I was raised on Chrono Trigger, Dragon Quest and the Final Fantasy series, and I still have a deep love (mixed somewhat, with nostalgia) for JRPGs. So when I discovered that Ubisoft Montreal was working on a small-scale, side-scrolling game in the UbiArt engine complete with JRPG style combat, I squealed like a 5-year old on Christmas morning.
In an industry where too many big publishers seem afraid to take risks on games outside their AAA, franchise-driven comfort zones, Ubisoft’s announcement of a £12, watercoloured game evoking bedtime stories and ‘90s fantasy RPGs was a breath of fresh air…
Child Of Light follows the story of Aurora, who is stolen away to Lemuria, a shadowy world of night, after falling ill in her real world. With the help of a glowing blue firefly named Igniculus and a crew of motley characters, the little redhead must fight the to regain the Sun, Moon and Stars from the wicked and mysterious Queen Of The Night, and in doing so, return to her grieving father. The world you enter is a fascinating one with no holds barred; you'll encounter giant, angry spiders, talking mice who live atop an anthropomorphic mountain, an entire village turned to ravens, and dozens of other scenarios straight from the pages of a fairytale. It's a visually stunning game, which backs up breathtaking atmosphere with very solid game design and combat that strikes a fine balance between familiarity and innovation.
The game is a sidescroller with platforming elements, but it’s a gentle sort of platforming - more akin to the LittleBig Planet games than to previous UbiArt title Rayman Legends - with a small degree of puzzle solving to navigate your beautifully illustrated and expansive surroundings. Whilst you can lose health or even KO from multiple ill advised forays into lava and spiked fences, it is the turn-based combat that is the real challenge for Aurora and co in Child Of Light.
There’s been a lot of talk about the difficulty of Child Of Light, and the relative ease of the combat when playing the title through in “normal” mode. The game is, after all, a family game, and one I imagine an eight or nine year old me would have lapped up with unreserved joy. Those with a little more experience in the genre will likely find that this difficulty setting allows a fairly simple cruise through the game without needing to explore all that the - rather comprehensive - combat system. Hard mode, however, is a different matter, and can add a real degree of challenge to Child Of Light. As well as being selectable from the beginning, the game has New Game Plus mode (yay!) so if you find your "normal" run through a little easy, this option remains open after the game's end.
JRPG-style turn-based combat, has a - sometimes justified - reputation for encouraging X-basing combat, where simply selecting the attack command repeatedly is enough to kill all but the toughest beasts if you are sufficiently levelled. Child Of Light - on hard mode at least - is most certainly not guilty of this. Those familiar with older Final Fantasy games or Dragon Quest will have little issue getting to grips with the turn-based combat system, but Child Of Light has employed a number of its own innovations that add an extra strategic dimension to combat. The time gauge has two sections - red and blue. When the “blue” time has elapsed, you select your command, which then starts each character progressing up the red part of the bar (very basic attack or defend commands have “instant” or “short” load times, whilst complex spells have “long” or “very long” load times). If your enemy attacks you are in the red time gauge section, you are “interrupted” and your move is cancelled, and vice versa. Of course, it is not the first game to enable move interruption (Ni No Kuni, among others, has a similar system) but the huge variation in timings between “short” and “very long” moves forces you to carefully consider which moves you use at which time.
Igniculus - your little, glowing, blue-flame chum - has his uses in battle, and can also add a further strategic dimension to battle. Clicking him over a monster in battle slows them down, sometimes allowing you to fit longer moves in without being interrupted, whilst clicking him over an ally will give them small, intermittent health boosts. Since the light gauge is limited and depletes over time, healing and delaying enemies in this way must be employed at strategic moments, particularly in the toughest, longest fights of the game.
You have access to all your available characters during battle (and there are a lot of them, with more available through DLC), but only two of these can be engaged in battle at once. Each party member has their own specialty - Rubella the Jester and her brother Tristis are super fast, Aurora’s sister Nora is great for speed and support magic, Robert the mouse has good splash damage attacks and Finn the bearded villager is a classic elemental mage-type character, for example. The characters all progress around skill trees, which boost their all round stats and allow more powerful skills and spells to unlock. Because speed, special attacks and elemental affinities play such a crucial role in the game's combat, switching out characters mid-way through battle once they have played their role is an essential strategy in some of the harder boss fights, particularly if you’re as averse to level-grinding as I am. The result is, when playing Child Of Light in hard mode, the combat system feels satisfying and well rounded, forcing you to think strategically and both learn and implement a range of skills and characters to win.
The elemental affinities in combat are expanded by “Oculi” Child Of Light’s answer to weapons customisation. Unlike many of this style of RPG, each character plays the whole game through with the same weapon, whose power grows along with - rather than independently of - your character. Oculi are the only weapons add-ons; a selection of various gemstones can be found in the multitude of treasure chests dotted about the world of Lemuria. As well as having a range of different stones, each stone comes in three versions; rough, polished and faceted. Rough gems can be combined to make rarer gems or “tumbled" versions, whilst tumbled can be merged to create powerful "faceted" or "brilliant" Oculi. Some - such as rubies, emeralds, and sapphires - are elemental, charging your physical attacks with element damage or providing a degree of resistance - whilst others offer speed boosts or additional defence. Whilst some might lament the inability to upgrade weapons as a whole, it’s nonetheless an extremely simple, easy to grasp weapons and armour modding system that brings in customisation without needless complications.
One quick technical note on the game. If you’re playing Child Of Light on PC, it’s worth noting that the game is significantly better optimised than the official Ubisoft minimum requirements suggest. I played the game on my laptop, whose Nvidia GeForce 555M GPU is significantly lower than the minimum card suggested. However, I was able to comfortably run the game with no -30FPS drops, and typically with very, very smooth visuals on 1080p resolution.
The music - created by Montreal-based singer songwriter Coeur de Pirate - is breathtaking. It’s has a familiar sound to anyone familiar with JRPGs, with obvious indebtedness to Nobuo Uematsu, and yet it has her own trademark classical, delicate, melancholy feel that prevents it feeling derivative. It complements the distinctive storybook aesthetic perfectly. Child of Light is a feast for the senses, with each new environment bringing something new to marvel over and enjoy. It's a masterstroke in visual design, and the beauty is backed up by huge, maze-like regions that hide a huge number of secret nooks and crannies, keeping you exploring much longer than initially seems possible.
Whilst Child of Light’s visuals, music and narration maintain their ethereal, childhood quality magnificently throughout the game, the enchantment does occasionally slip when it comes to writing. The entire script is rhymed, but the lack of meter and irregularity of the rhyme scheme means the dialogue at times feels rather forced, with rhyming taking higher precedent over good story-telling and some rather awkward half-rhymes and strange vocabulary choices shoehorned in to make the wordplay fit. It’s a minor criticism in the grand scheme of Child Of Light, but it does rather suspend the otherwise consistent, enchanted engagement I felt whilst playing the title.
This occasional poor writing is indicative of what I felt was something of a missed opportunity in the storytelling as a whole. Whilst the plethora of characters introduces adds flexibility to the combat system, the sheer number of them weaken the storyline somewhat. The wonderful concept behind the game - a little girl, lost in a dream world and trying to reunite the sun, stars and moon to return to her grieving father - feels underused; Aurora isn’t wholly developed as a character, and her co-fighters are greatly less so. The developers have said that Aurora’s design was meant to appeal to children; a strong iconic and sword-wielding princess girl for them to play. With this in mind I felt like, as a 12-15 hour game Child Of Light would have been better placed focusing on Aurora small selection of characters around a solid, main storyline rather than trying to include the vast cast we might associate with a 100 hour, full-priced title. I came away wanting to know more about Aurora, but caring little for her companions, who I had had but fleeting sections of dialogue to get to know.
But whilst Child Of Light not may carry the sheer narrative depth of story of a 100 hour, £40 full RPG release, but there are few games out there that will provide you with such a polished, enchanting experience for £12. It’s a must-play for fans of the genre, an unforgettably ethereal experience that seamlessly merges childhood nostalgia with its own gameplay innovations and unique, memorable style.