Child of Light is solid evidence that even the biggest publishers are standing up and taking notice of the indie scene. While given the big budget treatment—voice narration, orchestral score, considerable promotion leading up to release—Child of light also shares the indie fondness for simple concepts executed well and a reverence for older styles of gameplay. Ubisoft’s new role-playing game is built on the UbiArt engine that powered the last two Rayman games, so naturally it’s beautiful, but it plays like an old Super Nintendo RPG, designed by a fan who loved those kinds of retro games.
The game’s premise, however, is “retro” in a completely different way than you’d expect. Child of Light is classic high fantasy in the vein of Tolkien, Hans Christian Anderson or some of the less disturbing Grimm fairy tales. In this way it eschews the melodramatic self-important protagonists with big hair that have dominated Japanese RPGs ever since Final Fantasy VII. I have no problem with JRPG aesthetics but the genre overall has been the same general story told over and over for going on two decades. Child of Light’s more dreamy, whimsical take was refreshing, for me at least.
Child of Light begins and often plays out like a whimsical, but at times dark, bedtime story. The plot is framed around a medieval Austrian kingdom, a duke and his red-haired daughter Aurora. The duke loves princess Aurora very much, but in fine Cinderella tradition he ends up getting remarried to a shady-looking duchess. Not long after, Aurora slips into a Sleeping Beauty-esque coma and the duke grieves by her bedside. Aurora awakes into the mystical fantasy land of Lemuria, where not everything is quite so cheerful and fantastic.
Aurora is quite disoriented and upset, but naturally she immediately meets a helpful animal sidekick in the form of Igniculus, a friendly firefly. Child of Light has no pretense about its fairy story inspiration, but instead makes light of the clichés with cute, ironic humor and light self-awareness. Needing a light to illuminate her path, Aurora exhorts Igniculus to “light up your rear!” to which the lightning bug protests “I barely know you!”
As the game progresses Aurora will acquire other party members, including Robert, a mouse archer with a serious case of unrequited love, and Rubella, a humorously optimistic jester searching for her lost brother. The writing here is quite good in concept and the characters are memorable, but the actual prose has some issues. To further emphasize the game’s bedtime story aesthetic the entire script is written in rhyming couplet. This is endearing at first but it quickly becomes clear that this format was pretty forced. The dialogue often lacks rhythm and the mandate to get everything to rhyme leads to some awkward vocabulary choices. I definitely appreciate the effort that went into writing this game and maybe it’s just my literary education making me a little OCD about the dialogue, but the forced couplet did pull me out of the experience now and then.
In terms of actual mechanics, Child of Light borrows pretty standard elements from the 16-bit era of RPGs while integrating many of the mechanics of the recent Rayman games. The overworld isn’t a giant isometric map but rather a 2D sidescroller. This let the UbiArt team really flex the experience they gained from Rayman Origins and Legends, but not in the way you might think. Instead of enduring a gauntlet of perfectly timed jumps and breakneck platforming, you’ll actually be flying everywhere.
Very early in the game Aurora gains the ability to fly anywhere in the 2D game world. This opens things up considerably and turns the overworld from a Metroidvania affair into a more laid-back adventure that encourages exploration. You’ll rarely see out-of-reach items or treasure obstructed by the environment, unless it’s directly tied to an immediate puzzle. If you can see something interesting you can usually get to it, if not with Aurora then definitely with Igniculus, who acts as a cursor of sorts and is always controllable with the second analog stick.
Flight also makes it easy to avoid bumping into roaming enemies, so you can choose how and when you engage in combat. There are no random encounters in the game so doing battle is pretty much up to you; if your HP is low and you’re hurting for items you can heal up and restock before tackling enemies. You will need to do a certain amount of leveling to survive the game’s bosses so engaging in combat with lesser foes is a good idea, but you’re never forced into it and I appreciated that. The leveling system itself is pretty standard RPG fare, with a sequential upgrade tier for each character. That said, I wish the skill trees had a little more meat and variety on them, as the majority of upgrades are magic points, hit points and defense buffs. On the upside leveling is fast and well paced—you’ll never go more than a few battles without gaining a handful of skill points for your party.
Aside from the story and characters, the combat itself is probably the most rewarding aspect of the game. It’s based on a Grandia-style charge-up timeline that tracks all combatants in a battle at once, instead of separate charge bars as in Chrono Trigger. Every character—ally or enemy—advances along this timeline, and once they enter the “cast” portion of the meter they can perform an attack, spell or other action. The catch is that if a character is hit with an attack while they are in the cast space, their action gets interrupted and they get bumped backwards on the timeline. There are a few ways to avoid this that add considerable depth to the combat.
One is the aforementioned Igniculus. You can point him at enemies and harass them with his glow, slowing their progress along the timeline and giving you and your party members time to catch up. Failing that, you can cast guard spells that let you take a hit without getting interrupted, although relying on these too much can lead to diminishing returns. This system is pretty straightforward at the beginning of the game but once you’re battling multiple enemies and you have a full party fighting for you, the strategy gets a lot deeper. Battles get pretty tense as you try to squeeze that last second out of the timeline, or execute a perfectly organized series of attacks, spells and counters. Child of Light’s combat isn’t particularly daunting—something I appreciated, after enduring numerous sadistic RPGs over the years—but it’s the timing and tactics rather than raw difficulty that make it fun.
What Child of Light lacks in sheer gameplay depth it more than makes up for in personality. UbiArt is known for their artistic talent and this shows through in spades. The overall art style makes Child of Light looks like a living watercolor painting, similar in principle (but not style) to the sumi-e, woodblock-inspired visuals of Okami. You could stop the game at just about any location and take a screenshot suitable for framing or at least a lovely desktop wallpaper. While the overall aesthetic is enchanting to look at, it’s the little details that give Child of Light a lasting impression.
The art has a heartwarming innocence that matches its protagonist. Aurora is a courageous little girl but the game emphasizes that she is just a kid. She struggles to heft her sword, making the blows she lands on nightmare creatures somehow more satisfying. When she takes a hit it knocks the oversized crown from her head, which she scrambles to recover before resuming battle. Whoever animated her hair understands a thing or two about distinct and meaningful character design. This innocence and vulnerability make Aurora’s courage all the more meaningful, much like Link brandishing his tiny dagger against Ganondorf at the beginning of Ocarina of Time. It’s certainly preferable to any of the dozens of homogenous Final Fantasy heroines getting emo and waxing existential.
The game’s audio isn’t quite as enchanting as the visuals but it fits the overall theme nicely. The game was scored with a full orchestra but the composers opted for soft melodies and thoughtful pieces instead of bombast. Many of the quieter pieces are evocative of a nursery music box, and while the combat music is rousing it is never obtrusive. In a lot of ways Child of Light’s score reminded me of the music in Kirby’s Epic Yarn, although a bit more melancholy and lilting than the peaceful, almost sedating quality of Epic Yarn’s euphoric score. To complete the game’s storytime affect, Hannibal’s Caroline Dhavernas narrates the story with her delicate, expertly honed voice. This was…a little odd for me to be honest, to hear the voice of a character romantically involved with a cannibal serial killer rhyming out Aurora’s story, but Dhavernas does a great job as always.
Child of Light ultimately is a game that is more than the sum of its parts. No one aspect of the game—save for its visuals—is truly outstanding, but it shows what a retro-affectionate indie style game can be if a big publisher lets its artists and designers off their collective chains. Child of Light is an unusual sort of RPG with an uncommon story, an unlikely protagonist and a strange mix of classic and novel gameplay ideas. For those reasons alone, it’s worth your attention.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
Sean Colleli has been gaming off and on since he was about two, although there have been considerable gaps in the time since. He cut his gaming teeth on the “one stick, one button” pad of the Atari 800, taking it to the pirates in Star Raiders before space shooter games were cool. Sean’s Doom addiction came around the same time as fourth grade, but scared him too much to become a serious player until at least sixth grade. It was then that GoldenEye 007 and the N64 swept him off his feet, and he’s been hardcore ever since.
Currently Sean enjoys a good shooter, but is far more interested in solid adventure titles like The Legend of Zelda or the beautiful Prince of Persia trilogy, and he holds the Metroid series as a personal favorite. Sean prefers deep, profound characters like Deus Ex’s JC Denton, or ones that break clichés like Samus Aran, over one dimensional heroes such as the vacuous Master Chief. Sean will game on any platform but he has a fondness for Nintendo, Sega and their franchises. He has also become a portable buff in recent years. Sean’s other hobbies include classic science fiction such as Asimov and P.K. Dick, and Sean regularly writes down his own fiction and aimless ramblings. He practices Aikido and has a BA in English from the Ohio State University. He is in his mid twenties. View Profile