Judging by all of the pre-release hype, which consisted of art-laden teaser trailers and keyhole glimpses at Child of Light, it seemed Ubisoft Montreal were working on something completely left of centre. The style and story-book narrative, coupled with insights into a mysterious other world, were like nothing you’d expect from Ubisoft, or other large developers for that matter. When executed well, different can be revolutionary. In this instance, however, Child of Light drops like a rock from the dewy blue; sky-fairy wings or not. I had every reason to expect plenty from this title, and just as many reasons why I was ultimately disappointed with the final product. There were so many paths that could have been more appropriately explored in this under-used genre, and it seems a shame that Ubisoft Montreal chose to hold back in the areas where it could have really shone. Keeping in mind that this low-cost game was meant to focus on traditional RPG concepts, I have tried to remain fair in my critique.
I didn’t hate Child of Light. Instead, it’s a case of its components falling into the categories of the “good”, the “bad” and the “ugly”. The good refers to the greatest achievement for this game, and it’s great that Ubisoft branched out to try and deliver an illustrated childrens tale in the form of a side-scrolling RPG. The water-colour scenes paint an enchanting realm with soft surroundings and fantasy backgrounds. In fact, the entire game would look perfect framed on my wall, generously offering a range of stylized environments to indulge your visual senses within. The game’s cast and animations were perfect for its fantasy style, and created beautiful settings for the world of Lemuria. The original look carried it, and ensured focus remained on the character relationships and the battles.
The overall design confidently etches out a more altered path than past Ubisoft releases, but the whole affair feels watered down, like it’s missing integral pieces. Even after being reminded of the game’s intentions for basic ideas and traditionalism, I can’t help but feel that became an excuse for the developers. Take the NPCs and your party members, for example. To me, much of the driving force of an RPG is the role playing. You steer a game according to those around you, but with Child of Light, sure, they are attractive to look at, but at no point did the game make me care about any of them. For me personally, it missed the most crucial facet of any RPG; I had no urge to “role-play”, but instead felt oddly omnipotent as I raced through the game feeling indifferent to the cast.
The script for Child of Light was painfully bland, and needlessly confusingly on too many occasions. While the novelty of constant rhyming could have added a level of whimsy to the title, it instead became a point of acute annoyance. It wasn’t the poetry style so much as it was the forced, almost gibberish text that plagued the game. Perhaps voice actors would have improved the banter between party members and added some wit to dialogue that otherwise added nothing to the experience. In terms of the design itself, however, the upgrade structure was predictably basic, but this made it accessible and fast. Crafting and improving skill trees for an entire party can often be a harrowing task in many RPGs, but Child of Light throws players a rope, with a system that saw me crafting and upgrading in a few short button mashes as opposed to the usual, and sometimes excruciating task.
Moving onto the ‘bad’, unfortunately, brings me to a breakdown of the gameplay. Physically, the mechanics of the turn-based combat work really well, as do the separate, yet still single-player controls, of the firefly companion. However, while it all worked well, the firefly quickly grew as novel as the rhyming dialogue, and soon became forgotten during regular play. Basically, it became: fly here, open chest, fly there, open chest. Having the firefly as a second player during battles could be fun and useful, but player two became redundant in the open world; they were tied to player one and could do very little that the main character couldn’t do alone. Perhaps gaining the ability of flight had something to do with it, but it became easier to fly through each level, and spend less time exploring; especially after realising that most items had little use after becoming efficient with the battle system.
The hyper-maneuverability of both characters offered many great opportunities, but failed to deliver more than a few sparse puzzles that fell short of creating a challenge, physical or otherwise. Each level offered minimal variation in gameplay because flying removed most obstacles. A level-specific puzzle, or not being able to fly in the water level, for example, would have helped to provide more depth to the mechanics. I tried to push the mechanics by controlling both characters and completing side quests, and sure, flying was smooth and responded well to my commands, but after the initial “I can fly, this is awesome!” wore off, so did any challenge.
As with any traditional-inspired RPG, most enemies have specific weaknesses that you must exploit to ensure victory. This meant switching your overflowing party around to best suit the bad guys (at least the switching mechanic was easy to use). What I found slightly irksome, though, was the insane jump between difficulties. Its all fun and games until you reach a boss, then you better be ready to shine light in the enemies’ eyes, or be willing to peddle through most of your potions and half your party. Once it became second nature, all battles went smoothly, and were a welcome break from just flying around. An added bonus in the battles was realising you could basically halt everything and heal yourself without losing a turn; nearly every battle was light work after that.
I now come to the ‘ugly,’ which in this case, is the core narrative. I’m a forgiving gamer; I can look the other way if a game has shocking graphics or sticky controls, just as long as the storyline – the backbone of any decent RPG – is gripping and plays out well. With Child of Light, Ubisoft Montreal attempted to deliver a linear story likened to a fairy-tale, but with ties to both the real world and a fantasy world. Instead, however, what we received was a cluster of interlocking titbits from Austria and Lemuria, with a story that grew increasingly nonsensical; adding more holes with every cross back and forth. It began with a sound Disney-styled approach, but it quickly became a garbled mess as the narrative was driven primarily by dialogue and sporadic explanations of the two worlds. It’s as if the developers compromised a driving narrative for pretty pictures and verses that rhyme, however banal.
I appreciate what Ubisoft was trying to do, and I applaud their efforts to engage a wider audience with a divergent from their mainstream releases. However, the entire thing, to me, felt like a washed out version of Alice: Madness Returns, right down to the locations and costume changes as Aurora progressed. While I can acknowledge the traditional RPG approach Ubisoft Montreal was going for, the core gameplay felt less like an RPG and more like a glorified point-and-click. It really needed just a little more work to lift it from the odd space between a menial kid’s game and poorly translated fable. Perhaps it was my own heightened expectations from the trailers and teaser art that has left me feeling disappointed, but even after giving the game a complete play through and spending time on side quests, it was nowhere near as enjoyable as I’d hoped. Sorry Ubisoft, in this case, different isn’t equal to better, but I genuinely hope this doesn’t stop you or other larger developers from branching out in the future.