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EGM Review: Child of Light

Posted on April 30, 2014 AT 12:30pm

Blinded by the Light

With Child of Light, Patrick Plourde and his indie-esque team at Ubisoft Montreal set out to create something unquestionably inspired by the classic Japanese role-playing games many of us grew up on. An homage, in part. An Ode to the Turn-Based. And, in most respects, Plourde not only nails the execution but sticks the landing with such spectacular grace that the current crop of Japanese born-and-raised role-playing games should feel embarrassed. A gaijin from the Great White North captured and modernized the essence of SNES-era Final Fantasy games with more aplomb than Square Enix’s been able to muster in the better part of a decade.

Well, again—for the most part. Unfortunately, Plourde’s simulation is so thorough that he also manages to replicate one of the source material’s biggest failings: a lack of narrative cogency. Though Child of Light’s storytelling shortcomings, at least, have nothing to do with raving incomprehensibility.

In the same vein as the fairy tales it draws heavily from—including Sleeping Beauty, from which our little lady hero Aurora gets her name—Child of Light tells a simple story about good versus evil intertwined with a bildungsroman. Aurora, the daughter of an Austrian duke, falls deeply ill and dies but somehow awakens to find herself in the magical land of Lemuria, a world populated by anthropomorphic animals and other mythical creatures. Here she is recognized as a princess and tasked with restoring balance to this strange world by reclaiming the Sun, the Moon, and the stars and vanquishing the Queen of the Night. It’s an uncomplicated narrative arrangement geared for a younger audience, though not so young a crowd that an adult would find Aurora’s adventure alienating.

The most immediate, arresting aspect to Child of Light is, of course, the form this fantasy world takes. Modeled after the illustrations of early 20th-century artist John Bauer, Child of Light’s minimally animated, explorable watercolor paintings–as–environments serve as the anchor point in what, collectively, feels less like a videogame that’s been disparately assembled and more like a communal artistic undertaking.

When so many games seem like product churned out annually to turn a profit or reined in from reaching their full potential by the heavy hand of market-minded publishers, it’s easy to forget that they nonetheless represent the confluence of all art forms: storytelling, visual, aural, even the beauty of mathematics that eludes so many of us manifests itself in the coding that binds a game together secretly behind the scenes. Child of Light, however, very much feels like a group of artists pooling their respective skills together to create an interactive amalgamation of those talents—from the pastel shades in each setting to the haunting rainfall of piano notes in Béatrice “Cœur de pirate” Martin’s score.

So as to not get in the way of all this observable beauty, and in service to SNES-era nostalgia, combat in Child of Light takes on a similar nuanced approach with a system rooted in simplicity that belies a surprising amount of depth and strategy. In effect, Ubisoft Montreal iterated on Final Fantasy’s once tried-and-true Active Time Battle system by adding just one new component.

Characters and enemies alike are displayed on a blue bar painted on the bottom of the screen. At the rightmost end of that bar is a smaller, red-colored section that represents the casting time, which, depending on the action taken ranges anywhere from “short” to “very long” before the turn is executed. During this vulnerable stage, Aurora and her teammate (yes, only one other full-fledged character can join Aurora in battle, though either can be substituted for another from Child of Light’s sizable cast at any turn) can interrupt an enemy and temporarily disadvantage them by sending them further back along the wait bar, action unspent. Of course, Lemuria’s various monsters can do the same to our rose-haired heroine.

It’s these dances of disruptions that give Child of Light an added layer of strategic depth. When used in conjunction with Aurora’s glowing, floating, smiley-face-adorned, tear-shaped companion, Igniculus—who’s played by a co-op partner or controlled using the right analog stick in single-player—to blind an enemy and slow down their wait period, it becomes possible to chain disruptions in such a way that baddies never land a blow.

Fleshing this out further is an accompaniment of standard RPG fare, including fairly robust skill trees that offer two or three ways to tailor each character to your preferences and a stat augmentation system—crafting Oculi—that relies on intuitive color combinations to create more potent crystals capable of granting better protection against element attacks, bestowing elemental attacks, boosting experience point accumulation, and more. Some might be bothered by the hands-off approach to Oculi crafting, which is more or less introduced but never fully explained or tutorialized, but because encounters—at least on Normal mode—never really wade too far into challenging waters, the benefits granted by these rainbow colored rocks are bonuses rather than anything that’ll change the tide of battle.

Slightly undercooked modifier systems aside, the only thing really holding Child of Light back from achieving artistic merit across the board is Aurora’s story itself. Narrative substance is a common enough problem in Japanese role-playing games, but I thought a faux JRPG crafted by Western hands would sidestep this issue. And while, as stated earlier, Plourde and writer Jeffrey Yohalem don’t commit the same sins as the source material by creating unrelatable characters facing unfathomable stakes, the game does perpetuate similar issues nonetheless. The trouble lies not with Child of Light’s dichotomous worldview, understandable given its fairy-tale foundation, but rather how even in its simplicity, plot beats are never reached organically. There’s no sense or rising action building up to twists and turns. Instead, they appear out of thin air, never fully developed or explored by the characters so as to give them emotional gravitas or weight.

This, in part, may be the unintended consequence of restricting dialogue exchanges to a rhyme scheme. Yohalem and any other writers who may have been involved bit off more than they could chew with this ambitious decision, and as a result, more than a few rhymes feel forced, fall flat, or feel constructed for rhyme’s sake as opposed to in service of the character speaking the line. Aurora, Igniculus, Finn, and others don’t so much converse as play a 15-hour-long game of Alphabet from Whose Line Is It Anyway? There’s just enough backstory to give each character in Child of Light agency, but not nearly enough to forge a bond between them and the player, making those plot twists, turns, and beats ring even flatter.

The world is all the better that Child of Light exists, to be sure. It’s heartbreaking that something so stunning in all other aspects falls short in such a significant way, but in a genre almost entirely defined by storytelling and world-building and character development, faltering in all three of those is fundamentally problematic. Perhaps Plourde’s JRPG emulation efforts would have benefited from borrowing a bit of their length, too. Another 10 hours might just be what Child of Light needed to explore Aurora and her companions more thoughtfully and establish an emotional connection beyond what the premise alone generates. As it stands, however, Child of Light, while very much worth playing as an RPG, fails to find meaning as a fairy tale.

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 04.30.14
Gorgeous to see and hear and engaging as far as gameplay is concerned, Child of Light is an excellently built game with a forgivably wonky augmentation system but an underdeveloped narrative. Its artists very clearly knew what they wanted it to be, but couldn’t quite manage to orchestrate effectively. Play it, soak up its beauty, but expect a jejune take on fairy tale yarn-spinning.
The Good Uh, just look at it?
The Bad Absence of enough character development for emotional gravitas.
The Ugly Having to rhyme all the time would make me whine.
Child of Light is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One using review code provided by Ubisoft.
Chris Holzworth, News Editor
Chris Holzworth has wanted to write about games all his life. He first cut his teeth writing for enthusiast sites such as RPGFan, and after writing for just about every other enthusiast website he could came across, wound up as EGM's east coast news correspondent (read: editorial intern) before relocating to LA to serve as news editor. You can follow his rants about storytelling on Twitter @manadrive.[Meet the rest of the crew]

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