I remember waiting for the bus one day, many years ago. It was probably around this time of year. I was watching flowers from a nearby tree drop into and float across a clear puddle that had formed. I would’ve probably taken a picture with my phone if phones with cameras had been a thing back then.
Child of Light is a bit like the puddle – it’s beautiful, small and, unfortunately, not terribly deep.
The story introduces us to a young girl named Aurora, who awakens in the kingdom of Lemuria. She doesn’t know why she’s there, but she knows she wants to get back home to her father, a Duke in Austria in the late 19th century.
Inside, A Storybook Tale
In story and presentation, Child of Light is very much a traditional fairy tale. Mechanically, it is an homage to classic Japanese RPGs. The combination seemed to work incredibly well at first, but things began to fall apart the further in I went.
Child of Light looks and moves like a pop-up storybook done in watercolor and it is, without question, one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. Some elements, like Aurora’s dress, animate smoothly, while monsters look more like rigged puppets, moving unsteadily on their joints.
The story and writing, too, are reminiscent of something you might read to your kids.
Aurora’s journey is that of a girl suddenly left to fend for herself. She meets friends and overcomes hardships, growing into the princess everyone addresses her as. Not only is this a story about a girl, but most of the significant characters are women as well, including the narrator. It’s a story about independence, friendship, and identity.
The story and characters are beautiful and enchanting, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get a little misty-eyed toward the end.
With Words That Rhyme
Not everything works, though. All the dialogue and narration is written, ambitiously, in a rhyming scheme. It’s cute when it works – especially for the one character who can’t seem to rhyme. However, there’s a lot to rhyme and sometimes it feels like the writer was really stretching to make connections.
Child of Light is also bursting at the seams with playable characters that join your party as the game progresses, with the last character joining in the last couple hours of the main quest. With so many characters, very few beyond Aurora get any meaningful backstory or memorable dialogue. Like Mass Effect, each character has their own side quest, and beyond that, just a bit of dialogue here and there.
Child of Light hearkens back to its Japanese RPG ancestry without worrying about hiding it. This is, unquestionably, a Western-made JRPG. Each time you start a battle, the screen dissolves into the old standard “heroes on the left, enemies on the right” format. Two heroes will fight as many as three enemies, taking turns bashing back and forth.
The order is handled by a bar at the bottom of the screen. Each character and enemy progresses along the bar at a different rate based on their stats. When the character gets far enough along the line, they get to choose their action and then, based on which action they’ve chosen, they’ll progress through the casting phase. If the player’s attack hits a casting monster or vice versa, that character’s attack is interrupted and they’re sent back to the middle of the progression. Anytime one of your characters has an attack ready to go, you can swap party members without a penalty – the new character will get to use the other character’s attack opportunity, rather than having to work up to one themselves.
The other two twists to the formula come in the form of Igniculus and Oculi.
Igniculus is a light elemental you control both in battle and out using the right analog stick and L2 trigger. Outside of battle, Igniculus can open doors and chests for you that would be otherwise be out of reach. In battle, though, Igniculus has the ability to slow down the monsters of this dark world by blinding them with light. This significantly slows down the monsters’ progression along the timer bar, allowing you to go first or, better yet, interrupt them, rather than the opposite. He can also heal members of your party using the same energy.
Oculi replace equipment in Child of Light. Instead of equipping swords and armor, you’ll select from a variety of gems of different sizes and hues. These imbue your attacks with different elemental powers and provide certain resistances and bonuses when placed in other slots.
This system works quite well and stays fun for most of the game, keeping battle engaging and making it impossible to play the game on autopilot.
And Some Parts, A Bit Stale
Like the story, though, these elements don’t feel like they were completely fleshed out, and what starts out fun eventually becomes tedious and frustrating.
The Oculi are the biggest offender here. With three slots on each character, you end up with 24 different oculi, which could be any of six different colors. Remembering which characters are equipped with which oculi is hard work at best, and impossible for the untrained. There’s no way to check who has what mid-battle. And while different monsters have different weaknesses, they’re difficult to remember and often not obvious. What seems like the right match-up might not be.
The combat, too, gets old by the end of the game. Having only two characters to work with at a time with so broad a cast makes it hard to feel like even half the characters are getting used or that the synergy between the two characters is ideal.
Parts of the game don’t work, but they don’t take away from what it’s trying to do.
Despite the long end of Child of Light being a bit underwhelming, I still had a lot of fun with it, and the art and story are going to stick with me for a long time.
Child of Light is exactly the type of thing I’d like to see more of from big developers like Ubisoft. Small, new properties that explore the artistic boundaries of the medium will only add to the industry as a whole, even when they’re not entirely successful.
We purchased Child of Light for PlayStation 4 with company funds. We completed the single player mode before starting this review.