Child of Light is not the epic storybook poem that it thinks it is.
Child of LightPublisher: Ubisoft
Rated: Everyone 10+
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), Xbox One, PS3, PS4, PC, WiiU
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: 2014-04-30
Child of Light is a beautiful game that constantly undermines itself. Its ambition is respectable, but it can’t follow through on that ambition, and when it falls short, it topples the rest of its beautiful self.
You play as Aurora, a young Austrian princess who dies in bed one night and awakens in the magical world of Lumeria. From there, she goes on a typical hero’s journey, gathering companions, learning tough lessons, and growing in character as she tries to find her way home. It’s good to see a little girl be the hero of this archetypal story, and she looks awesome swinging a sword twice her size while wearing a child’s night dress. That alone makes Child of Light stand out from its RPG peers.
Aesthetically, it’s a stunning game. The art is beautiful, it’s like a hand painted world of watercolor pulled straight out of a children’s storybook. It’s impressively detailed in some areas, but just rough enough to still look hand crafted from physical materials. Then there’s the music, an orchestral score that’s simple enough to get stuck your head but so good you won’t mind. As you jump in and out of battles, the soundtrack goes from soothing to intense and back again without ever losing the lighthearted tone of the art.
The combat is a clever system that’s all about timing. There’s a timeline at the bottom of the screen separated into two segments. Icons for your combatants and the enemies move across this timeline at different speeds depending on their stats. The larger of the two segments is the Wait time, an icon has to move across this segment before someone can act. The smaller segment is the Cast time, every action, even a normal attack, goes through this casting period before it’s executed. If a character or enemy is attacked while casting, they’ll be interrupted and bumped back up the timeline. Combat revolves around controlling this line, requiring the player to attack enemies while they’re casting in order to stop their actions, while timing your own attacks so that they’re not interrupted.
It’s a great system that makes the relatively slow turn-based combat feel intense. You’re in a constant race, your icon competing with the enemy’s, so even while you’re waiting, you’re on the edge of your seat. There’s a lot of tactical depth in simple decisions, since every move has a different cast time. Do you risk the slow and powerful attack or go for the fast and weak attack or do you block because you know you’ll be interrupted?
Sadly, despite all its impressive features Child of Light is brought down by some minor issues that aren’t that problematic at first but over the long haul bgin to suck away all the fun and charm of the experience, leaving behind a game that deserved better.
In keeping with its storybook plot and style, the dialogue is written entirely in rhyming verses. This comes as a pleasant surprise at first, a novel way of evoking tone, but it quickly descends into gimmickry and becomes more cloying than literary.
The most unfortunate thing about the writing is that there’s no strict structure to the rhyming. Sometimes a couplet will rhyme, sometimes a quatrain will alternate rhymes, and sometimes nothing will rhyme. There’s no consistent syllable count per line and no consistent meter. This complete lack of structure makes the rhyming feel lazy rather than poetic, especially when the game starts stretching for rhyming words in order to produce clever non sequiturs. It just feels desperate. Storybooks can provide consistent structured poetry, so why can't Child of Light? The idea of an entire game written in rhyming verse is genuinely awesome, but Child of Light falls so far short of this goal it’s heartbreaking.
There are times, however, when the game does follow some structure for the length of an entire conversation, and in these rare moments, it has the intended effect: turning conversation into a song. It’s charming and wonderful, and it never lasts.
As a side effect of turning every line of dialogue into bad poetry, the story becomes hard to follow. The constant need to rhyme obfuscates what should be a simple plot. The style takes priority over clarity. As a result, important information is glossed over in two unrhymed lines and then the game gets back to its attempted poetry. At one point, things are so poorly explained that it feels like the game forgot what story it was telling: You begin in Austria, the real world, but the game seems to forget that fact for most of its runtime before remembering during final cut scene. In the end, characters did stuff and conflicts were resolved, but I’m not clear on what exactly happened and why. Also not helping things is that fact that when every line of dialogue is bad poetry you’d rather skip conversations than read them.
The unending bad poetry pulls you out of the experience and pushes you away. What was once a sweet game turns into something saccharine, sappy, schmaltzy, and shoddy.
The game also has frustrating balance issues. There are two difficulties that you can switch between at any time, which is a nice idea, but in practice, that just means that Child of Light veers wildly between two extremes.
The Normal difficulty is a cakewalk that feels like it’s been designed to never let you off the training wheels. You fight fewer and weaker enemies on average, and you have a means of gaining free health during battles. It has its challenging moments during boss fights, but a vast majority of the time, it’s a very easy game. This is fun for a little while while you’re learning the ropes, but after several hours, it becomes boring. At that point, the story is the only thing pulling you through the game, but the writing is too weak to support the entire experience.
This gives you plenty of motivation to switch to the Hard difficulty. However, the Hard difficulty is brutal. This is refreshing after spending a lot of time on Normal, but it quickly becomes exhausting. Enemies hit so hard that they can kill a character in three turns. It feels like you spend most of your time healing and only a quarter of your time fighting. There’s very little you can do in between fights to recuperate, so you’ll end a fight low on health only to go into the next fight low on health. It’s as if you can’t actually play on this difficulty for long periods of time. Eventually you’ll get so beaten down that you’ll have to switch back to Normal to recuperate. On Hard you’ll start to avoid encounters, and the combat becomes a chore rather than a game.
An upcoming patch will change the difficulty names from Normal and Hard to Casual and Expert, which only highlights the lack of a proper middle ground.
Child of Light is frustrating because it’s not a bad game, not at all. The combat system is clever, the soundtrack is brilliant, the art is beautiful, and even the rhyming writing is impressive in its ambition. But ambition is nothing without execution, and Child of Light botches the execution of the two most important things in an RPG: the story and combat. With better writing and better balance, Child of Light could have been something magical. Instead, it’s just a beautifully boring game.