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Child of Light Review: A Thing of Beauty
Child of Light unfolds like something out of a dream. Its faded landscapes give way to the charming and fantastical: of floating cities and spooky forests to collecting wishes and slaying dragons all out of your favorite childhood storybook. This bedtime fairytale makes for a lively time if not imperfect piece combining some of the best in interactive storytelling and surrealism all in vein of a classic RPG in the Japanese mold. Beset by weakness as much as strengths, its triumphs can be simply astounding in an accomplishment that’s strange, alluring, and wonderful all at once.
Our young heroine, Aurora, is the daughter of an Austrian Duke. One day she falls ill, slips into a coma and wakes to find herself transported to the magical Lemuria. To return home, Aurora must recover the Sun, Moon and Stars, stolen by the elusive Black Queen, Umbra, a villainess whose motivations become clearer as players progress. Aurora’s fateful journey then leads her across a beautiful yet troublesome landscape, her eclectic band of friends in tow, and the fate of Lemuria resting on her small shoulders.
It’s from this dramatic backdrop that the game carries with it a sense of pathos that perfectly translates into its abstract aesthetic. Its vivid watercolor world feels lavishly hand-crafted akin to any animated storybook, with shimmering water and soft lighting that bring its dioramic 2D backgrounds to life. Aurora’s red hair billows in the wind as she runs, and enemies lurch towards her with a fearsome gait. Spiders, ghosts, and ogres further inject a proper menace into the world while the game’s rambunctious cast provides its necessary relief, from the brave Aurora to her jester companion of Rubella and her dwarfish Capilli magician, Finn, an angler fish lantern oddly dangling from his head. It all amounts to the characters of some forgotten book of fairy tales having leapt from their page onto a canvas. Beasts wander in the far-off distance to the sound of the game’s mesmerizing orchestral score and even the of smallest details, from Aurora’s footsteps on the cold, wet pavement to the clang of her sword makes Lemuria feel all the more alive.
You’ll explore Lemuria through that of a side-scroller with its non-combat action in the manner of a simple platformer. Adding to the game’s dreamlike atmosphere is Aurora’s ability to fly by way of a pair of wings to flutter freely around the large, detailed environments. The various regions and towns you stumble upon each have their own unique personality and atmosphere all cohesively tied to the overall art style. Flying through that of a quiet monastery or a windmill mountain has its own traps to avoid and wind gusts to ride free of random enemy encounters. Like any RPG, grinding is still a necessity and enemy types can be overused, but both are negligible when faced with quality bosses down the line.
Most of your enjoyment traversing Lemuria may simply derive from floating about, discovering hidden areas and collecting trinkets and there’s often a distinct lack of challenge in obtaining them. Treasure chests can be unlocked to find potions and oculi shards used to further customize your characters with. The puzzles unlocking the majority of these treasures are a bit basic and while a few are attractively clever, most devolve into monotony of pushing boxes and levers that can eventually grow boring. Perhaps the most curious element is the story that guides it.
Child of Light seeks to maintain a playful sense of humor throughout its narrative, full of cartoonish caricatures that toe the line between amusing and annoyingly precocious. Some are as endearingly silly as the plight of an arrow-slinging mouse looking to win over his girlfriend while others are as eye-roll inducing as a sad sack court jester looking to be. . . not so sad. Aurora’s arc is then the only one of any real interest as well as the game’s centerpiece, lending her growth and development befitting her character. Completing the fairy tale feel is the game’s relaying itself through rhyming couplets that’s cute at first, but grows tiresome soon afterwards. Child of Light is a fantasy that paints itself in such broad strokes that it doesn’t offer much scope for interesting characters, and I can ultimately say that I enjoyed the world of Lemuria far more than those in it.
Battles are a different matter and arguably take the spotlight as one of the game’s greatest strengths. Blending the best of JRPG’s elemental, turn-based combat with that of a real-time system of sorts, Aurora and company rely on an action bar indicating when an enemy is about to attack in relation to your own actions, letting you meticulously plan you moves. The strategy in knowing when to attack, when to defend, and when to heal fosters an enjoyable rhythm to it familiar to most Final Fantasy fans, but with a more demanding sense of timing and micromanagement. A general timer and a cast timer make up each turn with some actions taking longer to cast than others, and some spells (fire, ice, lightning, etc.) can speed up your team or slow down an enemy. If you hit an enemy while they’re casting, you can interrupt their attack, but unfortunately they can do the same to you.
Swapping teammates makes for the best fights and the game benefits from its smaller, more concentrated battles of dual teammates rather than a larger party of four. Characters possess their own skill tree, each with three or four branches composed of dodge, strength, health, and so forth. Following these branches is up to you, but their sequential linearity that can be found lacking. Each tree offers a slightly different focus, upgrading but not wildly changing you characters’ abilities. No matter what you choose, Aurora, will still cast light attacks and Rudella will cast healing moves, but often with a stronger emphasis. Nevertheless, battles aren’t without their challenge. Bosses very gradually increase in difficulty, yet even in Normal mode they can become quite tricky. From bosses as simple as a tri-headed eel, its heads all representing elemental weaknesses of water, fire, and lighting, to a darkness infused dragon, their complexity sees an admirable evolution and the last two demand particular perseverance.
Not to be left out is Aurora’s every loyal firefly, Igniculus. Your guide and ally in combat, Igniculus is controllable by either you or a co-op partner. Though he primarily exists to open chests, pull switches, collect floating balls of light in the environment, or “wishes,” restoring your health and mana, you can also use him to heal allies, or blind enemies mid-battle. Still, he’s limited by his own power bar which depletes with each of these actions, and players are encouraged to use this advantage sparingly. Apart from offering the usual offscreen-play, the Wii U gamepad allows you to control him through the touchscreen, something that proves generally helpful for gobbling up wishes with the touch of a finger.
All that leaves the game’s most surprising factor: it’s running time. Described as a brief but memorable adventure by its makers, the game clocks in at a decent 10-12 hours for its fair amount of $15 at digital download (not available at retail). Even better, the game’s so evenly paced that you won’t seem to notice the time whilst being taken to enough diverse locations and enemies. At such a low cost, Child of Light certainly can’t be considered lacking in content and easily worth its asking price.
Child of Light, for all its nagging peculiarities, never ceases to amaze with what elegance and polish it demonstrates. Its art design is gorgeous, its audio is superb, the combat boasts depth, and ultimately trims the fat out of RPG’s sometimes misused length. It’s a brief visit, and one marred by what uneven characterization and customization it could have needed, but its visual beauty is unmistakable as is its smart battle system. An acquired taste sure to polarize some of the RPG mainstay, Child of Light should be a time well spent by anyone looking for a different spin on a storied genre.