Child of Light – Final Review

With its painterly attributes and bold usage of vibrant color, Child of Light is a singularly beautiful title; whimsicality dominates; creativity abounds. In addition to being visually arresting, the game world is brimming with considerable environmental diversity, each distinct location having its own identity, evoking different sensations, different emotions. Deep, cavernous oceans are explored one moment, being a bright, inviting shade of blue, tranquil; rich in detail, the waters populated by bright, gleaming crystals, this precise environment is remarkable, though this remarkability is not anomalous – every environment soars in its own unique way, this diverseness and beauty only enhancing the joys of exploration, resulting also in a commanding sense of childlike wonder, as the player is left to ponder in excitement precisely which environment will next be made explorable; this evocation of wonder, of giddiness, is an additional achievement. The game seizes upon traditional fantasy in its visual design, meanwhile, but rather than simply adopting them, the title builds upon them, distorts them to dramatic effect, imparting further uniqueness; the fantasy genre generally seems stagnant, unevolving these days, whether speaking of games, films, or books. Child of Light, though, does evolve the genre, making considerable contributions for its advancement. World building is excellently executed, the explorable world of Lemuria – where almost all of the narrative transpires – is possessive of considerable allure, steeped in lore and a seemingly rich history spanning century after century; here is depth, which serves to engross and engage the player in the game world. Reflecting this exhaustive world building and the fond, frequent embracing of the creative, manifold different races people Lemuria, each distinct aesthetically; there exist docile, peaceable mouse-like individuals, who engage in the passive action of trade, while wizards run rampant, existing alongside hulking, brutish creatures, abounding in strength and crassness; yes, here is great depth, Lemuria becoming as a canvas for the developers’ abundant, bold creativity, a creativity which is not exclusive solely to the environments, but also to the character portraits which accompany all dialogue. Rich and detailed, these portraits are compelling and expectantly artsy, allowing considerable character emoting, characters alternating frequently between grins and grimaces. This detail serves to further endear the player to the various player characters; in all facets of visual design, then, Child of Light is spectacular.

The central narrative is generally very compelling, though it can seem rather directionless until the introduction of the main antagonist, who does not emerge until the narrative’s halfway point, this late introduction being somewhat of a failing. But Umbra, when she is introduced, is a villain of some depth, even as her motivations are painfully cliched. Her visual design is perfect, reflecting the darkness and insatiable greed which dwell within her breast. Her central motivation is the dethroning of her husband, an ailing count and ruler of a quaint Austrian kingdom towards the end of the nineteenth century. Aurora, naturally, must stop these machinations, must save her father, a difficult feat owing to her situation in the mythical Lemuria, a land she was transported to after her seeming death. For the vast majority of the narrative, then, the ultimate quest is simply a return to the realm of the living, a return to one’s homeland, a return to one’s family. It is a straightforward narrative, not as innovative or ambitious as the presentation, though still the narrative contains many bright spots, evocations of emotion and pathos. Aurora is an excellent protagonist, showing repeated humility, refusing to be called princess, instead encouraging her companions and strangers to simply call her by her given name; here is no hubris or haughtiness. The companions she recruits during her venture though Lemuria each have distinct motivations and identities; each companion has internal and external complexity, though they are all linked by a pervasive sense of tragedy, hardship, and learning about their precise histories, histories which are communicated gradually, serves an enriching purpose. Writing, meanwhile, cannot fully escape the cliché, though immediately notable and innovative is the inclusion of rhymed dialogue, which furthers the whimsical nature of the environments – this dialogue is very charming, the game frequently poetic, earnest and sincere. Such a manner of delivery has the terrible potential to grow excessively simple or childish, though ultimately both of these failings are skirted; the narrative is not juvenile, even as externally it might appear so. Voice acting is essentially nonexistent, being featured in but a few cutscenes throughout the narrative, and while some players, grown accustomed to voice acting over recent years, might consider this lack as being a failing, in actuality it seems an asset; poor voice acting is generally far worse than no voice acting. Given the manifold different races, disastrous voice acting seemed an inevitability, so the decision made here is a wise one – not every game needs this feature. The rapport which develops between these characters also diminishes the possible sting accompanying purely text-based delivery; the discourse here is compelling, oftentimes poignant, even as it maintains that air of great innocence. The narrative is a long and winding one, perhaps to a fault, though the conclusion was a satisfying if expected one – Aurora vanquishes Umbra with the assistance of her companions, then assumes the crown and the role of leader for her father’s people. It is perhaps excessively sentimental, though the ultimate sense of triumph which accompanies defeat of the final boss was virtually unparalleled, owing to the great difficulty of the engagement.        

Child of Light’s varied gameplay systems are deceptively complex, richly rewarding. And, despite their complexity, the mechanics are intuitive – to use the cliched expression, they are easy to learn and difficult to master. Indeed, even in the closing hours of the narrative, I felt as though I was still learning, still coming to grips with the profound combat mechanics, though the game becomes much more than a traditional turn-based RPG, owing to the inclusion of basic platforming, the game adopting the tropes of the side-scroller genre. As was the case with the world building, that latter gameplay pillar – platforming – is abounding in novelty and innovation, owing principally to one key ability – sustained flight. In the opening hour or two, Aurora is gifted a pair of wings, wings which enable her to navigate the environments efficiently, gracefully. Furthering player empowerment, this ability is tied to no cooldown or anything of the sort – flight can always be relied upon. In addition to making more efficient locomotion, this core ability also makes more enjoyable locomotion, resulting in a sense of speed, Aurora’s animations majestic, beautiful. The maps generally can be sprawling, and this ability enables more open-ended game design, while the power also facilitates considerable verticality. Such exploration, such atypical platforming, is traditionally rewarded generously, seeming dead ends housing chests and other such objects which, when looted, provide the player with potions, crafting materials, or other useful materials. In a stroke of mastery, despite this largeness not once was I diverted off the expected path, never lost or confused. With this flying, then, Child of Light subverts the trope of the platforming genre, giving the player considerable freedom, whereas in so many other games belonging to that genre, an immense sense of groundedness is in place, limiting exploration. Some very basic puzzle solving is present, centered largely around the manipulation of light, shadow, and while these puzzles are simple and straightforward, they are still enjoyable to solve, owing to their very logical construction – here is no frustrating obtuseness. This manipulation of light and shadow, though, this employing of the self-illuminating companion Igniculus, sadly dominates puzzle-solving; only a few other presented puzzles break from this central light manipulation, leading somewhat towards tedium, or at least repetition. Still, some environmental manipulation is in place – as is expected – while thorns and other damaging obstacles needed be navigated through, as contact with those objects damages Aurora’s health value; some tropes are clung to. But the game is at its best when it spurns the generic and the uninspired, which is fortunately often – though not always – the case.             

The game’s role-playing elements are nearly flawless in their implementation, abounding in depth and difficulty, all the while never growing unfair; in this manner, the game might be the perfect introduction for any player inexperienced with or indifferent to traditional turn-based gameplay. It is very forgiving, featuring many modern, expected conveniences. Most central to this forgiving nature is the rapidity and nature of respawning; should the player’s party die in combat, the game immediately loads an autosave, and, owing to the great frequency of such autosaves, virtually no real progress is lost upon death, while all health and all magic points are restored upon death, permitting the player to jump into the fray undaunted, possessive of new knowledge, new skills, which make easier the combat engagement – easier but never trivial. Victory is never automatically assured, even in the seeming simplest of enemy encounters; those possessive of lower health points might possess higher damage values; those who may possess lower damage values may possess healing capabilities – on and on are the gameplay complexities here, and the spirited, inspired nature of the enemy design makes more enjoyable the central combat. Their great diversity, meanwhile, ensures that the player must experiment in combat, and encountering a new enemy for the first time is an enjoyable, exciting affair, as various attacking styles need be employed to learn of their precise attributes in combat. Traditionally, they spawn in groups of three, and owing to this larger quantity, battles can grow to become quite lengthy, some lasting upwards of five minutes, depending upon tactics employed, enemy values. Battles balloon further still whenever engaging in one of the game’s many boss battles, very demanding and intense – they are wonderful. Towards the narrative’s conclusion, Aurora’s party has swelled, consisting of roughly half a dozen individuals, though only two can be used in combat at any given moment. Theoretically, this limitation would only cut down on gameplay and combat complexities. But not so, in that characters can be swapped out at will, such swapping becoming commonplace, essential to eventual success in engagements. Each character has their own predetermined role, though a role which can be altered somewhat with the game’s progression systems. Finn is a debilitating magic user, capable of mastering three different spell types, damaging, though his physical strength is miniscule. Rubella serves as the dedicated healer, though possessive of respectable combat capabilities. On and on go these complexities, Robert capable of slowing enemies, Gen of paralyzing them outright. The synergy of these characters, the careful fusion and exploitation of their abilities, escalates gameplay tremendously.

At the core of the battle systems is a time meter, which dictates precisely when an enemy will act, when an ally. The bar itself is rather lengthy, but most central to its understanding and mastery is the final quarter of the bar, which is sectioned off and dubbed the casting zone. If the player character is in the process of casting, if they are in this zone, and are interrupted by an enemy force, then the action will be cancelled, the disrupted caster pushed backwards on the timeline. Each individual action has an associated casting time – Rubella’s primary attacking mode, tumble, may be cast at a blisteringly rapid rate, while her various healing spells can take a protracted duration to activate. But not only must player timeline positioning be considered, but enemy situating is similarly important, in that they can also be disrupted. Pairing together interrupt after interrupt is immensely satisfying, and when the time meter is understood, gameplay begins in earnest – enjoyment begins in earnest. In combat, a defend function will be relied upon with fair frequency, in that the action is executed immediately – no casting speed is in place – and in that it cuts down on received damage, also hastening the speed of action for the next turn. If an enemy is at the very edge of executing an action, guarding is by far the wisest decision, though playing defensively can be rather frustrating and slower than adopting a more aggressive role, though defensiveness is inevitably important to success. Buffs and debuffs are similarly important – a slowed enemy is far less threatening than one acting at normal speed. Enemies can also exploit these systems, capable of slowing or paralyzing the player characters. While these status afflictions are key to gameplay, it is the time meter which marks the game’s greatest gameplay innovation, a remarkable, profound inclusion which establishes the title as wholly unique, building upon role-playing mechanics. Reflecting modern trends, random encounters are completely absent, each foe instead visible in the overworld; coming into contact with these creatures initiates combat. They are finite in number, respawning only when leaving a zone or meeting with death, a decision which makes nearly impossible protracted grinding, a very wise decision which ensures that the game has a consistently brisk pacing throughout.   

Outside of the bold, innovative casting system and time meter, the game does assimilate tropes of the role-playing genre, just as it incorporates tropes of the platforming genre. Child of Light features a fairly robust skill system, each individual party members having access to dozens of purchaseable skills. Furthering the game’s aspirations for the intuitive and inviting, these skill systems are largely very linear, though staving off complete linearity, each party member has access to skill trees, typically three in total. Complete control is invested in the player, having freedom to choose how precisely to develop the characters, how to enhance their capabilities. Many upgrades are mundane stat bonuses – Finn’s total number of magic points can be increased, Aurora’s attacking strength similarly augmentable. While these increases are largely unexciting, they do have considerable impact on whether or not success in combat will be achieved. More dramatic upgrades are featured on these trees, too, each attacking or buffing skill having multiple values, represented in stars. Finn may have access to a fire spell, a water one, and an electric one even at the game’s outset, but, depending upon how the skill points are allocated, he can morph one or multiple of these spells into higher levels, reflected in increased damage output, though oftentimes at the expense of casting speed – a three starred spell takes longer than a one starred one, logical and ensuring gameplay balance is maintained. To use Finn again as illustration, certain skill trees can seem rather useless, owing to the predetermined role each character belongs to. For him, one skill tree boasts physical strength, and given his inherently low strength, its low grown rate, there is very little incentive to specialize in this tree, even if some higher level magic skills are purchaseable in the latter portions of the tree; some decision making can be easy, as is the case here, though it is similarly easy and natural to agonize over other character’s abilities – Aurora, for instance, can be morphed into largely a magic attacker or a purely physical one; player choice matters, especially when considering that skill points cannot be reallocated. Towards the ending of the game, too, the skill trees expand, even more powerful abilities accessible. But the points are finite, so many of these stronger abilities, located on the fringes of the skill trees, will never be purchased, will accordingly never be used in combat, a rather frustrating admission. Still, experience distribution is generally very generous, some party member or other levelling up every battle or two, and thusly considerable time will be spent in the skill menu. Finally, reflecting genre convention, a basic crafting system is in place, as “occuli” scattered about the game world are discoverable, and, when in ample supply, compatible occuli can be fused together, resulting in a stronger object with effects like increased health or magic, or when fashioned onto a weapon the imbuing of elemental values to the common attacking maneuver. The inclusion of these occuli incentivizes exploration, makes it more enjoyable; treasure is valuable, useful, not always pointless and unexciting.             

As an experience and a game, Child of Light is remarkable, nearly flawless; very few are its faults. Perhaps the greatest offender is related to the game’s sprawling nature, sometimes seeming overblown, as the narrative can last upwards of fifteen or twenty hours, a length which can be off-putting for some, or a length which is at least unexpected; seeing a screenshot or two of the game, a certain expectation arises, that the game will be like any other short, succinct platformer, though it of course blossoms to become much more than that. Still, a tragic admission about length must be made: according to the achievement system, less than ten percent of total players reached the narrative’s completion, sorrowful considering the spectacular ending, its emotional evocations. Admittedly, though, the narrative does occasionally stall, eventually being revived with the introduction of Umbra as antagonist, her inclusion lending to the narrative a sense of focus; eventually besting her was a triumphant affair, which makes all the more mournful the fact that very few players reached that final boss battle, witnessed her vanquishing and the lovely, voiced cutscene which follows it. The writing, too, could be seen as divisive, its precise nature pointing towards juvenility, childishness. This may be the case – the narrative may be excessively straightforward, spurning the mature and the gritty – though this is not to say the game is devoid of complexity – far from it. Only consider the varied gameplay systems, particularly the turn-based battles, their inherent graces and complexities only bolstered by the robust – though not overwhelming – progression systems. In another stroke of mastery, two difficulty levels are present, casual and expert. On expert, the difficulty level is fair, never punishing though still very tense, exhilarating. I can only assume the casual mode as being an even more relaxing endeavor, one which would be suitable for the young or the amateurs of the genre, reflecting great accessibility. In a manner, then, the appeal is immense, Child of Light having much to offer all types of players, even those who have long rejected the genre, seeing it as slow paced, boring. Excellent, piano-heavy music contributes to a gay, inviting atmosphere, while such whimsicality seeps into the world building, another achievement, engrossing the player in a profound manner – the feats of presentation are unparalleled. With its inviting attributes, no currency is present, meaning the player need never fiddle with inventory screens, the equipping of weapons and armor, further lowering the barrier to entry. Even the environments, sprawling as they are, are intuitively designed – a map feature is present, though it was never consulted, never needed. It is this accessibility, this gameplay depth and visual artistry, which makes Child of Light such a magnificent experience. The narrative may not be particularly memorable, novel, or inspired, but that is a slight, very slight blemish.

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