by Jed Pressgrove
As its rapturous title suggests, Child of Light is a cunning product for a gaming mainstream in need of hope. The game panders to the nth degree by throwing together a collection of enticing parts: the poetry, the “check me out” visuals, the Disney/Miyazaki allusions, the turn-based combat with “a real-time twist,” the crafting, the skill tree, the female protagonist, the puzzles. These trendy components help explain the cynical thesis of Arthur Gies’ review: “Child of Light is exactly the kind of game I never expected to play.” This remarkable level of cynicism implies that game things are only notable when they come from “AAA” companies with a bow on top.
I would like to agree with Jim Bevan’s in-depth, enthusiastic breakdown of Child of Light, but not even a connection to Joseph Campbell can convince me that I should ignore the shallowness of the game. Child of Light isn’t an inspiring hero’s journey so much as a lollypop coated in blissful immaturity. The game finds the blandest way to start a fairy tale in 2014, channeling the stylish prologue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and landing in the death-centric fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth. After Child of Light’s seen-it-all-before opening, you’re plopped into a dark forest that, despite the great technical development on display, showcases as much original thought as a new flavor of bubble gum.
The game’s ballyhooed visuals are there to impress, not elate. Child of Light is a visual downer compared to recent Rayman games, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Mario Galaxy. Even if Child of Light’s world is theoretically beautiful, the mishmash of styles doesn’t make sense. The watercolors might be pretty, but the background art’s more traditional style and stillness make the modern polygonal creations look like litter on a painting. The game’s inconsistent beauty comes to a head when you see rising lava that looks more like a solid floor than a depiction of nature that fits the framing of the world. This inconsistency isn’t much of a factor during the turn-based battles, but the magic attacks lack the visual charm of SNES-era spells. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that protagonist Aurora is dull once you get past her flowing red hair; as a visual personality, Aurora has nothing on the child protagonist of Lilly Looking Through.
The visuals are masterful compared to the writing. Instead of sharing poetry from the heart, Ubisoft uses poetry as a device to convince audiences that the game is cultured, funny, and epic. Child of Light wants you subscribe to the idea that as long as the words rhyme, the poetry is fine, even if it completely ignores the importance of rhythm. One might claim that Child of Light deserves credit for taking a risk with poetry, but this defense becomes ridiculous once you read the crap:
A lady waits,
Hair long as a forest stream,
With skin like moths and gleaming eyes.
A seer, she’ll know the way out of this dream.
Whether you read that quietly or aloud, the passage doesn’t flow. And this isn’t an isolated case. There is example after example of this “style”:
And zounds! The Dark Queen cursed ma kin to birds.
The Water of Lethe would cure ’em an’
I have to make the journey down.
But fear has — Poor man.
The “Poor man” comes out of nowhere for three reasons. First, it’s an interjection from another character. Second, it’s a sorry rhyme. Third, the stanza has no rhythm. But that’s not even the worst stanza:
Pleased to meet you, Sir.
Like weeds it is.
I am lucky to be alive. When at ma house,
Besides the bloomin’ apple tree in the forest I arrived, this whiz
Not even a highly skilled rapper could make those lines flow. You’re better off zipping through the poetry because the writing also fails to create meaningful relationships. The game tries to build camaraderie between the characters with silly rhymes and puns, but the writing is so god-awful that these “human” moments translate as nothing more than interruptions in the gameplay. The flimsy characterizations fall right in line with the death-centric premise of the game; a lot of the cast would be better off working in a funeral home than going on an adventure.
The gameplay mainly tells a so-so story. The game graciously allows the main character to fly, a major improvement over the lame platforming. Even with flight, the game still makes you solve puzzles that are puzzles in name only. Letting you control Igniculus is the game’s claim to fame and shame. As a souped-up version of Mario Galaxy’s cursor, Igniculus can blind enemies and heal you. The more you use Igniculus, the more you might recognize the poor design of the game. For example, Child of Light works like Earthbound in that you have to run into enemies to enter turn-based combat. If you run into enemies from behind, you get a surprise attack. However, given that Igniculus can blind enemies, surprise attacks outrageously become a norm.
Igniculus winds up being the real-time glue that holds the bastardized combat system together. The main concern of the combat is based on an uncommon but unoriginal idea: interruption of attacks. Igniculus slows enemies down when he blinds them, allowing the player to manipulate who gets to perform commands first and thus potentially interrupt enemies. However, if you see that an enemy will be able to attack before your character can perform a command, it’s best to defend, which allows your character to move faster in the next round. The real-time element and interruptions might trick you into thinking the battles are complex, but you’re better off playing Penny Arcade 3, another 10-hour RPG with an interruption system that offers far more attacks and possibilities than the insultingly paltry selection in Child of Light.
If it weren’t for the sound design and Cœur de Pirate’s soundtrack, Child of Light’s banality would be fully exposed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the sonic brilliance of the game will keep me playing. I’m six hours into Child of Light, and there is nothing to suggest I will be saved from the tedious arrogance of the game. Child of Light thinks it’s the Jesus Christ of video games, but saviors don’t give you substandard versions of things you’ve seen before.
Note: Special thanks to Ray Valgar for sending me this game as a gift on Steam.