Child of Light is undoubtedly beautiful, but it’s more than just an average RPG with a pretty face. The story is a standard fairy tale concoction about Aurora (a reference to Sleeping Beauty), a princess who slips into a coma and leaves her father so distraught that he leaves his kingdom to decay. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, Aurora doesn’t sleep for 100 years and wait for her prince to come. Instead, the little red-haired girl is transported to the magical land of Lemuria. Playing as Aurora, you must thwart the Dark Queen, who has stolen the sun, the moon and the stars, and return them to Lemuria and her home world.
From the very first title screen, Child of Light displays its good looks. It may sound like a cliche, but the game’s graphics really do feel like stepping into the pages of a story book. Every vista is a delicate watercolour painting with light pen and ink style line work.
The world is once again the stuff of fairy tales, populated by stone giants, floating islands, dwarfs and ghouls. In one village the people have been turned into crows by the evil Queen and there’s a whimsical, sepia-toned market city, populated by well-dressed rats playing fiddles and discussing the financial situation.
Once Aurora gains her wings, Lemuria reveals different levels, as she soars among the clouds and tethered air balloons or drifts past floating islands and gently waving tree branches. Each landscape also has its underworld of tunnels, which may hide lava pools and fire demons or dank wells and ghostly women.
Aurora herself is a gorgeous parcel of animation; her hair wooshes behind her, as she moves and then swirls around her, when she changes direction, as if she’s under water. And when she gains her substantial sword its tip clangs to the floor, as she struggles to wield it. Even mid-battle Aurora staggers back with the weight of her sword.
But it’s not just the animation that is a joy in Child of Light. The audio for this game is as rich as the visuals. The slap of Aurora’s tiny bare feet, as she runs is reminiscent of the pathos of Ico and her wings have a delicate buzz like a hummingbird.
Then there’s the music. At times the music offers a hint of Chinese with a plaintive violin and then a minimalist piano, reminding me of Michael Nyman, who scored the film The Piano. In some of the towns, we get lilting piano and strings and then full orchestral bombast for battles. Sometimes the music is so poignant, it makes you feel little Aurora’s struggle – tiny and lost in this confusing land. It makes you feel in the quiet moments, but never dominates or grates.
As if we needed another nod to fairy tales, all the dialogue and narration is poetry. Rather than go for the dum-de-dum-de-dum style of verse, the writer, Jeffrey Yohalem, who also wrote Far Cry 3, opted for a looser poetic form.
Twee limmerick-style rhymes, are eschewed in favour of a less structured rhythm. Some have seen this as a sign of bad poetry, but it’s actually a wise decision on the part of the writer, as a more nursery-rhyme style would have been trying for a whole game. In addition, there are little word gags thrown in, as some characters fail to rhyme their dialogue, leading to corrections from others. It made me smile, but I’m a literature graduate, so I’m easily swayed.
Once you get past the glossy surface of Child of Light, it is essentially a Japanese style RPG, dressed in a Western storybook setting. However, the standard turn-based battles have been given a little bit of extra depth, which makes it a great improvement on the usual JRPG.
The essential addition to the mix is Aurora’s small sidekick – a little, blue firefly called Igniculus. He is a little ball of glowing light and illuminates areas Aurora can’t reach, which allows her to solve puzzles. But in a combat situation, Igniculus can be used to gain a strategic advantage.
The battles are based on a time bar, along the bottom of the screen and each character can only act once they reach the casting zone, on the far right-hand side. Igniculus can be used to dazzle the foes (powered by darkness) and slow their progress along the bar. This means Aurora can overtake and strike first.
Every spell or action takes a certain amount of time to cast, so it can be prudent to cast a short, less powerful spell, rather than risk trying to cast a long action. The catch is that an attack can interrupt your action, making your spell null and void.
Throughout the game, Aurora meets various characters who decide to join her and become her allies in battles. Despite having a team of six, only two can be in a battle at any one time. However, other characters can be swapped in mid-battle.
Each of the characters have a story to tell, opening up side quests. They all have a different set of skills in battle. Skills include buffs for your team, such as stopping interruptions or healing the party, to debuffs to lull foes and slow their progress along the time bar.
Child of Light offers me the most enjoyable turn-based combat system I’ve ever played. There is a real sense of strategy in balancing your buffs and debuffs and choosing the right length of spells to win the day. The ability to swap team mates mid-way through a battle does make combat feel a little too easy to win. Some players may need to crank the difficulty up to hard, rather than normal in order to feel any challenge.
In addition, XP does come thick and fast. Once you have points to spend, you are greeted by an expansive skills tree, which makes little sense, so you just sling them around willy nilly. But you get so many points and so frequently, that it almost becomes a chore to decide which arbitrary stat to put them in, until you reach your next major skill upgrade.
Despite these minor flaws, Child of Light remains a delight to play. Its beauty makes it a pleasure to explore and the open world feel, means you can complete missions and side quests in your own time. Foes are visible in the world and can be avoided or confronted, as you wish, making it a relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable game, every time you check in.
It’s refreshing to see a publisher as big as Ubisoft offer us something as gentle and thoughtful as Child of Light. Although its difficulty curve may need a little tweaking, Child of Light never felt like a grind, which is not something you can say about an RPG every day or ever. I’d say this is a risk that has well and truly paid off for Ubisoft and I hope a sign of more to come.