Child of Light tells the story of a child, lost in a magical kingdom, but just like a child telling a story, it often gets lost in its own words, stumbling and catching itself over and over again. At first it can be endearing, or perhaps not even noticeable, but as it goes on, you start to wonder when does it end. For as good as the good parts of Child of Light can be (and there are a lot), there are some bits that go just as wrong.
Child of Light comes to us from—surprisingly enough—Patrick Plourde and Jeffrey Yohalem, the director and writer respectively of Far Cry 3. It’s a sizable swing, going from bro-in-the-jungle to child-in-a-dream, but they do well. The pint-sized progeny in question is a girl named Aurora, daughter of a duke in late-19th-century Austria. With her birth mother not in the picture, a stepmother steps in, and true to any fairytale, well, you get the idea.
In fact, you get the idea almost wholeheartedly if you’ve ever heard a fairytale in your life. Aurora falls ill one night and tumbles off to a dream-like kingdom of evil creatures, a dark queen, and yet lively new friends. To a T, the story falls off into lockstep with what you’d expect from such a fable. By the end of the 12-hour or so adventure, I was left wondering if I’d actually read it all somewhere before.
(Perhaps in my Shakespearean studies, given the ham-fisted rhyming and metered verse that every line of dialog bears, an ambitious and admirable decision that unfortunately only ends up distracting you from taking away meaning from each line rather than a judgment.)
Save for a few crucial points, namely the characters. Just as Aurora, they take the roles of familiar people like a talking animal or a magic-inclined friend or tumbling acrobats, but their characterizations are rather unique. For instance, they’re mostly women. Fully capable women not in need of rescuing, in fact. It’s nice to see the Damsel in Distress trope dismissed, but it’s more than it’s refreshing to see such a breadth of new, hearty swings instead of trepidatious ones.
It all more or less coincides with the unobjectionable beauty of the game. Built on the same technology that powered the similarly sprightly and gorgeous Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, Child of Light is essentially a moving watercolor painting. Still or in motion, nearly every scene is fit for framing. It really inspired hoped that more of the game’s story would match its visual splendor and ingenuity.
The game’s combat somewhat makes up for it. As an RPG, fights function somewhere between an active time battle system and a turn-based affair. You see, everything is based on a timeline at the bottom of the screen, and each character and enemy has a marker on it that progresses from left to right. The first 90% or so has everyone attempting to cover the same amount of space at a varying, character-defined pace.
This means that slower characters take longer to get to the casting line and faster ones take less time. And getting the jump on enemies puts you further ahead than you would otherwise start. However, once you reach the casting line, time freezes, and then you can pick how you’ll spend your turn. Attacks and spells have varying impact and thus have varying cast time, so within the last 10% of the bar, your velocity will undoubtedly alter.
Here’s where it gets interesting, though. If you attack an enemy while they are within the red casting zone, you’ll interrupt them and they will be reset back to the idling section. Play your cards right, and they’ll never get to land a single blow. However, they can just as easily interrupt you. So you’ll have to pick when to land your heavy blows and when you take potshots more carefully so as to not waste your turn.
You can choose to defend, though, and that will take up your turn in lieu of an advanced reset position. Or you can utilize your floating light buddy Igniculus (which, in Latin, literally translates to “spark”, so lol?) and hover over enemies and press the left trigger to slow them down at the cost of his magic meter. This active bit of toying with enemies in real time adds a fantastic layer to the combat, micromanaging not only who you will allow to attack you but who you want to interrupt, as well.
All of the bits and pieces of Igniculus and the active/turn-based meter and interrupts all form a cohesive foundation to the battles. Right from the get-go, fighting is engaging and simple to grasp a hold of. It’s just disappointing that it doesn’t really progress beyond that. All of that is categorical, so no enemy has any immunity that would force you to shake things up. And when you have you turn, time freezes, so you can take that moment to refill Igniculus’ magic.
And most disappointing of all is that swapping out characters hinders you in no way. That sounds strange, of course, complaining about a game not making things harder for you, but when you can only have two characters of your party on screen at once and swapping them out has no turn penalty, it becomes trivial who you enter combat with and who has what abilities. You might as well just have two characters that can do it all. It’s a missed opportunity to add an advanced wrinkle to a fantastic start to RPG combat.
In fact, much of the RPG side of the game feels a bit too light. You don’t collect loot or gear at the end of battles and instead only improve your characters by leveling, which happens incredibly often. Since enemies can be seen onscreen before you engage them, battles can also be easily skipped, and even then, leveling occurs strangely frequently. Granted, much of what you spend skill points on is on minute improvements (a five-point health boost? Come on.), it is a shame there are no surprises as to how your party will develop since it’s all laid out tech tree-style.
Still, much of what you do experience in the game is functional—pretty damn good, even. And considering its creators and their past titles, it’s also impressive. A truly whimsical world with incredibly fun and genuine characters with unbelievable art and rock solid combat make up for a decidedly unnecessary and fruitless literary rhyming and structure and trite story, and that goes without mentioning its squandered potential for advanced RPG combat. Child of Light has a lot to offer, but far too often it stumbles over its own overgrown ambitions.
+ Incredible art that deserves to be framed and hung
+ Fantastic structure for refreshing RPG combat
+ Characterizations and world design are topnotch
– That metered speech is awfully distracting and often poorly executed
– Combat fails to fulfill its potential
– Trite, predictable story
Final Score: 7 out of 10
Game Review: Child of Light
Release: April 30, 2014
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, PC
Players: Single-player and multiplayer offline