Few things can excite me more than an RPG with the promise of rich narrative. If that statement sounds redundant, I understand. The MVP of game styles when it comes to story and character has always effortlessly belonged to the roleplaying game. But in this day and age, nearly all games have experience points, advancement systems, and character classes–whether they can be rightly classified as RPGs or not. For better or for worse, the genre of RPG has become more and more hazy as time has gone on. So I always feel a genuine thrill of excitement when another “pure” RPG takes the spotlight.
So you can imagine my anticipation when I first read about Child of Light.
Child of Light is the story of a small girl named Aurora. Thrust into the strange and sometimes frightening world of Lemuria, she must find her way back to her home in Austria. It’s an Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland tale with a Germanic fairy-tale twist that is just as charming as it is moving.
The first thing you’ll notice in Child of Light is the gorgeous art direction. The watercolor characters and scenery seem to float onscreen, complemented by a delicate, yet sweeping musical score. More than just about any game this year, Child of Light proves itself to be a true work of art. The characters are unique and creative, but they’re nothing compared to the epic grandiosity that is Lemuria. The gorgeous landscape makes for some of the most fun I’ve had exploring a digital world since Skyrim. It’s compact but wildly varied, with dozens of hidden places for you to discover. In this fairy-tale land you’ll meet trolls and wizards and fairy queens–birds that talk, and fish that sing.
It’s this aesthetic and overall mood that almost feels like Child of Light is picking up where games like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons left off. It’s a feeling of melancholic wonder–laughter through tears. And if it feels like I’m referencing that particular game quite a bit lately, it’s only because 505 Games knows exactly where to deliver the whimsy knife–and I think they left their mark on a lot of games. Though where Brothers went with mute characters, Child of Light opts for rhyming verse–really well written rhyming verse, at that. Initially it feels like this is a gimmick that is going to get old really fast (see the Shakespeare’s Star Wars books for example), but they don’t overdo it. When dialogue is used (and it isn’t sparse, by any means), it feels necessary and carefully thought out and crafted. The result is a cast of characters that you feel a real kinship to, even in the space of a ten hour game.
As far as gameplay is concerned, Child of Light doesn’t do very much that one could call unique, but it doesn’t do anything wrong, either. The turn-based combat system should be familiar to any gamer with a pulse, though its interruption system offers up enough challenge to keep you engaged. The opportunity that the enemy has to endlessly stop a player from attacking makes for a frustrating game when said player is attempting to just dial it in.
The use of gemstones called “oculi” to power and buff one’s abilities is a simple touch that allows for enough customization without resorting to the massive arsenal you would see in a larger RPG. This is a particularly nice counterpart to the sprawling skill trees that Aurora and her companions each have. As lengthy as they tend to be, they’re far from inaccessible, as you’ll find yourself leveling up after every other combat scenario.
You control both Aurora and her firefly friend Igniculus, which makes for interesting player choices. Do you use his ability to blind enemies while Aurora winds up for another slash of her sword? Or do you hover him over one of your characters for some slow but steady healing? The use of Igniculus makes for a unique experience, though only being able to fight with two characters at a time made me feel as if I was missing out, particularly with such a short game.
And as gorgeous as the scenery is, I felt that not including a more localized map was a mistake on Ubisoft’s part. There were more than a few places that I wish I could have returned to quickly and easily, but found that I had to wander around a fair amount before I remembered where exactly they were. And while this is actually a testament to how unique and varied the different landscapes of Child of Light are, it still added an annoying burr to an otherwise wonderful experience.
The other gym sock filled with angry bees that comes from this game has less to do with the gameplay and more to do with the publisher’s choice to accompany Child of Light with release day DLC. And while this is a subject that has been tackled by many critics in this profit-centered era of gaming, I feel that it’s important to point out that Child of Light is already a short enough adventure without having the nerve to request more money right off the bat. On the other hand, one could argue that one only has to shell out $20 to get the full game with DLC, and that’s not too much to ask. And while that’s a fair point, I would have been happier to just pay $20 to play every bit of the game all at once.
Minor annoyances cannot, however, hide the fact that this is an amazing experience. Child of Light is about how we deal with tragedy. It encourages us not to accept the sadness passively, but to strike out against the darkness with everything we have within us. It’s a meaningful, complex game wrapped in a rudimentary veneer.
With a visual aesthetic that matches its simple and beautiful story, Child of Light is the sort of game that makes me hopeful. I honestly feel that there is a level of wonder missing from the majority of our games. And you don’t have to put on a pair of wings and sprinkle fairy dust on everything to achieve it. But the simple, honest feeling that you get from games like this can really change things for future projects–particularly when it comes from a AAA studio like Ubisoft.
Child of Light is the latest entry in that delicate genre of sad, bleary-eyed whimsy that has been so ever-present in indie games this decade, and I was thrilled to play it. Dreamy and heavily atmospheric, it is some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year.