I’m not one for the pointless “games are art” debate tethered to recurring streams of steadfast Twitter bickering — games are played for fun, not as a detrimental analysis on society’s malfunctions — but Child of Light awakened something deep with me; something I’ve scarcely associated with a game since I leaped with a boyish fascination at the majesty of water droplets trickling down Samus’ visor in Metroid Prime. Child of Light is an all-consuming sensory experience that’s just as much pleasure to behold from afar as it is to interactively play.
In an era of game development governed by conservative risk aversion, as the new consoles remain caught in limbo, Child of Light shines through as the reasonably priced taste of something unique that we’ll look back on as the point of difference in 2014 video games; a year that is otherwise destined to be guided by overcautious cross-gen ports and pseudo-sequels excreting an inconsequential impasse.
Ubisoft Montreal has combined the essence of a Japanese role-playing game with a softened sense of adventure and the superb effects of the UbiArt engine used in the rebirth of Rayman. Whether it be during a trying turn-based battle or out exploring the layered artistic backgrounds, Child of Light retains a calming sense elegance. I never felt rushed, which is a strange thing to say about a 2D game.
The story follows Aurora, a young girl in 1895 Austria, who awakes adrift in the fairytale world of Lemuria. To get home, she has to find the lost sun, moon and stars that have been stolen by the dastardly Queen of the Night — but all is not as it seems.
A relaxing adventure, driven by a stunning sensory experience across its painted art style and superb soundtrack, as a light reworking of the JRPG.
Packing a totally outrageous sword, for a tiny girl, a glistening crown, supernatural powers and her magical companion Igniculus, which can be controlled by a second player, Aurora faces her darkest fears — including dragons and giant spiders — in a coming-of-age quest to return home to her father.
The visual fidelity will win awards, but the sound is an equal benefactor attributed to the deep care invested into the realisation of an ethereal world. The soundtrack hums gently, knowing when best to emphasise a sense of theatre and burst to the forefront of the action before retreating equally as appropriately into the background to harness the natural effects of Aurora’s feet pattering on the cold stony ground and her wings piercing through the darkened sky.
Did I forget to mention that she can fly? Or rather float through the picturesque landscape accompanied by her glowing, Navi-esque companion Igniculus. Introduced within the opening hour, aviating through a 2D space adds an unforeseen element to exploration. Dodging environmental hazards and searching for hidden treasure requires a change of tact when both characters can float, and one of them can infiltrate and illuminate darkened walls.
Igniculus is more versatile than most companion characters. He can light up dark crevasses to discover hidden items and has a crucial role to play in disempowering enemies. He’s in play for couch co-op, but is just as mandatory during a solo playthrough mapped to the right control stick.
Wandering enemies are visible in the platforming stages and can be engaged or avoided at your discretion, with the exception of bosses. As with most turn-based RPGs, consecutive engagements can become tiresome, but bare in mind the XP bonus which unlocks progression on Aurora’s skilltree, unleashing new abilities and making for a formidable warrior. While they won’t follow you around, Aurora is joined by one of a variety of companions for most of her adventure. Each drops in and out of the party with their own story to tell, and offer support in a battle team of two generally against three opponents.
Both allies and foes act in order of speed, using a two-pronged battle bar at the bottom of the screen. Each character must first reach the casting element of the progress bar, where an action is selected, but then wait for the subsequent meter to fill before performing it. Aurora rains down heavy blows with her sword and calls upon nature to stun enemies with an earthquake or destroy them with a whirlwind of devastating flames. Igniculus, meanwhile, can act to slow enemies approaching the casting range of the battle bar.
The time-based battle system means powerful attacks are not always the wisest option, even if you have enough MP to execute them. The nature of the beast means more powerful attacks take longer to perform, and you risk being interrupted and having to start again if an enemy gets an attack out before you. While floating around the battlefield baffling enemies, Igniculus can recover health presenting a conundrum: is it worth allowing enemies to engage sooner to recover health now? It’s a surprisingly cerebral dance, particularly if a single player is controlling Aurora with her active companion and Igniculus.
There’s a real sense of strategy unfolding as buffs and debuffs are activated and health needs to be weighed up against slowing enemies’ progress. The latter seems a given, but it is only worthwhile spending energy upon slowing one of the three enemies to a crawl if it will be the difference between Aurora striking second or first. As more skills are unlocked and adversaries learn handy new tricks, it evolves into a detailed battle of wits. What was once a delicate balance of nous and overwhelming power becomes a lesson in resource management, as enemies start blocking attacks and switching party members becomes paramount.
For all its complicated mechanisms in theory, Child of Light isn’t a very taxing game, at least not initially. The first half is a doddle on the normal difficulty, which is largely responsible for the sense of relaxation I found so endearing — while I enjoyed it as a change from the frantic cesspool of violence anchoring the key blockbusters, I understandably admit it could, and will, be construed as boring. It’s the type of game that deserves to be leisurely enjoyed, but atypical of such a genre, it isn’t one that needs an encore.
It’s a light criticism, and one I don’t even particularly resonate with, but one that must be acknowledged nonetheless. “Light” is in many ways the perfect word to summarise Child of Light. It’s a light adventure that won’t weigh you down, with light RPG elements, by JRPG standards, and a light learning curve that isn’t really fleshed out until you’re well past the halfway mark. By the same token, it’s a little light on story fizzling out towards the end, but it’s an equally light price, as a light piece of entertainment, but by no means short, in an inevitable lull in the console transition that has both sets of consoles, new and old, light on games.