Ubisoft managed to create a turn-based, side-scrolling fantasy role-playing game (RPG), as deeply Western – or rather “European” – as it’s possible to be. It’s neither an indie nor as massive in scale as a triple-A, falling somewhere in the middle. Even if we dislike this particular game, we should encourage the creation of such small, but full, games. In the end there is plenty to celebrate, but I think my adoration for Child of Light is more about what it’s trying to achieve as opposed to what it did achieve.
What you can’t ignore can blind you
Child of Light strikes first with its visuals, then with its music. It proceeds to shower you in experience by conveying story in rhyme. After all, everything, absolutely everything it does, hinges on it being a dream-like, fairytale experience: you play a princess, your colourful companions each have their own motivations, the land is populated by fantastical creatures – from people-sized mice to skull-tatooed spiders – and magic is both devastating and healing. Even the visuals – moving water-colours – look as though they’re from the pages of a book read at bedtime.
It’s hard to ignore the amount of work that went into the visuals. The main character, Aurora, is one of the few obviously 3D elements in the game: her hair moves as if she’s in water, again adding to the dream-like experience. But everything from the background, with its curling mists and silent giants walking toward mountains, to the cutscenes demonstrate traditional 2D illustration talent.
And this is actually a problem: Trying not to let these gorgeous visual skins knit a blindfold made of beauty to actually assess the game it portrayed.
The story, too, only got cringe-worthy when the writer, Jeffrey Yohalem (who also wrote my beloved Far Cry 3), forced rhyming lines. Otherwise, the individual stories and characters were as rich as they needed to be – indeed, that fairy tales aren’t used more often for games is intriguing, considering the bare bones of questing and succeeding is built in to all fairy tales. The story matches the visuals perfectly and though there is an almost no voice-acting, this was a wise choice. Reading the dialogue actually aided the fairy-tale aspect, as did the pleasant-sounding woman narrating.
The game itself
This is a game, meaning player interaction to some degree. The first obvious way it marks itself out as a game is the combat.
Many are calling Child of Light a JRPG, specifically because of its combat – and I’m not sure that should be the case. After all, turn-based combat isn’t unique to Japanese games nor should we consider that country the origin of turn-based. Turn-based games have been part of gaming in its many forms, since we first reduced conflict to miniatures on a board. I’m not convinced the “J” is a useful descriptor.
But, call it what you wish – the point is combat is turn-based, with aspects of quick-time management. For example, when your characters reach the point of acting, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to act. One an action is selected, there is a shorter bar after that – depending on the length of the action – may or may not be performed. Its actualization is determined by whether your opponent’s actions arrive at the end of this short bar before you. If they act before, and target you, your action is interrupted.
This is perhaps my favourite part of the combat: strategic consideration means choosing a less powerful action because it is shorter, allowing you to interrupt an opponent. Yes, you do less damage, but he’s prevented from perhaps a devastating attack. Furthermore, you can choose one long action from one character and one short action from another character – this allows the shorter action to interrupt enemies, while the longer action has a clear path so it can perhaps hurt all enemies.
And so on. The point is, combat becomes a game of strategy, of balance, and economy.
Experience allows you to level up, pointing points into relevant trees. Your companions are the typical fantasy companions, each with strengths to complement each other. A good choice on Ubisoft is not to make any one character too powerful nor too weak: any combination can work, aiding the strategic implementation. You feel cheated only because you didn’t think about the right character to fight with – not because the enemies are hard.
The combat is easy to perform, but complex to perfect. It isn’t hard, since the game wants you to continue, but it’s not a matter of hitting one button.
Yet, despite this, I became bored with the game quite quickly.
The rest is comprised of journeying left and right, sometimes into the screen when doors appear. Aurora’s ability to fly aids this. Your onscreen companion is a small ball of blue fire called Igniculus (which is Latin for “little fire/flame”) and his snarky dialogue makes him a great partner. Couch co-op allows another player to control him, but I doubt that would will be very popular. During combat Igni can blind enemies, slowing them down and heal the heroes.
Igni might be one of the best things to come out of recent gaming and I really, really want one for myself. He actually reminds me of the Ghost companion in the upcoming Destiny (voiced by Peter Dinklage). I guess that’ll have to do.
The combat gets stale. Yes, despite the interest and the strategic thinking, combat will meet the fate of almost all turn-based combat games. Turn-based combat becomes boring, I think, for four reasons: the camera position, the sounds, the environment, the actions. All of these are repeated and repeated and repeated. What separates real-time combat – even sidescrolling combat – is that at least your character is in a different position and you are making decisions on the fly. Nothing is allowed to be static. Yet, turn-based relies on things being static.
But static is death to fun.
This is why XCOM works: the camera position and landscape changed. Characters didn’t announce the same things or scream the same way. Mostly they were silent and let their giant guns do the talking. We speak English but most of us don’t speak kaboom.
Again, I don’t think turn-based combat is inherently boring only it must do a lot more work to escape this genetic disease than real-time. Bethesda’s FPS open-world games, for example, have the clunkiest, stupidest combat I’ve ever experienced but are real time.
Further, due to the limitations of side-scrolling, there isn’t much in terms of variety elsewhere. For example, yes, the environments change – but quests are usually about just destroying creatures. Further, there’s no map to speak of that can locate specific areas within the different environments. Want to know where that tree is? Too bad, you’ll have to fly around in that one part until you do.
There was little that encouraged me to explore, since I grew tired of combat. The idea of trying to navigate my way back also didn’t seem appealing if the off-beaten path wasn’t required. This is a damning aspect to an adventure game, especially in a gorgeous world as seen in Child of Light.
Enemies too reappear, sometimes larger, sometimes in flames. There were enough of them, but the main issue was their appearance and their similar attacks. Though I could say that about any turn-based game. Their lack of health bars made the combat more difficult, too – though I don’t know whether the lack of one aids or harms the game. You just don’t know how far you are from killing them – except when they start slouching.
The game allows you to craft, using gems called Oculi. Initially it sounds like fun, but after a while I found myself not bothering either. There was little significantly gained after finding increase speed and magical attacks.
Companions manage a good variety, however, and I adored all of them. And there’s a reason for that: each of them did something different, each looked different, each played different. The limitations to only allowing two heroes – plus my adored Igni – to fight I think is a smart, not annoying, move, since it forces that strategic thinking. But it still doesn’t overcome the burden of banality that eventually overwhelms all such games.
No matter how pretty they are.
All of these negative aspects were hard to see and indeed write about. Strangely, it feels like yelling at a kitten. But, being critical can’t be blunted due to something being cute or adorable.
The game is not hard on the wallet. For a lovely experience, you’d be hard pressed to find anything of the same value. It looks especially gorgeous on new gen, the music is stunning and the game itself plays well most of the time. But don’t expect to be consistently entertained and realize the biggest demon the game will make you battle is boredom.
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