Child of Light is gorgeous – you know it, we know it, everyone that has seen it knows it. Running on the UbiArt Framework – the engine created to power recent Rayman games – it’s no surprise that Ubisoft Montreal has been able to craft visuals so stunning that still-frame images look like genuine paintings begging to be hung on your living room wall. Does that mean you should expect a common case of style preceding substance? Absolutely not. Now that we’ve delved deep into a dangerous world filled with magic, serpents and rhyme, we’re elated to reveal that Child of Light isn’t just a breathtaking work of art, but it’s also an impeccably crafted RPG. If you haven't been paying attention, now's the time to do so.
In Child of Light you play as an adorable young girl named Aurora. Since the loss of her mother she’s been raised closely by her father, a Duke of great power. On the day that her father remarries, Aurora mysteriously passes away in her sleep, then somehow awakens in the dreamlike world of Lemuria. But it’s more of a nightmare, you see, as this land has been rid of its sun, moon, and stars by the evil Black Queen. It’s up to Aurora to restore balance, which will hopefully allow her to find her way back home.
It’s clear that Child of Light borrows from classic fairytales such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, but because the pieces are fused together with enough ingenuity, it mostly feels like its own thing. This is due in part to Lemuria, despite its gloomy themes and mythical occupants, being a beautifully-realized place to be. The watercolor-esque artwork gives the impression that you’ve actually brought a book to life on your television, with the sound of wandering pianos and brooding strings matching the imagery in almost perfect fashion. From the dark creatures roaming the woods to the oddball townsfolk met along the journey, the UbiArt Framework gives us a rich world that feels like it exists beyond its 2D confines.
Instead of trudging through the lush scenery by foot, Aurora is bestowed with the power of flight, which makes traversal graceful and satisfying. This sense of freedom really helps to further compliment the childlike sense of wonder the storybook surroundings exude at every turn. When you marry this mechanic with the 2D side-scrolling design, you have something with pickup-and-playability. Where each location is made up of pathways, tunnels, and corridors that branch in all directions, somehow exploration never feels overwhelming – though there is still enough to entertain and reward those looking to poke around.
Soon after her adventure begins, Aurora is paired up with a firefly named Igniculus. By use of the right stick, Igniculus can be moved around the screen at the same time the player controls Aurora. Don’t want to enter into battle with an enemy in your way? Use Igniculus to disperse light in their eyes, blinding them until you say so. Come across an item that seems inaccessible? Chances are Igniculus can get to it. Need to cast shadows on a wall to solve puzzles and open locked doors? Well, you know who to call upon for aid. Sort of like Murfy in Rayman Legends, Child of Light takes a similar idea and develops it into something unique and genuinely interesting to use.
Igniculus isn’t the only friend you’ll make along the way, either. With each new part of the map you reach, expect to happen upon other misfits who will join your party and assist you on your quest. These characters will bring distinct powers and attacks to the table and can be switched out during battles without using up a turn – we’re big fans of that! Excluding Igniculus – who serves his own distinct functions – everyone has melee and magic attacks, can defend, and can use potions to better their chances against the opposition.
That brings us to quite possibly the best thing about Child of Light; which is a battle system that’s always engaging, never sluggish, and at times more frantic than any turn-based RPG we’ve ever played. This is because, instead of simply adhering to a predictable back-and-forth format, there’s a timeline bar located at the bottom of the screen that dictates turn order. Once a character’s icon reaches the beginning of the casting zone (the red area at the right end of the bar) they can select their action; at the end of the zone said action will be executed. Thing is, progression on the timeline can be affected in numerous ways, which will have friends and foes moving at varying speeds.
Igniculus plays an integral part in all of this, as well, often being the difference between winning and losing. In the same manner as the when you're moving about Lemuria, Igniculus can stun enemies with light, causing them to move slower through the timeline. Of course doing this will deplete his energy, so you’ll have to be smart about when you use him. Scattered around the battlefield are two to three plants that dispense wishes, which are glowing balls of light that refill Igniculus’ power meter. You’ll need to strategically and periodically tap into these throughout the toughest of fights. Additionally, that power can even be used to heal players.
This is a very dynamic battle system with many variables to take into account. Shifting Igniculus from enemy to enemy, shooting across the screen to restock on wishes, and healing teammates means you’ll never loosen your grip on the controller. You will never just be aimlessly scrolling through attacks while yawning your way further into the couch.
To enhance the addictiveness further is a leveling system that is quick to reward – usually taking no more than 2-3 battles between leveling up. With each new level come skill points that can be used to upgrade attacks, add new moves to your wheelhouse, and even raise the character’s attributes (strength, speed, magic power…that sort of thing). Elemental gems, called Oculi, can even be attached to equipment, adding the benefit of that element to your attack. Fighting ice-based enemies? Why not equip a Ruby Oculi to your sword to add fire to each connected hit? Learning the strengths and weaknesses of every enemy, and then capitalizing on that knowledge by coordinating Oculi is an important part of success.
With leveling up occurring every few battles, the feeling of being right on the verge of something new and helpful never dissipates. Because of this, we never wanted to stop playing. This resulted in us completing the 10-ish hour campaign in just a couple of sittings. In that time we also unlocked 100% achievement completion. Most of the collectables can be acquired by thoroughly investigating as you progress, but the good thing is, you’ll always feel like you’re progressing and gaining ground, and not searching aimlessly or grinding.
And that’s part of what makes Child of Light so special. The fact that the fat that’s normally associated with the RPG genre has been cut, while all of the necessities of a great game remain, shining brighter than ever because of the direct/lean posture. A common phrase used by many reviewers is, “It’s a great game, but if you don’t like (insert genre here) it isn’t going to change your mind.” In our opinion, Child of Light is the kind of game that can turn people on to a genre. While it was certainly developed by artistic individuals chasing a distinct and uncompromising creative vision, it feels prepared to be welcoming to gamers of all kinds. You can even invite a second player to take control of Igniculus if you want to partake in co-op action.
Sure, we do have extremely minor criticisms like we do with every game in existence — the biggest being that the always-rhyming dialog can sometimes miss its mark because of the way the text is formatted/presented — but they don't affect the gameplay or the overall impact that Child of Light had on us. Not only is it one of the best games available for Xbox One, we think it’s one of the best downloadable games of both this and the last generation.
Regardless of your age or feelings toward the genre, we can't recommend Child of Light highly enough. Ubisoft Montreal has created a concise and inviting RPG that somehow manages to retain more than enough complexities to ensure a deep, rich experience for players of all types – to say that this balance is impressive would be an understatement. With exciting mechanics, a gripping combat system, and an imaginative world that's equally ominous and elegant, Child of Light constantly fires on all cylinders, sure to leave an impression that's hard to shake.
The world needs more games like this.