Arriving with very little fanfare, Ubisoft Montreal’s modern day fairy tale, Child of Light, emerges on all platforms into an industry dominated by repetitive first person shooters and tiresome annual updates, to offer gamers something entirely different. It is an artistic and dreamlike RPG adventure that’s unlike anything else on this year’s release schedule, a refreshing change for those hungry for something more in their video games, and perhaps best of all, it’s also very, very good…
In the fragile boundary between sleep and consciousness, we find the domain of the lurid dream, where a sleeping person-aware that they are dreaming-can influence the events that take place within the domain of their own slumbering minds. And in essence, that sums up the feeling of playing Child of Light; it is a beautiful dream, one that the player can influence, and most likely, one that they will never wish to awaken from.
First and foremost, the primary attraction of the game stems from its indescribably gorgeous visuals. Built upon the same UbiArt engine that powers Rayman Legends, Child of Light employs a marvellous watercolour art style, which it does it a way similar to the fantastic, Braid. The abnormally beautiful vistas on display are comprised of multiple layers that stretch from the fleeting leaves carried by on gusts of wind, or the fluttering branches of a foreground that can see the player reduced to a voyeur watching the action unfolding before them, to the distant splashes of colour that comprise the rolling hills, lush forests and meandering clouds of backgrounds so absorbing, that nothing else will quite look the same again. The subtle details, such as the distant waterfalls, rows of houses, or the shafts of light that pour down into the dark, wooded areas bring the world to life, whilst its dilapidated shrines and temples give it an aged feel, a sense of a realistic grounding that its colourful characters and towering giants cannot detract from, but only instead instil a sense of boundless wonder into the player. Nothing appears to be out of place, it is a creation of inspiring imagination and a world that is fully connected to its inhabitants.
Naturally, the audio is an important part of the experience too, with the majority of the action taking place with an accompanying piano based soundtrack, aching in melancholy and unrelentingly haunting. It is the perfect fit for the overriding aesthetic ambitions of the title, as it pulls at the heartstrings with an overwhelming force, further drawing the player into its world. Fight scenes are enhanced with dramatic, orchestral compositions that would give some of Nobuo Uematsu’s best work a run for its money, though overall the tone is sombre and downbeat to perfectly compliment the visuals, as well as the setting.
The story sees a young girl, Aurora, fall ill and pass from the real world into a fairy tale land, Lumeria, as it succumbs to the ever strengthening grip of unrelenting darkness. Its fate, is that it is seemingly to be entirely consumed by evil, and only this one girl can hope to revert this, and return the light back into its heart. From the start, it is made rather clear that the real world and Lemuria are connected, and that all is not quite what it seems. The development team set out to create a modern day fairy tale, but they surpassed even this lofty ambition, by crafting a narrative of considerably more depth, resulting a touching, coming-of-age tale that will soften even the most hardened of hearts. This is heightened with subtle flourishes of humour and a consistent rhyming scheme that is incorporated into the entirety of the dialogue found in the game, whilst this invariably adds to the storybook aesthetic no end, it does perhaps loose its momentum at times, leaving it feeling somewhat fractured and perhaps even difficult to follow, though of course, this is a rather trivial complaint, and one that the wonderful aesthetics more than compensate for.
In essence, the game plays out as though a simple 2D platform/puzzle game, vaguely similar to its predecessors Limbo and Braid, with the player guiding Aurora through vast areas of a world littered with collectibles, treasure chests, traps and enemies. Encounters with the latter take the game out of this realm and into that of the turn based RPG. Ubisoft Montreal have employed an active time battle (ATB) system in their game, one that is rather strongly reminiscent of Game Art’s amazing, Grandia 2, which sees a bar displayed at the base of the screen indicating to the player in which order characters will be able to move. At the end of the bar, there is a section for casting, as some moves obviously take longer to perform than others characters move along this at varying speeds, and their moves can be interrupted by attacks, just like Grandia, but this is also where the team have managed to implement in a rather interesting little amendment of their own. To make combat both more interactive and also slightly more strategic, players can use the light of Aurora’s mainstay companion, Igniculus (a firefly) to stun opponents, inhibiting their ability to perform their moves, or alternatively, they can turn this upon their own characters which will see their HP slowly restored. Of course, this must be used sparingly, as Iniculus’ powers are limited, though they can be restored through the collection of wishes, both in battle and throughout the world of Lemuria.
A gripe about combat would be that there is little use for the ability to switch out characters from the party, whilst each generally has a speciality of their own, players will more than likely find a combination of two characters that they like, and stick with them. Likewise, the option to defend in battle is one that most gamers will not likely use very much at all, the best defence is generally a strong offence in Child of Light, strategy is not a key element to victory here.
Successfully defeating opponents will result in the awarding of experience points, this, naturally, will see characters become more powerful once they have collected enough to level up, and it is also at this juncture that the game awards them points to spend on a vast, connected skill tree, similar in style to the Sphere Grid system employed in Final Fantasy X. This affords players the opportunity to purchase enhanced attacking moves, status ailment and healing abilities, magic attacks and stat boosts, all of which will be necessary if players are to overcome the vast array of enemies and bosses that await them on this glorious adventure.
In addition, Child of Light also includes a feature known as Oculi, wherein players can utilise the various fragments of gemstones that they find scattered around Lemuria to craft status boosting enhancements that can be attached to character’s weapons, shields and talismans. There isn’t really enough variety to it, unfortunately, so players will be unlikely to see any need to change these once they have fitted those that they think are best, but regardless, it is still a subtle helping of additional depth to the game.
In all, Ubisoft Montreal have succeeded in creating a video game that is surprisingly easy to pick up and yet utterly impossible to put down again, resulting in one of the finest RPG releases of recent years. Child of Light is a mesmerising combination of indescribable beauty and seemingly effortless charm, a mixture of gorgeous aesthetics and supremely well balanced mechanics, backed up by a brilliantly paced, and originally delivered narrative. Even this early on, Ubisoft have presented us with a contender for game of the year, as a full retail release it would come as being highly recommended, but as a cut price digitally distributed title, it is a truly essential purchase. Alice Sebold wrote in her novel, The Lovely Bones, that “sometimes the dreams that come true are the dreams you never even knew you had”, Child of Light is one such example.
-James Paton @theblackpage81