father is rendered helpless, and only she can find him. Aurora has no romantic interests, rather, the only love she demonstrates is that undying love for what she has lost sight of – her family. Only she can engineer her own success. She may have friendly companions, but Aurora must grow on her own. For this fact alone, I cannot recommend Child of Light enough.
So yes, although I have been harsh and nitpicky with Child of Light, I do greatly admire the extraordinary effort. It’s the journey of a heroine so rarely seen in video games, which believe it or not, makes it audacious by default. Visually and aurally, it’s artistically superb. It’s more than just a quick fix for starved JRPG fans. It’s deeper than expected, yet not quite deep enough. And though the fairy tale narrative is simple and effective, it also lacks. I believe Child of Light was on the cusp of being superlative, and thus the game ends (and very abruptly I might add) like a tad unfulfilled promise. Sure, there is a New Game Plus option, but that isn’t enough to satiate the likes of me. Perhaps I’m already thirsty for a spiritual successor or sequel. Whatever the case, Child of Light is a sign of hopefully very good things to come from Ubisoft.
Child of Light is available for download on Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4, WiiU, and PC.