It’s time for the rare video game review! Child of Light is a 2D Adventure RPG developed by Ubisoft Montreal that is notable for three things – it’s sense of whimsy, it’s beautiful presentation and a new twist on old game elements. Some people are going to call this game retro. I’m going to say they’re wrong. This game is, in fact, classic.
There’s a trend towards “realistic” or “mature” games among so-called hard core gamers these days. Usually what this means is an emphasis on first person or close third person viewpoint with a heavy dose of carnage and very little attempt at a higher ideals. Most modern games are, in fact, low fantasies with different varieties of window dressing and little attempt at creative gameplay. Child of Light is a refreshing change from all of these things.
As the name implies, the game approaches its story in a very childish fashion. The whole game is hand drawn and painted in watercolors, the character’s speech (with one exception) and the game narration are set in rhyme and meter and the story feels like it has been ripped straight from the pages of the Brothers Grimm. Aurora is the daughter of an Austrian Duke who’s mother is dead and who’s father has married again giving her, you guessed it, an evil stepmother.
When Aurora catches a cold one evening she winds up At the Back of the North Wind and finds herself in Lemuria, a land with talking mice and a race of people that have angler fish style lights sprouting from their foreheads. Once there she is issued fairy wings and a broadsword as long as she is tall and instructed to find her way home and set things aright.
Interestingly enough, I cannot think of a single video game I’ve played that has so blatantly stolen so many fairytale elements and woven them together and that’s a shame, because Child of Light does a good job juggling all the disparate threads and weaving them into a solid whole. I don’t know if the writers were inspired by George MacDonald but it sure feels like it. At the same time this is not every fairytale you’ve ever read, Child of Light stands on it’s own merits yet still does its source material justice.
What really makes things work is the game’s artwork. Layer on upon layer of beautiful watercolors and carefully measured water and cloud effects give Lemuria a feel of beauty and wonder. It seems totally natural that this is the kind of place where statues come to life, talking mice live on the back of a mountain man (no, not a lumberjack or trapper, he’s a huge man made of stone and the mice are human sized) and you can be asked to catch a wayward flying pig for a village lady.
The game could have stopped there but it also has a beautiful classical soundtrack and, while only the narration is voiced, the voice work is very good. It’s the kind of game you want to spend most of your time wandering around in, and possibly, occasionally, moving towards what is, in theory, your goal.
That brings me to the third aspect I love about this game, namely the unusual gameplay. Most video games that use flight as a mechanic use it either as the focus of the game, complete with complicated controls and often frustrating tests of skill, or just use it as a way to handwave getting from point A to point B most of the time. But Aurora can fly across all maps for most of the game.
This turns what could have been a rehash of most platforming games into something a little more interesting. Yes, Valkyrie Profile did this and it was interesting. And I originally thought adding an element of flight would make the overworld of the game less interesting by making the map more accessible. To my surprise, Ubisoft manages to keep things interesting by adding hazards, flying enemies, and violent winds to keep getting around just difficult enough to pose a challenge without being obnoxiously difficult. Add in all the interesting tricks you can do with your firefly familiar and exploring is rewarding enough that you’ll want to just poke around the map some and take in the sights from time to time.
Of course, when you’re not there are dark creatures out there that need dealing with. Yes, it’s a delightful fairytale flavored game. If you know your Brothers Grimm, though, you know the origin of the word “grim” and that fairytales are not all sugar and light. But on a more fundamental level, the potential for harm befalling your characters is one of the ways you, the player, are inspired to take care of them and get connected with them. As such, it’s hard to cut it out of games with a storyline.
(If the subject of violence in video games interests you David Baumgart of Gaslamp Games has written an interesting and thoughtful meditation on the subject which expands on this idea more than there’s room for here. Tags and comments on that post are not guaranteed to be interesting or thoughtful.)
Much like Aurora’s quest itself, fighting in the game is more about timing and disruption than outright contests of power. While the “active battle” system has existed in RPGs since the early days of the Final Fantasy franchise Child of Light tweaks it so that, in addition to having to wait between each character’s action, you must also wait a brief time between choosing what action you take and when that action occurs. In that short period of time enemies can take actions that interrupt you and, by the same token, you can interrupt enemies while they are preparing their own actions. Winning is often as much about orchestrating a clever series of disruptive moves as it is raw number crunching or twitchy reflexes. All in all, a nice change from most games produced of late.
So. If you like story driven games with a strong sense of whimsy and don’t mind reading in rhyme for a while, check out Child of Light. It’s both fulfilling and fun, something very few games can claim.