Child of Light by Ubisoft Montreal is really quite the anomaly. In today’s world, a colorful traditional RPG with picture book-esque visuals starring a little girl would be too great a financial risk for any AAA publishing firm, much less Ubisoft, infamous for releasing big-budget Assassin’s Creed sequels out every year. And yet, here it is. Ubisoft really should be commended for publishing Child of Light (and Valiant Hearts) and in a way we should be thankful those iterative Assassin’s Creed games give them the financial security to back projects like these, because Child of Light has quite unique and incredibly fun gameplay mechanics and incredibly beautiful visuals, and really is one of the best games of the year.
In Child of Light, you play as Aurora, a red-headed little girl who’s the daughter of an Austrian archduke, when she contracts an illness that puts her into a deep sleep, in which she wakes up in the fantastical world of Lemuria. From there you must embark on a twelve hour quest throughout this world, meeting new friends who join your party and battling progressively harder evil beings, to get back to the real world and save your father. However, Aurora realizes that she can’t just leave the Lemurians in its corrupted state, and must help get rid of the evils within before and in order to escape back to the real world. She’s just so positive and innocent across this modern coming-of-age story that you can’t help but support her on her journey.
The story itself really isn’t anything especially spectacular, but it’s the way Child of Light’s presented that really leaves a lasting impact. First off, the entire game is built using Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework engine, and really looks like a moving hand-painted children’s book. The result is something truly beautiful. On top of that, all the music helps create a really positive environment, from the background music to little piano jingle when a character levels up. The second special thing about the presentation is that all the dialogue in the game is presented in rhyme. This really contributes to the whole children’s book vibe they were going for, and while most of the rhymes seem forced and there isn’t any rhythm, it is a nice gesture and does add a great deal to the overall atmosphere.
Early in the story Aurora gets the ability to fly around Lemuria, and this works pretty seamlessly. It’s a bit silly but I had to force myself to get used to the fact that there’s no “fly meter” in Child of Light, and that Aurora can just fly forever, since that mechanic seems to be present in every other game that involves flight. Most of the things you actually do around the world seem a little mundane, like moving boxes and lights around in order to open up new areas. It seems as if these mechanics were only included to give a little more substance to the game outside of the combat, but they’re never obtrusive or bad, just sort of there. Also, as you travel around Lemuria, Aurora meets new people who eventually join her party on her journey and allow for various new gameplay possibilities.
The combat gameplay is really what makes Child of Light truly shine, however. It’s all based on one simple premise: There’s a bar at the bottom of the screen (during battles) in which the majority of it is charging up your next move, then you choose your move about three-quarters the way in, and finally execute your move when you get to the end of the bar. The catch is that if you execute your move while an enemy is also in the last quarter of the bar, they get knocked back really far on the bar; Enemies, however, can also do the same thing to you. It effectively creates a very smart mix of real-time and turn-based mechanics that’s actually really fun. One of the few problems of the game, however, is that there were a small number of times in which enemies got stuck at the move-casting point on the bar and then went all the way to the end. Basically, the animation for enemies in the last quarter of the bar didn’t happen. This is problematic when so much of the game revolves around knowing exactly where characters are on the bar.
The whole thing is really simple and yet allows for really deep combat possibilities, because some attacks have your character move faster but do less damage and some move slower but do more damage. Also, other characters have moves that can paralyze opponents, slow down opponents, make members move faster, and heal members. Basically, all the other characters have their own niche role in the party. It’s fun mixing up the various partners that are fighting to see which ones work best against different enemies. That’s because there’s a rock-paper-scissors-like mechanic in place as well, where earth/lightning is effective against water, water is effective against fire, and fire is effective against earth/lightning. And separate to that, light is effective against dark. Battles usually consist of two people in Aurora’s party versus three enemies.
On top of that, this fairy named Igniculus joins you early on and adds yet another layer of combat. During battles, you can move Igniculus around to either slow enemies or heal your party members. As the player, I immediately thought that slowing down enemies all the time would be the smart thing to do to do better in the game, but as I was doing a battle I realized that letting go of his slowing power to allow an enemy to speed up into the last quarter of the bar when a party member gets to the end would actually end up being a better move in the end. It was just such a good feeling to discover strategies like that on my own; that was when I realized this game was really something special.
And even on top of that, there are these stones called oculi you find around the world that you can attach to characters that enhance their characteristics, like making them a small percentage faster or slightly stronger against water enemies for example. What’s cool about them is that you can either combine the same oculi to make a bigger oculi or different oculi to make an even rarer one. Also I really liked how the game doesn’t tell you what stones combine together or what they combine into, and just leaves the player to figure that out by themselves. It sounds slightly silly on paper but in practice I eventually became slightly obsessed with trying to make the rarest oculi I could possibly make. The stones don’t really affect the actual gameplay too much but they were a fun addition. You also find potions that can help you out in battle, but I never found myself using these except in emergency circumstances.
And even more on top of all that, the game is a traditional RPG at its core, but a very light one which makes it a lot easier to get into. As you defeat progressively difficult enemies, your party members all earn experience that lets them level up. As they level up you get a skill-point you can use in their skill-tree to learn new moves and upgrade their stats. What’s cool about this game is that after every battle, every character in the party gets an equal amount of experience, so you don’t need to use certain characters to level them up. All the characters level up almost comically fast, like after every battle it seemed at least person had leveled up, but I really liked how this makes the player feel like they’re always progressing. After a while when your characters are really strong, you just feel like a badass beating enemies in one move when previously it had take between four and five turns across the bar to move on. What really shows how fun this system is is how Igniculus can also let you progress through the story by sneaking past enemies, but I found myself actually wanting to battle every single enemy in the world as I went through.
The weird thing about Child of Light is that it looks and feels exactly like an “indie” game yet a small team from a multi-billion dollar company developed it. Child of Light just has an astonishing amount of charm and character from a publisher that usually focuses on making things accessible to the biggest audience possible. The fact is though that the perfect combination of the unique art style and all the mechanics in Child of Light really make it one of the most fun games I’ve played in a long time. There were times during the day where all I could do was just think about Child of Light and I couldn’t wait until I got home from work to make further progress in it, and there really hasn’t been any game besides maybe Transistor that made me feel that way. Child of Light is just such an amazingly fun, beautiful and deep game based on such simple mechanics.