Child of Light Review: Gorgeous Emptiness

Child of Light feels like the Indie lovechild of Rayman and Grandia. It combines the UbiArt engine (employed in the development of Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends) with a turn-based combat system that would feel at home in most Japanese RPGs of old. I’m an adoring fan of both of these things: Rayman Legends is the only platformer I’ve even come close to finishing in the last half-decade, and Lost Odyssey is a Japanese RPG that also happens to be one of my favorite games of the last console generation.

Child of Light opens with grief. Aurora — the princess of late-19th-century Austria — is loved by all. One night, she lies down in her bed and falls asleep, never to awaken. Instead of dreaming, or awakening into some sort of afterlife, Aurora is sucked into the land of Lemuria, a world of magical Dwarves, taking mice, and depressed minstrels (who can’t rhyme). Beyond this, the story is largely unimportant. The Queen of Darkness is oppressing the peoples of Lemuria, for no other reason than Of Course She Is. No, really. I found no real indication of underlying motive or purpose other than “she’s evil and that’s what evil people do.” This is largely okay in Child of Light, because it’s more of a storybook than some deep, far-reaching epic. One could be completely forgiven for not being invested in Child of Light’s story — after the first three or four hours, I found myself skipping most of the unimportant dialogue. This is due in part to its incessant rhyme scheme: everything rhymes in Child of Light, always. After the first couple of hours, it became a grating irritation. It’s also due to its inability to enrapture. The story does something of a U-turn in the last three or so hours, but it’s not enough to forgive the previous ten.

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Child of Light is, visually, a thing of beauty: from twisted forests to vine-covered ruins to idyllic countryside villages, its watercolor style is genuinely breathtaking. Everything is animated beautifully, and the characters feel alive while still maintaining that fairy tale storybook motif. It’s a masterwork in visual design, and I could stare at it for hours. This is where Child of Light draws its strength: its ability to portray a fairy tale narrative is enhanced by the aesthetics in a way that games rarely achieve. Everything is bleak, sad, and similarly colored without ever feeling dirty of nightmarish. It’s a true testament to the visual style that it not only enhances enjoyment of the game, but informs the narrative.

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Child of Light is a side-scrolling turn-based RPG. Instead of random encounters, running into an enemy in the world triggers a battle reminiscent of Grandia, in which the player takes turns controlling 2 party members against a group of up to 3 enemies. Everything takes place on a time gauge — characters advance along this meter until they hit a certain point, at which time they choose their action for that turn. They then advance along a much shorter portion of the meter, until they eventually reach the end, at which point the action is executed. Each action takes a different length of time (from “instant” to “very long”), with something like defense occurring instantaneously, whereas Aurora’s slash takes “average” time. If a character hits an enemy while that enemy is in the “cast” portion of the meter, they’re interrupted and move backwards to around 2/3 down the gauge. The right stick controls Igniculus, which the player can use to slow enemies down, gather healing plants from the bottom left or right of the screen, or hover over characters to heal them and restore MP. It’s unfortunate that this is the most interesting thing that Child of Light does to differentiate itself from every other turn-based RPG, but it is an interesting mechanic nonetheless, and offers more than a few strategic options, especially in boss fights.

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There is no gear in Child of Light. Instead, Aurora finds oculi, gems that increase everything from hit points to fire damage to experience gained after battles. There are four quality ranks of oculi: rough, tumbled, faceted, and brilliant. These oculi can either be found by crafting three oculi of the previous quality into one of a higher quality, or by finding them around the world in chests or after battles. What little depth this presented with was all but immediately dissolved once I had crafted the best kind of oculi (princess stones) six or seven hours into the game.

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Every now and again, small glimmers of potential radiate through Child of Light’s simplistic gameplay, but it’s never enough to make a difference. Even on “hard” difficulty, the combat was excruciatingly easy once I mastered it. I never felt like I was being challenged, even on some of the “harder” boss fights, because I was so egregiously over-leveled that nothing mattered. This was never because I was grinding; I leveled up after every two or three battles, and would regularly gain two or more levels from a boss fight.

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Leveling in Child of Light is a simple affair. Gaining a level increases seemingly random stats by a small amount, in addition to granting one skill point. The skill trees seem really robust at first, but most of the skill unlocks are just stat increases — the last skill in each “path” is a large amount of whichever stat is important to the skills in it. The variation in skills is also very small — every character only has three or four active abilities which get stronger with higher ranks, which you unlock with skill points later in the tree, along with multi-target versions of those abilities which you gain in the same way. Leveling up doesn’t ever feel rewarding or meaningful, since it’s so common and has such a miniscule impact.

VERDICT

It really is unfortunate that Child of Light doesn’t capitalize more on its potential. The melancholic nature of the story and visuals do nothing to assuage my misgivings about the gameplay’s seemingly overwrought simplicity. It’s endearing in its mawkishness, and the storybook nature of its narrative is of the same quality you’d find on a child’s bedside table, but it isn’t a satisfying game to play despite the contrivances it makes in an attempt to fool you into thinking it is.

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Available on: PC; PS3; PS4; Xbox 360; Xbox One; Wii U Publisher: Ubisoft; Developer: Ubisoft Montreal; Players: 1-2; Released: April 30th, 2014; ESRB: E10+; MSRP: $14.99

This review was based on retail PC code.

Tamriilin likes Mass Effect, MMOs, and JRPGs — perhaps sometimes too much. He has a taste for the insane vis-a-vis videogames, and loves when a game doesn’t take itself seriously. When not ranting about current goings on in the industry, you can find various other musings on his twitter @tamriilin.

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