Darren Thackeray, 12th May.
Child of Light is a monumentally difficult game to rate. On the one hand, it’s a poetic masterpiece wrapping its arms around your inner child, bravely blurring the lines between some of the most coveted and sacred of gaming genres. On the other, it’s a firework whose ephemeral spark fades far too soon, feeling almost like an over produced beta, an indie experiment, an exercise in toe-dipping which doesn’t quite fulfil.
The first time I played Child of Light, I was mesmerised. It’s a graceful, magnificent looking game, perhaps one of the most aesthetically pleasing titles to hit consoles for as long as I can remember. I’m also thrilled to see a company like Ubisoft spending time and money on developing a 2D side-scroller, a genre which I keep paying homage to (most recently in my review of Dust: An Elysian Tale last week). Child of Light tells the story of Aurora, the brave and curious daughter of a late 19th century Austrian duke. We find out in the prologue that Aurora never really knew her mother, and that her royal father had sought the comfort of another woman in his loneliness – a stepmother. One evening Aurora becomes ill and appears to pass away in her sleep, only to find herself waking up in the stunning Ghibli-esque world of Lemuria where her journey to thwart the Dark Queen Umbra’s plot to usurp the kingdom begins. You can probably tell where this is going. Certainly, there’s an echo of Pan’s Labyrinth here. A young girl finding fantastical and imaginative ways to deal with the inescapable trauma in her life; in this case, the void left by a loving mother and the child’s unwillingness to see that role filled by anyone else. The story, while not too original, is wonderfully executed, and the art direction compliments it perfectly.
But what of the gameplay? Well, that’s where things get genuinely interesting. When you begin playing Child of Light you’re not really sure what you’re getting into. On first glance, it appears to be a typical side-scroller with some clever innovations to depth of field and layering, but when the first enemy encounter sequence begins your first thought will be ‘Final Fantasy, is that you old friend?’ and you’ll rejoice at the epic journey that is no doubt unfolding ahead of you. You’ll contemplate the potential depth of what lies ahead, you’ll eagerly pick up magic potions and buffer items, smile as you discover the characters’ skill trees, the battle encounters will get increasingly more complex and difficult, “Yes!” you’ll cry, “This is incredible!”. Only, that’s kind of where the magic stops. I’ll explain why.
I was genuinely impressed with the battle system in Child of Light. It’s intuitive and has many layers beneath the surface. Anyone familiar with the ATB system so lovingly employed by Final Fantasy titles over the years will feel right at home, and timing your spells just right and learning when to heal or defend keeps things fresh and exciting. The thing is, this battle system kind of leaves you wanting more of an RPG experience, and it makes the rest of the game feel all too linear and contained. Final Fantasy VII veterans – do you remember when you first played the game and were nearing the end of Disc 1 when you realised you were actually going to leave Midgar? Do you remember that feeling of elation and anticipation when you caught your first glimpse of the fabled World Map? Or when you realised just how far you were going to build and nurture your characters? That breakthrough moment never quite comes in Child of Light, and that’s its biggest, perhaps its only, flaw. I enjoyed the ride, but was ultimately left feeling unfulfilled and wondering what the game might be a pre-cursor to.
But that feeling also gave rise to hope. What Ubisoft Montreal have done here is test the water with something truly bold and original. It’s not long, it doesn’t commit to much and doesn’t promise the world, but for less than £15 it’s a worthwhile investment and a brief glimpse of what magic is surely still to come.
Child of Light Rating: 3.5 out of 5. “A beautiful, ambitious game which never quite finds its wings…”
You can purchase Child of Light on Xbox Live, PSN or Steam now. Find the trailer below.