Few games get to straddle the line between game and art quite like Child of Light. It’s a strong contender for the argument that video games should be taken more seriously as an artistic medium and manages to implement visual and aural flourishes that raise the standard above that of the more casual ‘Indies as art pieces’ scene. That it also manages to be a solid traditional JRPG with turn based combat and vibrant characters is a huge bonus.
Let’s get right down to the main argument that people are going to have with this review, the game is categorised officially as a Platforming RPG. This is not quite true and I will explain why in more detail later, but more importantly it is as traditional a JRPG as the genre gets once you delve into the way the game works and the systems in play. Wonder Boy in Monster Land is platform game with RPG elements, but even that would be classed as an Action RPG in the eyes of this site (and it probably will in a later review) so I’ve categorised Child of Light as a JRPG.
The first thing that will strike you when looking at screenshots of this game is the sheer beauty of it all. Ubisoft Montreal has used their powerful UbiArt Framework developed for Rayman Legends that allows them to literally manipulate illustrations as characters and the levels of parallax scrolling are deep and rich. Better, the whole game exudes a child’s picture book crossing paths with a Rossetti painting. Even the 2D character art that displays in menus and around conversations is full of charm and this casual flair that lifts the whole game above the standard definition of ‘good’. Actually special mention should go to the menus in this game, which are classically beautiful and simple to look at without being over complicated. Many of the core members of the development team for Child of Light went on to work on Far Cry 3 and lifted elements of the upgrade system wholesale from this title.
Sound design is crisp and uses a number of carefully selected noises to give an otherworldly sense to events whilst also giving them a sense of weight. This is a game that could feel dreamlike and as such not connect on a ‘ouch that attack hurt’ level, but it’s been pitched perfectly. Examples of recorded dialogue are nice and well-spoken in the manner of a storybook, maintaining a classic Jackanory vibe. Music however is a whole different level, and I’d be ashamed to say anything other than this might be the standout soundtrack of 2015. The main theme alone is haunting, beautiful and melancholy all at once.
From a story standpoint Ubisoft has done things a little differently and this may isolate a few players from enjoying the games plot or becoming too invested in its characters. Every line of dialogue, spoken or laid out in text is written as poetry. This makes the conversations flowery but deeply interesting from a literature standpoint. They serve the narrative purpose and make the game stand out against the crowd of other ‘dark fairytales’ on the market, and Child of Light is pretty dark once you get past the child-like aesthetic. Focused on Aurora, a young princess who contracts an illness that kills her, but not before her mother casts a spell of protection over her in the hopes of saving her. She dies in the real world but awakens on an alter in the mythical world of Lemuria which has had its sun, moon and stars stolen by a dark queen named Umbra. Aurora is seeking to restore these in the hope of reuniting with her father who has fallen into a dark place of despair since she died. Along the way she meets multiple allies including a court jester who has lost her circus, a bow wielding mouse who needs to find his courage and even her own sister, who may or may not also be dead but has followed after her. Ultimately this is a coming of age story that may or may not have a happy ending, with heavy implications that everyone may be dead, this world could be real, or that she is still in a fever dream in her bedroom.
Gameplay is the meat of the game served up on a platter with the story, graphics and music as delectable side dishes. Ultimately however the game is very much a traditional JRPG, with a turn based combat system and some puzzle solving elements as you journey through Lemuria. The games does try to put its own spin on things, with the side on view giving a platforming vibe to events, but since you learn the ability to fly by the end of the games introduction sequence there’s no real running and jumping to be seen here (hence my distrust of the ‘platformer’ title). You do however fly around a maze-like structure and avoid damaging thorns and fire in some locations. Innovation comes in the form of a wisp-like ball of light who accompanies you through the game and can be controlled by the player using the second analogue stick or (and this is a more fun option) a second player on another controller. Whilst this is Aurora’s game the wisp adds some great features to puzzle solving and the pair work as a team, making it a perfect player 2 option. You can bash bushes and nab handy light orbs that spill out to be collected by either character that regen health and charge up the wisp who can be turned on and off like a lightbulb as a mobile healing canister when hovered over Aurora, a stunning device when hovered over enemies or a puzzle solving mechanic. It’s all very well implemented. Battles also make use of him in the same ways and often have bushes on the fringes of the action to shake up with him. The game uses a Grandia-like combat system with everybody moving in real-time at different speeds to activate actions so slowing or stunning are key tactics. You and also take one fellow party member into combat with you and change them out for others whilst in battle on the fly. The one gripe I would have is that monsters on the field often represent a group of different types of beasts, making optimising for battle against a certain element almost impossible until you are in the battle itself. Characters have skill progression on individual trees that each have two initial paths open to them, and items can be fused together in a crafting system that enables each character to carry stat boosting crystals.
If there’s fault to be found in Child of Light it is that some of the ‘game’ elements are a little shallow. Dungeons aren’t overcomplicated and puzzles are easily worked out. Exploration is rewarded but aside from fusing items together or stocking up on healing ones it’s all very straight forward. Skill trees are well put together but short by modern game standards and the combat whilst rich and fun lacks a great deal of tactical depth past slowing and stunning or hitting the right monster with the requisite opposing elemental attack. It’s all pretty standard JRPG stuff. That said the other elements such as music and graphics raise the bar significantly. Overall it’s hard not to recommend this game to everyone simply because whilst it’s been done before, it’s not been done this well and with this amount of charm. The game is cross compatible with PS3 and PS4 through the Playstation Network and on the Xbox One as well as being cheap to purchase so really there is nothing holding you back.