Between huge titles like Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and the upcoming Watch Dogs comes a smaller scale game from a large scale developer. Ubisoft’s Child of Light is a fairytale story wrapped around a JRPG (Japanese Roleplaying Game) fighting system with some light platforming to boot. Like most Ubisoft games of late there are multiple game systems in place in Child of Light but is the end result greater than the sum of its parts?
Child of Light opens with a storybook introduction to an Austrian kingdom which protagonist Aurora inhabits. Upon her mother’s untimely death, Aurora’s father remarries and shortly afterwards Aurora grows ill and passes away as well. As far as fairytales go this one opens more like something from the Grimm collection rather than the Disney vault. However, death is not the end for Aurora as she soon wakes up in a dream like world called Lemuria. From there Aurora sets out on a quest to return to her waking world so that she may be reunited with her father. Along the way she’ll come across several characters that will join her party and assist her in the many turn based battles she’ll be taking part in throughout the game.
The first thing that you’ll notice upon starting Child of Light is its visuals. Ubisoft has once again employed their UbiArt Framework engine to great effect. This engine was previously used in the last two Rayman games and while those titles were very visually impressive 2D titles, Child of Light shows just how proficient this engine is in showcasing handcrafted 2D art in a way that the Rayman games only first hinted at. Some background elements as well as Aurora herself are rendered polygonally and this has the effect of making her pop out from the background. A striking and practical visual technique which makes it easy for the player to pick out Aurora from the background she’s traversing in front of.
The next stylistic aspect that will grab your attention is the game’s rigid adherence to doling out all dialogue in rhyme. It’s a novel effect at first which really invokes the fairytale aspect that the game is exuding but it grows tired and a bit distracting in a very short amount of time. It is not uncommon for the rhyming scheme to change meter during dialogue between characters and phrases occasionally employ broken syntax in order to squeeze in a forced rhyme. This was a technique best used sparingly and rather than enveloping me in the storybook world it often pulled me out of it and called attention to the fact that I was playing a game that was simply emulating a fairytale.
Gameplay in Child of Light is divided between exploration and combat. Initially you’ll be traversing through Child of Light in a manner akin to traditional platformers. Aurora can run right or left, she can jump, pull switches and push boxes to reach higher areas. Fairly early on in the game Aurora gains the ability of flight which makes traversal a fair bit more trivial but the expediency in which you can travel from one location to another is more than welcome. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be more switch based puzzles impeding your progress though.
When you’re not making your way through Child of Light’s gorgeous backdrops you’ll be engaging in turn based combat that recalls a Final Fantasy title, especially the more recent ones which employ the Active Time Battle (ATB) system. Enemies can be seen walking around the environment and running or flying into them will trigger combat. Approaching enemies from behind will catch them off guard and grant you the initiative in combat and blinding them before walking into them has the same effect.
In combat you and your party members are presented with a few basic options. You can attack, defend, use an item or cast a spell. These actions are all tied to differing lengths of time required to carry them out. At the bottom of the screen is a timeline with icons representing your party as well as the enemies on the field. As time progresses the icons move to the right of the bar and upon reaching the last fifth of the bar they will begin to carry out their actions. The combat strategy in Child of Light relies heavily on your awareness of the timeline and knowing when to attack. Attacking with a quick but weak attack can stagger and interrupt an opponent who has been progressing slowly on the time bar as they readied a slow and destructive attack.
Your main tool for influencing the flow of time on the bar is a character named Igniculus. Either you or a second player can take control of Igniculus and blind opponents on the field thus slowing their progression along the timeline. However, later enemies will react to this technique in a variety of ways such as immediately counter attacking so use of Igniculus needs some thought. His ability to expend blinding light is also limited by a mana bar which can be replenished by collecting ‘wishes’ (Balls of light on the field and in the world outside of combat).
As you progress through the game you will encounter several characters that can either dole out side quests or even join your party. These party members add additional layers of consideration to combat as you balance their abilities with Aurora’s against the enemy’s particular skills and composition on the field. Child of Light is a game meant for children as well and the difficulty of combat reflects this. The normal difficulty is incredibly easy and all tactical considerations could be thrown out of the window in the face of incessant grinding and judicious use of potions. All the tactical planning that the timeline encourages can be forgotten with little to no punishment on this difficulty. The only other difficulty option in the game makes failure in combat a more realistic possibility and is recommended if you are no stranger to turn based RPG games.
The leveling up mechanic is a bit of a sore spot seeing as you level up after every handful of battles. This may sound great but when the majority of your skill tree unlocks consist of minor stat boosts it just creates busywork and breaks up the pace of the game when you’re constantly entering this level up screen, a screen you attend to for every character in your party that gains a level. Meaningful unlocks such as new abilities or spells come only after several gated unlocks that increase a stat by a number so small that you see no real discernible difference in combat. In addition to this is a crafting system that can go entirely ignored for the whole game but is there if you want to delve into it. Combat tuning and a tighter leveling system would have made this feature more viable and the game itself a lot more engaging.
Child of Light came as a surprise to me. I had only heard of it in passing and always in association with its visuals. I was happy to see that beneath the beauty of Child of Light’s surface was a deceptively deep combat system which can genuinely challenge if you allow it to. While the presentation falls flat in some places the core experience feels new. The combat system is familiar but with enough new quirks to make it feel like its own and the game is consistently beautiful throughout its ten to twelve hour play time. Child of Light is ultimately a success and another great showing for Ubisoft’s growing stable of gorgeous 2D games.