Take Flight, Child of Light
Many games have had fairy tale themes, but none have created the feel of being in a fairy tale quite so well as Child of Light . This little digital download RPG by Ubisoft transports the player to a world that feels like a picture book, in which everyone speaks in verse and fresh wonders are always around the corner. It is a good game but a fantastic experience, one that comes highly recommended to any gamer whose heart has not yet transformed into a black pit of cynicism.
This is the story of Aurora, the beloved daughter of a widowed duke. Soon after the duke remarries (we’re told off the bat that he has “misplaced his heart,” so cue the wicked stepmother theme), Aurora falls into a deathlike sleep one night, breaking her father’s heart. Stepping into Aurora’s shoes, we awaken in a dark forested fairyland called Lemuria, beginning a quest to defeat the evil queen who has stolen the sun, moon and stars. Aurora is a loveable, courageous girl who must grow from a lonely child into a heroine of two worlds, and her journey is both fantastical and achingly human.
From beginning to end, it’s the look and sound of Child of Light that will keep players transported into the realm of Lemuria. The 2D art is breathtakingly beautiful. Delicate brushstrokes create scenes straight out of the imagination, from the enchanted depths of a witch’s cursed well to a Bavarian city filled with entrepreneurial mice. There are both wonders and horrors to be found, but the game never crosses into saccharine sappiness or the gore-soaked “mature” path that many games take when they attempt to create fairy tales for adults. It’s a land that begs to be explored by people of all ages, colorful without overwhelming the senses and full of lovingly-crafted details that beg the player to stop a moment, look and listen.
A lushly orchestrated soundtrack provides the backdrop to this fascinating dream world, and it’s some of the best video game music I’ve heard in years. The healing power of music is one of the game’s themes, one that is backed up by the game’s own musical score. It’s the kind of music that not only evokes the emotion the game hopes to convey at a given moment, but that actively creates an emotional investment in the scene. I dearly hope that composer Cœur de Pirate creates the soundtrack for many more games in the future.
The one element of Child of Light ‘s presentation that isn’t an unmitigated success is the decision to present every piece of text in rhyme. When it works it’s quite charming, but the scansion (the rhythm of the verse) is frequently off, leading to dialogue that reads awkwardly. The developers poke light fun of this affectation with Rubella, a character who can’t rhyme to save her life and must be corrected by the other characters, but it’s not the rhyming that’s the issue, it’s the rhythm. It was a bold choice to present the game in verse, and such a choice should have been backed up by stronger execution. Perhaps it would have helped if the game had been fully voice-acted, as the few parts that are spoken flow much better than those that aren’t.
Of course, this isn’t a movie, so when it’s time to stop admiring the game and get down to playing it, how does it hold up? The world is a side-scrolling labyrinth, but I’d hesitate to call movement through it “platforming.” Aurora gains the ability to fly early in the game, and the game’s controls nail this feeling with movement that is both delicate and easy to control. There’s some light puzzle solving and some movement challenges provided by hazardous walls or gusts of wind, but nothing particularly challenging or frustrating. The best part of exploring the world is the delightful verticality of it, as Aurora’s ability to fly allowed the designers to create a world of dizzying heights and dangerous depths, giving us plenty to explore in all directions.
Aurora’s firefly friend Igniculus provides an extra dimension to exploring the game. He’s controlled separately from Aurora either by the right stick or a second player. Igniculus can pass through walls, solve puzzles by illuminating objects, and make Aurora’s path easier by disarming traps. His talents are needed sparingly, though, so controlling him would best be done by a child or family member who is more interested in the world and story than in a gaming challenge. He’s perfectly easy for a single player to control, even when he needs to disarm a trap while Aurora moves through it.
There are plenty of opportunities for combat in Lemuria, as the Dark Queen’s shadowy minions stalk the world both high and low. Combat is a simple active time battle system with hidden depths that surface while fighting more challenging foes. All characters advance along a timeline at the bottom of the screen until able to act. Every attack has a cast time, and if a character or foe is hit while casting, they’re interrupted and tossed back down the timeline. Defending instead of acting allows a character to zoom through the timeline swiftly before the next move, so combat is a dance between the characters and foes. The player has a distinct advantage in this dance, though, because Igniculus can hover over a foe and slow it, often allowing a casting character to squeak in an attack before a foe.
Aurora acquires quite a collection of party members throughout the game, but only two characters can be in battle at once. Characters can easily be swapped in and out of battle, which is quite useful for tougher groups of enemies. Many characters have abilities that influence the timeline, such as speeding up the party or slowing and paralyzing enemies, though many enemies have these skills as well. Overall, it’s an entertaining dance that works well for a short game such as this one. It has just enough depth to be entertaining for the length of the game, and although it’s not a hard core challenge, foes are varied enough to keep one on one’s toes. It’s definitely possible to lose even an ordinary fight by making poor strategic decisions.
All of Aurora’s party members have a skill tree with three possible branches, but Child of Light is too compact an experience to truly take advantage of this deep kind of character customization. Characters level up every two to three fights, filling in the skill tree at a breakneck pace, and it’s not difficult to fully complete the tree by simply exploring and doing side-quests while playing the game. The tree provides interesting strategic choices in theory, but in practice the choices only matter early in the game.
The equipment crafting system fares better, allowing the player to craft magical gems that provide characters with specific bonuses. Most important among these are the gems that add elemental damage to a character’s weapon and can be swapped out to give a distinct combat advantage in different areas. It’s not long before the party will encounter fights with mixed elemental strengths and weaknesses, challenging the player to swap characters or swap in the party’s one elemental spellcaster. It’s a simple but nice system that works much better than the skill trees in a short RPG such as this.
I’ve mentioned game length a number of times because the only big problem with Child of Light is that it’s over just a bit too soon. Gameplay can be extended via thorough exploration and the occasional side quest, but just a few more hours of content would have been nice. This is particularly because it feels like the RPG systems underpinning the gameplay could have used a bit more room to breathe. They wouldn’t fit in a 40-hour epic, but 15 hours might have been nice.
Perhaps I’m just greedy, though. Playing Child of Light is such a delightful and immersive experience that it’s sad to see it end. Minor quibbles aside, this is one of those titles that anybody who loves games for their artistry won’t want to pass up. Yes, the gameplay is a nice mix of accessibility and depth (RPG veterans will want to play on hard mode), but more importantly, Child of Light touches that part of the human experience that echoes through time in our greatest legends and stories. You’ll want to grow, fight and soar through the air with Aurora. You’ll want to explore and see what enchanted wonder or horror lies around the next corner. And at the end, you’ll feel both satisfied and a little bit sad that you have to leave Lemuria.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 5.0 Graphics
Absolutely, lushly gorgeous from tip to toe. 4.5 Control
Flying is excellently controlled and fun, combat is easy to pick up but has hidden depths. 4.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The soundtrack is the best, but the game could have used voice acting to help establish better-flowing verse. 3.5 Play Value
Child of Light is a lovely dream that is over just a bit too soon. 4.5 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best