Child of Light Review (Switch)
Release Date: October 11, 2018
File Size: 2.2 GB
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
that I found while browsing the eShop
around the time of the Indie World Holiday Sale.
Now, having given myself ample space to digest it,
and of course, be more reflective,
I know that I liked it but
can I actually recommend it?
It’s a lovely RPG, though most certainly not
representative of perfection—but if not, what then?
To be frank, I considered
(in writing this little review of mine)
whether I ought to pay respects to the game
by doing the same as it does,
and express my thoughts in naught but simple rhyme;
but as my gears begin grinding and I try to opine
I’m finding this plan fraught with a big, big problem
quite central to its underlying design:
Namely, I suck at poetry.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy reading it—from the Greek and Latin classics to England’s ‘Bard of Avon’—but my understanding of the rhythmic structures involved is, as you can see, severely limited. Fortunately, the team over at Ubisoft Montreal (most notably the creators behind the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series), and specifically writer Jeffrey Yohalem (whose recent projects include the well-received Immortals Fenyx Rising) are far more adept at waxing poetical, and Child of Light’s exclusive use of various rhyming schemes to tell its fairy-tale narrative is one of the numerous ways in which this side-scrolling, turn-based RPG stands apart from your typical role-playing affair. But while its visual style, gameplay mechanics, and manner of dialogue are certainly unique, especially coming from such a high-profile development studio known more for producing AAA blockbuster hits rather than seemingly obscure art games (though, in this case, the small core group responsible for Child of Light was actually much more reminiscent of your average indie dev team), the two million dollar question—the game’s reported budget—remains: Is Child of Light any good?
However, I’ll continue in prose,
for God only knows
To do otherwise would multiply
a thousand poetic abuses!
The setting of Child of Light is a fantastical realm called Lemuria, a long lost kingdom ruled by the wicked ‘Queen of the Night’, a usurper named Umbra. The story, however, actually begins in Austria circa 1895. The game’s lead protagonist, Aurora, a child born to the noble class (her father is the duke of Austria, i.e. its crown ruler) falls ill on the night of her father and stepmother’s wedding celebration. Sadly, the strange condition that plagues Aurora claims her life—or so everyone in her homeland presumes.
In reality (or rather something akin to it), Aurora finds herself in Lemuria, the enchanted domain connected to the real world via a magical mirror (think of Guillermo del Toro’s exceptional 2006 dark fantasy film, Pan’s Labyrinth, or C.S. Lewis’ renown book series, The Chronicles of Narnia). After meeting a small glowing wisp named Igniculus, who accompanies Aurora on her quest to restore order to Lemuria and return to her native country, Aurora encounters a peculiar woman whom Umbra, the evil queen, has imprisoned inside of a stained glass window. Once this sibyllic Lady of the Forest, as she is called, is freed by Aurora and Igniculus, she informs the pair that in addition to locating the otherworldly mirror, Aurora must also retrieve the sun, moon, and stars, which have been snatched away by Umbra. Only once light has returned to Lemuria, banishing the Queen of the Night and her minions who rule over the province with an iron fist, can the powers granted by the mirror be utilized to send Aurora back home.
The narrative that Child of Light weaves explicitly harkens back to classic fairytales of old, many of which were, at least in some small way, integral to my childhood experiences (and probably yours too)—stories like Cinderella or Snow White—and uses the medium of poetic verse to express its story arc and the merry blend of characters contained therein. This is, so to speak, both a blessing and a curse.
On the one hand, I was continually impressed at the ability of sole writer Jeffrey Yohalem to compose literally dozens and dozens of pages of dialogue which nearly always maintains a consistent rhyming scheme, and which highlights the personality traits of individual characters, interjecting morsels of humor throughout. It was a feat to behold, if only for its sheer ambition, but also serves to carve out a unique place for Child of Light in a genre that is overcrowded with rehashed narratives and familiar tropes.
On the other hand, I couldn’t help but feel that this self-imposed restraint, i.e. to make every other line rhyme, made the text seem a bit stiff at times, and, well… kind of boring. You meet a number of NPCs and a handful of other eccentric characters that can join Aurora’s party, and whether it was these subplots that required my attention or the main thrust of the storyline that propelled me to the end, I never felt much invested in any of it—emotionally, intellectually, or of whatsoever sort. I do want to stress that I don’t think this was a result of bad writing. Sure, it’s all relatively shallow, but I took this to be intentional. It’s not as if you’re setting out on some epic 60-plus hour quest here. It is supposed to be simple and sweet, you know, the stuff of bedtime stories.
I think it boils down to my disinclination (which I previously didn’t know that I had) to play an RPG where every interaction has to be confined to a structured pattern of flow and rhyme. I’m not sure that Child of Light could have executed this metrical plan any better than it does but for me it just didn’t click. Thankfully, I found everything else about the game equally as memorable but much more approachable.
Though at bottom Child of Light is in many ways a fairly conventional role-playing experience, stocked with turn-based combat, HP/MP gauges, skill points that can be used to unlock further abilities on character skill trees, crafting, and even an active time battle system that players of the Final Fantasy series will find familiar, its side-view camera angle when navigating the world of Lemuria makes it feel at times more like a Metroidvania-style platformer, albeit one lacking the intricate level design and fast-paced action that makes games like Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night or Ori and the Will of the Wisps so absorbing. But despite surface appearances, a Metroidvania this is most certainly not. Child of Light is quite definitely a side-scrolling RPG, and moreover, one with enough depth to its action that casual players will have no trouble jumping in while more dedicated fans of the genre will still be entertained.
Battles in Child of Light always occur between a maximum of two party members and three enemies. Nonetheless, despite having at most two characters under your control at any given moment, you are free to switch party members in and out of battle so long as it is their turn to engage. Aside from Aurora, you can recruit up to six other individuals found throughout Lemuria, all of whom are entirely optional. In theory, you could complete the game by going it alone but this would probably entail a great deal of more difficulty.
The ensemble of personalities that can join Aurora are colorful and intriguing enough. Among these, to name only a few, there’s a melancholic court jester named Rubella; there’s Robert, a rat-faced merchant eager to prove his valor and win over the love of his life; and then there’s an animated rock figure whose dissembled body parts must be collected before he’ll agree to tag along. Naturally, his name is Golem. Each of the six characters you can enlist have their own distinctive set of skills and strengths, whether it be a specialization in healing magic, the use of a particular elemental like fire or lightning, or, as in the case of Golem, brute force.
Aurora is also always flanked by Igniculus, the wispy optimist whom the player controls independently from Aurora by using the right joystick or the Switch’s touchscreen. The game supports cooperative play via a second player taking control of Igniculus, however, I never tried this and get the impression that it would involve rather limited enjoyment for the second player in much the same way that gaining exclusive possession of Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey is only so fun for so long. Igniculus is useful both in and outside of combat, the latter for solving some of the game’s light puzzles (pun totally intended), which usually involve things like pushing a block around onto a button to open a door. At other times, though, you’ll need to depend upon Igniculus’ ability to illuminate himself.
If you press the ZL button, Igniculus shines, and a few puzzles will require you to place him in a specific position so as to cast a shadow over some object–like a symbol on the wall, for example–which then unlocks a secret contraption. It’s all rather simple and at no point did I ever find myself stumped by any of the game’s obstacles, which, at most, may only make you think for a brief moment or two. But Igniculus’s usefulness extends far beyond puzzle-solving.
You can temporarily immobilize enemies if you set Igniculus over them and activate his light, such as in cases where you simply wish to run past a foe without fighting it (enemies are always visible onscreen and only when contact is made with them does a battle sequence get initiated). This ability of Igniculus, which eventually runs out if you hold the ZL button too long and requires the acquisition of light orbs to refill (these are fortunately spread about everywhere) has other roles to boot, the most important being its function in combat.
One of the reasons why I found battling in Child of Light so pleasant is that while it is incredibly easy to pick up from the start, it introduces enough experimental elements to keep things interesting. As I previously alluded, your party as well as your enemies act in accordance with a time bar that determines the order of each combatant’s turn. This horizontal bar has icons representing each fighter engaged in the fray and is divided up between two sections, ‘Wait’ and ‘Cast.’ While the icon for, Aurora let’s say, moves along the time bar (from left to right), so long as it remains in the ‘Wait’ section she is unable to do anything but wait for her turn to arrive (obviously). Only when her icon enters the ‘Cast’ portion of the bar is she given the option to act, whether it be to attack, defend, heal, flee, switch party members, etc.
Further, every move that a character can employ has a ‘Cast’ time, so even after you’ve chosen an action it may still be possible for an enemy to execute its attack first, and sometimes the blow that lands can cause you to be ‘interrupted,’ setting your character’s icon further back on the time bar (though using ‘Defend’ can prevent these interruptions for a couple of rounds). It’s effectively a loss of a turn.
This is where Igniculus proves ever so handy. While he never directly fights, placing him over an enemy and activating his light will blind them, causing their icon on the time bar to move slower, sometimes enabling you to launch two attacks before the enemy ever has a chance to respond. It all makes for a surprisingly fresh and entertaining battle system that isn’t too far from the beaten path and yet feels unlike anything that I have played before it. There are moments where it can be frustrating, such as when an enemy repeatedly ‘interrupts’ your action and you’re unable to do anything but wait while getting wailed upon. Overall, however, the combat is extremely satisfying and every engagement feels worthwhile, in the main due to the ease at which the developers made levelling up. Yes, there is–thankfully–no need to grind for hours on end here. Every few battles or so sees Aurora and friends growing ever more strapping, with additional slots on the skill tree becoming available (I should note that I played on ‘Casual’ rather than on ‘Expert’ mode, and is how I’d recommend approaching any initial playthroughs).
Two other things worth mentioning about Child of Light’s gameplay are its crafting system and collectible items. You’ll find a number of chests on your journey. Among the many items they contain are crystal shards that can be combined to form more complete gems, which, when equipped offensively, defensively, or neutrally to your character, offer a variety of active and passive boosts ranging from more EXP gained in battle to stronger elemental attacks. It’s a fun little addition that, like nearly everything else in Child of Light, offers just enough substance that RPG veterans can derive enjoyment from it without making newcomers feel intimidated.
And for completionists, there are a dozen ‘Confessions’ scattered around Lemuria, pieces of paper whirling about that can be recovered and which fill in the lore of the in-game universe. Otherwise, these memos serve no purpose beyond extending the game’s playtime—which for me sat perfectly between 10-15 hours after finding all of these ‘Confessions’ and watching the credits roll. If there is one thing that Child of Light gets absolutely right, it’s that the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, something a number of other RPGs could probably learn a thing or two from. It doesn’t take long to reach the game’s conclusion but also isn’t too short so as to make you feel as though you’ve been fleeced once all is said and done. If there’s a theme that I’m striking here, it’s that Child of Light is very balanced.
Of course, no discussion of Child of Light would be complete without discussing how the game looks and sounds. On both of these fronts, Ubisoft Montreal delivers a tour de force. Relying upon the Ubiart Framework engine (which Ubisoft has utilized in a number of their Rayman and Just Dance games), the developers were able to basically import their original concept art directly into the game, painting an environment with lucid watercolor textures to—in the words of Art Director Thomas Rullus—‘give the impression of being awake in an underwater dream.’ The team totally achieves this end and I’d have to rank the visual style of Child of Light as not only one of the game’s high points, but also among my favorites in terms of art direction in video games more broadly.
Acoustically, Child of Light sounds as good as it appears. The little voiceover work that the game contains is handled by Canadian actress Caroline Dhavernas and though her role is limited to a few storytelling cutscenes interspersed throughout the adventure, you feel the full emotion of her subdued narration come through in every line spoken. And then there is the game’s soundtrack, available in its entirety on Spotify and well-worth repeated listens after you’ve completed Aurora’s quest (or don’t mind spoiling yourself with a game’s soundtrack before you’ve experienced the context for which it was written).
Ubisoft Montreal hired Canadian pianist and singer/songwriter Cœur de pirate to handle Child of Light’s musical arrangements, and though I’m not familiar with her work as an indie pop artist, her talents as a composer are wholly brought to light here (see what I did?). The worst thing I can say about the score is that tracks sometimes tend to blur, sounding too similar to one another in both melody and style, but even this is hardly a real criticism as there is enough variety to capture the game’s assortment of moods and the slight divergences from ‘Aurora’s Theme’ that continually crop up are clearly by design. At any rate, it’s extremely helped by the fact that the signature tune is both heartfelt and catchy. And some of the battle music, from ‘Jupiter’s Lightning’ to the final boss theme, ‘Hymn of Light’, are some of the best works I have heard in any game—not an insignificant statement to make where RPGs are concerned.
Perhaps no aspect of Child of Light betrays its AAA roots more than its soundtrack, a lush production that required commissioning an entire orchestra for the game’s more intense moments. All of this culminates in the appropriately named ‘Off to Sleep’, a sombre piece that accompanies the ending credits and features Cœur de pirate on vocals. It’s the perfect final touch to a game for which I can really say nothing negative insofar as its presentation is concerned.
When I began this review I sought to resolve two questions: 1. Is Child of Light any good? 2. Can I recommend it? If you’re a fan of (J)RPGs (and let’s be real, you’re only on SwitchRPG.com and at this point of the present review because you are), then yes, I absolutely recommend it. It may not be the sort of experience you’d expect from a role-playing game, but when a game succeeds on so many levels, that’s rarely a bad thing. And if you’re but a casual RPG player who rarely commits to such games due to the time and patience they often demand of you, then you’ll find Child of Light to be a breath of fresh air: it’s both very accessible, being a great introduction to the genre, and also relatively short.
All that said, if you’re the kind of RPG fan who places chief importance in deep menus, character customization, drawn-out background stories, or just overall an engaging and immersive narrative—and certainly these are some of the features that generally hook me in the most—you’re likely not going to be satisfied by Child of Light. So then, to answer the first of the two questions that I posed:
then, whether or not to buy Child of Light,
my friend, you surely should;
for the final judgment that I render upon this journey is…