Saturday, May 17, 2014

REVIEW - Child of Light.

Child of Light advertised itself as a western love letter to JRPGs of old.   As the lost princess-child Aurora, players explore the side-scrolling magical land of Lemuria, in search of the moon and the stars - stolen by an evil queen - to return peace to the land, and perhaps find her way home.

It's a charming, noshable little game.

Well then, that settles it.  It's pronounced "YOU-be-soft."

Child of Light would have received far more critical acclaim, were it not the product of development and publishing juggernaut Ubisoft.  If this ten-hour diversion came from an indie studio, folks would be flipping out over it, and it would have a place in the Game of the Year conversations, come December.  As a game born of the 2000-head-strong Ubisoft Montreal (and a handful of other studios to boot), anything less than a perfection of design and mechanics must be noted - and Child of Light is not perfection.

Its combat system is original, but its uniqueness doesn't ensure it's actually fun.  Its conceit of making every line of spoken dialogue in the entire game rhyme is admirable, but it would be more meaningful if it did it well, and told a compelling story while it was at it.

Child of Light doesn't really manage that.  Now, I'll be honest, I choked up a bit at the end. I mean, it's beautiful. 

Aesthetically-speaking, Child of Light is one of the more stunning games in recent memory, with visual artistry that's currently in competition with Dark Souls II and Muramasa's DLC for best art direction of 2014.

It has a gorgeous instrumental soundtrack, and the game world and every character in it are hand-drawn, appearing to have leapt from the pages of the most lovingly-illustrated of children's storybooks onto your TV.

Well, Aurora's not hand-drawn - she and four other powerful ladies like her have the only polygonal character models in the game - but it never looks completely out-of-place, and separates the girl and her kind as otherworldly and powerful as they wander the blighted land.  Speaking of Aurora, she's as charming as her iconic design - and it's pretty hard to dislike the child-warrior-princess when the beastly last son of an imprisoned race of super-warriors asks her if she'll rid Lemuria of the darkness that befouls it, and she responds,

She's kind of awesome.

The game progresses with standard RPG tropes - you earn XP for each battle (the game is very generous with its XP, and you'll level up at least one of your characters after almost every fight), and levels earn you skill points to spend in each of a character's three talent trees.  "Tree" is a generous word for it, as it's more-accurately described as three completely-linear strings.  You'll want to concentrate on a single string at a time, as hugely powerful versions of your abilities tend to lay right at the end of a line of skills (I beat the final boss by casting Aurora's highest-level damage-buff and spamming her highest-level spell, over and over, while the tank soaked up damage).

As you wander the world you'll meet strange and wonderful folks, each of whom add something desirable to your party.  Child of Light limits your party makeup to two heroes at a time, and when you can only have say, a tank and a healer, or a damage-dealer and a debuffer, you can never quite field a balanced team.  Fortunately, this can be overcome by the game's relatively low challenge, and a few strategically-powerful combinations.

At the bottom of the above screen, you'll notice a bar.  This is the action bar, and all characters - enemies and heroes - move across it.  Once a character's icon reaches the far right, they perform the action they selected at the beginning of the Cast section.  If a character is struck by an enemy during the all-important Cast section, their action is stopped and they are thrown back on the action bar to wait for their turn.

This is a double-edged sword, as a vicious collection of enemies can effectively shut down your entire team if you're not careful - but it also permits you to shut down your enemies, with a bit of strategy and luck.  When a fight begins with a surprise attack (blind an enemy in the overworld with a concentrated dose of your firely Igniculus's light, and sneak up as they recover), you'll always begin with one hero at the cast stage, one hero halfway up the bar, and all your enemies at the start.

Select Finn as your first character (a Wizard dwarf/gnome thing) and have him cast his three-star Lightning (All) spell - it takes a very long time to cast.  Aurora follows up by beginning to cast her powerful damage buff on him - which takes so much less time to cast than Finn's spell that she races past him on the bar and lands the buff on him a smidge of a second before he lets three colossal balls of souped-up lightning off the chain, and fries three water-based enemies in a single, spectacular strike.

Sometimes it's pretty satisfyin' - but more often than not, it's just a little boring, and occasionally downright frustrating.

What draws the player across Child of Light is entirely the game's aesthetic beauty, which remains striking and enchanting throughout.  Its greatest pleasure is simply fluttering your way around the game world on Aurora's iridescent fairy wings, throwing switches and solving a (very) rare puzzle.

As such, your actions are never really memorable.  As you wander Lemuria's gorgeous forests and plateaus, you form no great connection to this place or the next, to the degree that it remains stunning the next time you backtrack to an earlier zone because you'd literally forgotten all about it.

That ain't good - and it's an indicator of how inconsequential nearly all of the gameplay in Child of Light feels.


...but it's a beautiful game.  It's something original and new-feeling from a studio whose colossal proportions, colossal budgets and colossal bets often dictate it stays as close as possible to the safe, and the tried-and-true - and that alone is almost as heartwarming as Child of Light means to be.

As a beautiful storybook, Child of Light is a glorious success.  As a fun game, it's lacking - I couldn't even bring myself to do the side quests because it would mean having to "play" more of it - but as a one-off experience, it's pleasant, light and unique.

I don't need a sequel, though.


  1. So this pretty much ensures that I won't be hearing about this again until the end of the year.

    No, "Guys, I keep coming back to Child of Light—I've put eleventy-hundred hours into it!" posts. Shame. The screenshots are beautiful.

    1. Hey, we don't get a Dragon's Crown every day.