Seemingly from nowhere comes Ubisoft Montreal’s Child of Light. A poetic fairytale style 2D turn based platformer on the ever familiar UbiArt Framework engine many players will recognise from the most recent Rayman iterations, Origins and Legends. The bulk of the team behind Far Cry 3 (this reviewers personal game of its respective year), bats one way out of left field from what you might expect their follow-up project to be. Is it a gleaming example of innovation, or would it be best for this child to learn to sleep with the lights out?
In an industry that is growing increasingly fearful of taking risks, one of the last companies you might expect to be a frontrunner would be Ubisoft, but sure enough, here they are. I can only imagine the amount of collar-jerking going on in the room where this idea was being pitched but, call it insanity, they let it happen and it totally worked.
You play as Aurora, a young princess who quickly discovers she’s asleep and must wake up so she can return to the side of her father who had fallen ill when last she saw him. She bands together with a firefly named Igniculus, who explains to the young girl why simply waking up will be no simple task; and a jester named Rubella, who has been abandoned by her circus for not being funny and in doing so stripped from her brother. Together the three set off on their quest to see the princess home, meeting an assortment of weird and wonderful characters along the way who join their band as Aurora seeks out the sun, moon and stars in the deceptively tranquil and unquestionably beautiful world around them.
The story is good, not great but definitely good. It has a relevant theme for the style it’s going for and is clearly inspired by Studio Ghibli, while not simply imitating it. The characters are endearing and, without offloading an ungodly amount of character development, definitely grow on you for the most part. My only real complaint is the establishment of a running joke with one of the characters fairly early on in the story that doesn’t let up until shortly after the halfway point. Dialogue is delivered entirely in rhyme, though my attention span and, perhaps excessive, fondness of the combat system often found me reading it as though it were bad dialogue rather than good poetry.
Visually, I can’t offer a single complaint. This game, as I said to the rest of the team whilst playing, is a screenshot minefield. That is to say every couple of steps you’re going to see a new sight you’ll want to keep on record. Whichever mood is aimed for is struck resoundingly on its head. Whimsy, foreboding, serene, it’s all there, it’s almost all hand drawn and it gels perfectly with the overall style of the game. As mentioned previously, those familiar with the most recent Rayman games will instantly see the similarity and also equally appreciate how unique an approach is being taken here. Character, creature and monster models are varied and pleasantly original. From the standard spiders to the fire based grim reapers and on to the dragons with the power of dark, you’ve seen them all before but never quite this cool.
As far as music goes, it’s a successful concoction of grand adventure and epic battle with a healthy dose of docile lullaby. Admittedly, it grows a little repetitive as time goes by, but that in no way hinders how much a fan would enjoy the experience as a whole. Aaannd gameplay… It’s clear from the outset that this game is a labour of love, and while Child of Light strikes so many high notes across the board, it’s also clear that the team behind it most of all wanted to make a turn based RPG, the likes of which could compete with the big names of the genre. In this regard, my hat is not only taken off to them, but launched from my office window.
Outside of combat, Aurora is controlled with the left analog stick while Igniculus is controlled with the right. She can interact with plants that will release spores – known in-game as wishes – that will regenerate health, mana and Igniculus’ power bar as well as engage in combat, while Igniculus himself can do the same. However, on top of this he is able to phase through walls to unreachable stat upgrades and mechanisms for the many locked doors that will be in their way along the journey, as well as being able to cast light through items on the foreground to the background for the purpose of the games assortment of puzzles. A genius little addition being that Igniculus can be controlled by a friend should you so choose. Naturally, he doesn’t play as big a role as Aurora herself, but his input is far from worthless. Each character, excluding Igniculus, has their own talent tree that gives a good level of variety as to how they specialize within their skill areas, as well as what is referred to as Oculi, where, for each character, there are three slots: weapon, armour and shield. In each slot a gem can be placed to suit that particular character aspect, adding elemental damage and defence, maximum mana points or health points and a host of other character attributes. The game is not frugal in how it doles out these gems. They can also be combined with their own colour or experimented with to either increase their effectiveness or make something new entirely.
Inside combat is where the game truly shines though. The various group members serve unique roles to cover all possible playstyles, and succeed in not feeling like it’s forcing you into a particular ‘best’ setup so you can face-roll it through the games 6-8 hour storyline. You have your fighter, ranged attacker, mage, hybrid, tank, healer and buffer/debuffer, all of which can be switched out when your combat turn arrives. Buffs, debuffs, and even heals can be taken care of through potions, but when in the thick of battle, it’s safer to have a more consistent option in a character best suited to your need. The fighting takes place on a timeline, visible at the bottom of the screen, which can be manipulated in a variety of ways. Certain spells can hasten your own progress along it or slow your opponents as well as certain attacks being able to knock the enemy back a few steps. For a short period after an action has been decided upon, assuming things line up, an enemy action – and your own – can be interrupted, cancelling said action and setting them back further along the timeline.
This is one of the most gratifying aspects of this brilliant little combat system, interrupting an enemy three or four times in a row feels like you have mastered the game, until a curveball gets thrown in to point out how wrong you were in thinking that. Igniculus also gets a moment in the spotlight here as he, controlled by the primary player or a secondary player, can blind the enemy to slow their timeline progress and even heal the players team, both of which can only be done as long as his energy bar holds. This element is implemented so carefully that, while the task is not a heavy burden, it is an extremely helpful thing to be there and will never have a friend wondering if they’re input is not making a difference. If one complaint could be made it’s that the UI could do with a little more work. Perhaps going with a radial option rather than lists, just to make things a little more fluid. Of course, that is semantics and, as far as I’m aware, this is Ubisoft first step into an all out RPG and I have to say it’s one of the best turn based combat systems I’ve ever seen.
In closing, I personally consider this a resounding success and the team behind it should be proud to have taken such a big risk and for it to pay off so well. The story doesn’t follow any unnecessarily dark subject matter, the platforming is a lot of fun and plenty challenging, both mentally and the combat is very welcoming to those inexperienced, but offers a lot of fun to those who are. I genuinely look forward to seeing future renditions of this combat system as it becomes honed and refined. The game looks and sounds fantastic, although the music can grow a little stale over time. From this point onwards, anyone who mentions an interest in taking their first tentative steps into turn based RPG’s is definitely going to hear these words come out of my mouth: “Child Of Light”
A PlayStation 4 review copy was provided by Ubisoft’s PR team. Child Of Light will be available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Wii U from 28th April 2014.