It took me several hours to realize what was troubling me about Child of Light. It's a stunning game, with lovely music, endearing characters and complex combat mechanics - in short, a laundry list of RPG aspects that I adore. And yet something was off. I flew, I slew, searched the landscape through and through, and even while I went right on appreciating every aspect of Child of Light's design, I was forced to admit that I wasn't actually enjoying it all that much.
At last, somewhere between crafting my umpteenth oculi and listening to yet more awkward rhyming, I figured it out: I didn't care about any of it. Child of Light has a nearly perfect exterior, but it has absolutely no soul.
Child of Light is a 2D RPG starring Aurora, a firey-haired princess who finds herself in a dreamland on the wrong side of a magic mirror. Eager to get back to her brokenhearted father, she gathers a team of skilled compatriots and begins her quest to return the sun, moon and stars to their rightful spots, thus banishing darkness and the evil queen's magic. It's the perfect setup for a bedtime story, working perfectly with the game's artistic sensibilities. The hand-painted environments are glorious and inventive, taking full advantage of your entire screen.
Aurora will fly to great heights (well, once she has her tiny wings, anyway) and plumb the depths of the land to accomplish her task, and none of it feels like RPG by the numbers. Yes, there's an area filled with lava, but it doesn't feel like The Lava Level. One environment flows naturally into the next, an obvious extension of this fairytale landscape, and any buildings or creatures that appear to further the plot seem to have been waiting for ages. The exclamation point hovering just above their heads seems less crass than similar markers do in other RPGs, somehow. It's all just so very lovely.
The gameplay shoring up those aesthetics is equally competent, offering surprising flexibility and depth. The party-based combat uses the flow of a Time Line to govern the turns; each character flows along the Time Line at different speeds, and once they get to the "cast" zone at the end, they can make their tactical choice. Some moves take longer to execute than others, and if an enemy can thwack you before you pull off whatever move you selected, you get "interrupted" and sent careening back up the Time Line, forced to wait until you can make your move again.
Different enemies and characters move at different speeds, especially once they're in the casting zone, so combat requires constant attention and flexibility. In many turn-based RPGs, you can kind of zone out and just run through the same strategy every time, but once Child of Light starts picking up, your approach to combat will have to stay pretty fluid unless you plan on chugging health tonics.
Though you can only take two characters into battle, you can swap them in and out during the fight in whatever way best suits your needs. Bring one character in to slow down your enemies, swap them out for another who can do massive elemental damage, trade the tank for someone more precise. It's a bit of a twist on the traditional party structure, but everyone gets experience no matter what, so you never feel bad about your choices, and not always having the hero in the fray holds a certain subversive allure.
It's all very well crafted and well paced – and yet there is absolutely nothing in Child of Light that will make you care about any of it. The members of your party aren't your usual group of adventurers (the bow-wielding mouse looking to impress his ladyfriend is my particular favorite), but under their storybook exteriors, they're pretty much all the same. Each character has a unique set of skill trees to flesh out, though they all basically just increase standard defense and offense while occasionally offering up stronger versions of whatever moves that character has. You level them up, but they don't really become more interesting or feel more powerful, they just get stronger so they can keep pace with the enemies you'll encounter. The leveling happens so frequently and with such little overall impact that it loses any sense of significance or satisfaction pretty quickly.
You all have access to Oculi, as well, gemstones that grant different powers when they're embedded in your weapon or armor. A sapphire in your sword puts some water power in your wallops, but in your shield it protects from water attacks. Oculi can be combined to make stronger versions of themselves or brand new gems, and the discovery of a new oculi is always a bit of a thrill. Still, it begins to feel a bit rote as you move from area to area, realizing that you've swapped out fire monsters for earth monsters and need to shuffle your oculi accordingly.
It's not a bad system, but like the skill trees, it never feels like it grows so much as just gets bigger. A rough citrine adds enough light damage for lower levels, but you'll need the faceted citrine once you've gone a few chapters in. And so you dutifully craft and combine and hunt down chests full of oculi bounty, shrugging as you do. Perhaps if the stones were more rare, or if there were more crafting options, or if they did different things for different characters, they might've been more interesting. As they are, they're just another mechanically sound tool that's just sort of there, rounding out the feature list.
Some of Child of Light's lifelessness may also be down to its decision to have characters speak entirely in verse. It's easy to see the thought process behind it, as it makes the tale feel even more like something pulled from a storybook, but it's so stilted that it makes it difficult to connect with anybody in the game. With the exception of the jester who is rather charmingly inept at constructing rhymes, everyone speaks in rhymes with awkward cadence that never really accumulate any sort of enticing flow. The method of how things are being said distracts from the meaning of what is being said, and so the player remains at arm's length from the cast, a spectator to the performance. In better hands, perhaps the rhyme scheme would've been able to evoke more emotion, but in Child of Light, it's a technique that creates a barrier between player and tale.
And so you're left with an admittedly beautiful world that rewards you for exploration with oodles of hidden treasures in the form of potions, buffs and oculi. The gentle music provides the perfect background for your travels, and the RPG elements provide just enough depth to hold your attention without ever overwhelming or befuddling. But there's simply no soul in Child of Light, no emotional attachment to keep you pressing on into the darkness. There isn't even a good addictive hook – the story makes a few feeble tugs at your heartstrings, but doesn't create any great mysteries that you'll be desperate to solve, and the combat, while solid, never quite achieves "just one more round" status. It's all lovely and pleasant and well-crafted – and hollow. If you play Child of Light, you will almost assuredly enjoy your time with it, and then put it away and never think about it ever again. Which is how dreams are meant to be, I suppose.
This review is based on a pre-release download of the Xbox One version of Child of Light, provided by Ubisoft. Images: Ubisoft. Ubisoft has noted that Child of Light will come with a Day One patch that will address a number of issues. We encountered no problems during our playthrough.
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