Game Review

by Dave Riley, May 5th 2014

Child of Light

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, WiiU, PC

Child of Light
Child of Light is a turn-based RPG with a fairytale tone and a Grandia-inspired battle system.

Child of Light is the story of Aurora, a fairytale girl with all the things the average fairytale girl needs: an evil stepmother, a wicked queen, a plucky sidekick, and a cursed sleep. At first, this is every bit the fairytale we expect--even the name Aurora we recognize from Disney's Sleeping Beauty--but Child of Light is something different. Aurora's cursed sleep isn't the cue for the dashing prince to come and rescue her, it's the start of her own journey. Aurora isn't the victim, she's the hero.

On her quest to return the sun, the moon, and the stars to the sky Aurora defeats monsters, saves villagers, and meets party members in painted worlds that might as well be scanned directly from the concept art: lush autumn fields, dark forests, underwater grottos. She gains the power of flight before the prologue's over, and can soar through windswept landscapes at a whim, collecting hidden treasures and avoiding damaging obstacles on her way to the next enchanted village or lava cave. In flight her gossamer wings gently twinkle, and the wind pulls her hair this way and that. Some areas are mazes of spiky tree branches and aggressive griffons, but for the most part Child of Light is a simple, peaceful exploration of a simple, peaceful world. A second player can take control of Igniculus, combination firefly sprite and mouse cursor, to share the not-particularly-heavy exploration load. Igniculus can activate switches, illuminate dark areas, and grab items. It's more complicated than Mario Galaxy's cursor play--controlling him isn't "baby mode." It's enough to keep an adult busy, though only just.

It looks like a fairytale, it plays like a Japanese Roleplaying Game. They've pushed hard for the connection, peppering the game with level-ups, and turn-trading battle systems, going so far as to commission promotional artwork from Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano. The combat is obviously inspired by Grandia's timing bar, a mechanic loved by so many Playstation-era fans, yet rarely replicated in other games. Every action has a delay, and an attack on a casting character costs them their turn and wallops them back to the midpoint of the bar. Interrupts are everything in Child of Light, and pulling one off a split-second before an enemy hits you with his own is electrifying.

There's a breadth to the mechanics, if not a lot of density. You can use Igniculus to slow enemies and heal party members. You have moves that taunt, so you'll have time to let your other characters buff their attack strength, rain fire, or paralyze the entire enemy party. The smart play is almost always to have Finn, the dwarf wizard, cast a lightning spell that hits everyone, but the fun play is to line everything up so Norah has time to unleash her Petify All and leave the enemy staring at their shoes for a turn and a half while you bring the pain.

In co-op Child of Light's combat has a nice bit of asymmetry. While the first player is choosing attacks, the second is healing and managing the enemy's speed. Playing with two people brings a lot of coordination to a system already rich with timing, but it does make an easy game even easier. On-point use of Igniculus almost completely removes the need for healing spells, much less one of the dozens of potions the game throws at you. If difficulty is a concern you can switch between normal and hard at any time, but Child of Light's battles have a way of gripping you, difficult or not. Keeping everything lined up while planning your next move is its own kind of challenge, one that leaves little room for the thoughtless button-mashing that often creeps into turn-based RPGs.

It's about ten hours long. That's a generous length for fifteen bucks, but surprisingly short in light of the game's JRPG inspirations, a genre with a tendency towards hours of grinding and chores. There's no bloat in Child of Light. The game doesn't have time for makework, not when there's a mobile town of merchant mice just over the horizon, or an oncoming battle with a three-headed dragon at the bottom of a well. There are very few sidequests and very few collectables, though intrusive messages from Ubisoft's UPlay service are sure to pop up whenever you complete anything of note. Character advancement is a little weak. Gem crafting is pretty, but basic. Skill trees look like gigantic, winding paths, but most of the pips you fill out are generic increases to strength and defense; it's not very exciting, yet the game levels everyone up every two or three battles, so you're constantly compelled to open a menu and spend the next point. It'd be nice if the puzzles had a little more bite to them. It'd be nice if there were one or two more things to do in the world. You can assume they're simple to keep things accessible for children, but this game feels made to be played with children, like how you'd read a storybook to a child before bed.

The whole game is written in verse, an interesting idea with imperfect execution. Iambic pentameter fits the fairy tale tone, but the rhyming is clumsy, and sometimes downright leaden, in a game where everything else is airy and beautiful. There are still moments when the verses soar: when Finn discovers his confidence, when Igniculus questions growing up, when Aurora consoles a sad little girl who is what she once was, who has lost everything but must fight on. But then, there's a recurring joke about a jester who can't rhyme to save her life, where the party members must follow her flubs with the proper word choice. In a game comprised of poetry this should've been the gold mine. Instead, it's a flat bit.

There are so many poets in the world, so many that any asked would almost surely work for peanuts. Were any asked? There are times, when the soundtrack is at its most somber, and the story its most raw, the lyrics hit the mark and amplify the wistful tone. More often they are weight, bogging down a game that is otherwise unwavering, a game so rich with texture, texture of music, texture of landscape, texture of portraits, and texture of sound (listen to Aurora's bare feet slap against the cobblestone), there ought to be a texture to the poetry, too. The writing isn't bad, just dry, and in a game where nothing is dry, dry feels like bad.

It's a testament to the quality of the story that its hamfisted writing is a stumble, not a faceplant. How could this be from the same person that wrote Far Cry 3, a game so replete with generic angst that could've been from any other game wherein we discovered that the true savage--except for the actual, literal savages, like a demon baby-obsessed shaman woman--was ourselves all along. Far Cry 3 pushed its message like a mission statement, so afraid you'd miss it that they blared it out of megaphones and projected it onto the side of every burning hut and slaughtered aboriginal you passed. There's a message here too, but it is gently explored, revealed as its character grows, and loves, and grieves. It takes the particularly noxious sleeping princess fairy tale, a tale about the pitiable powerlessness of someone cursed to sleep (and what happens to her when she is asleep depends on the version, but it is often repugnant), and turns it into an empowering story about fighting your way back to those you love in order to save them. And it's not a big deal. A child can play this and all they will see is a beautiful story, a story of hope, a story of a hero and a journey to save us all from darkness. Those of us more familiar with the origins of the sleeping princess fairytale will note that here the sun and moon are objects Aurora must fight to save, a distinctly different role than in Sun, Moon, and Talia, one of the oldest written versions of the story. Child of Light proposes that the problem with princess stories isn't the princesses themselves, but what we've done to them. It steps on and reconstructs fairy tale standbys for its own purposes. You don't have to make things like this a big deal, you just have to do it.

And Child of Light Does it, it really does. It's about overcoming, and growing, and having things taken from you, but also about recognizing that you have something to give, even when it feels like you have nothing left. And even if we've all learned these lessons already, sometimes it's nice to be reminded. This is a fantastic story for children, boys or girls, one that doesn't make the princess something different from the hero, something to be claimed or helped, but a character with her own wants, goals, and growth. Playing as Igniculus is a little too complicated for your average five year old, but there's no reason they can't hold a controller and zoom the cute blue bauble across the screen while their parent takes care of the complicated parts and reads the dialogue. Who knows, maybe a funny voice or two would smooth over the drab rhymes.

Child of Light is a surprise, one that is powerful, and aptly full of wonder. It's wonderful to see something so devoid of cynicism. It's wonderful to have something with such a strong message, one that's not just satisfying for us adults, but crucial for a new, growing generation. It's wonderful to have a game that can claim your interest with exciting battles and somber songs. It's wonderful to have a game that can keep your interest, even when its verse is hitting a tin ear apex, because the characters and animations are so expressive, and the stringed melodies are so bittersweet. There is more effective storytelling here in one simple animation, where Aurora lifts her sword in triumph at the end of battle then must let it fall due to its weight, than in many other games combined. For a story about bringing back the light, it's wonderful to see something beautiful even in its darkest moments. Child of Light isn't afraid to be a sad game. There's inspiration in sadness, and hope, too. Child of Light doesn't overreach, it doesn't gesticulate. It doesn't laden itself with mechanics to keep your interest, it is confident in what it has.

Production Info:
Overall : A
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : B+
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : A+

+ Surprisingly rich combat system, especially in co-op
Weak character advancement and crafting, inconsistent dialogue

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