Child of Light brings your favorite childhood picture books to life. It’s equal parts “The Wizard of Oz” and Grimm’s fairy tales. Though the gameplay may lack something, its beautiful watercolor environments and dreamlike atmosphere more than make up for any shortcomings.
Before I go any further, I have to say that Uplay, Ubisoft’s service, is not my favorite. It crashed pretty regularly and constantly asked me for my game key when logging in, which was a bit of a drag. I didn’t experience any problems while in the game, but working around Uplay while booting up was annoying.
Anyway, now that that’s out of the way: on to the gameplay.
The puzzles are very easy. There aren’t many—the typical puzzle involves turning a lever and making it through an open doorway past a few simple-to-bypass obstacles. Some involve pushing a heavy object onto a button so the doorway remains open. The “big” puzzles, the ones at the ends of levels, are mostly about using Igniculus—your little “firefly” companion, operated by the mouse hand—to cast shadows or manipulate prismatic light to unlock doors. Even as a child, I would probably have considered these “puzzles” to be more like obstacles than brain-teasers. They’re fun, but they pose no difficulty.
The combat is turn-based, but with a twist. The player can use Igniculus to slow down (“blind”) enemies. You have two bars, one “wait” and one “cast”—if characters or enemies are attacked while they’re in the “cast” bar they’ll be interrupted and set back. Some enemies will retaliate. It’s hard to tell how quickly the “cast” bar will be overcome by an enemy—some casts are lightning fast, others much slower. This makes for a much more engaging turn-based combat system than your usual wait-and-click.
Enemies have your typical RPG weaknesses—fire>earth, lighting>water, light>dark, etc. There are no enemy stats available for browsing, so sometimes it takes a little finagling to find an enemy’s ultimate weakness. Players can swap out Aurora and her numerous teammates to find the best combination of powers, or to hit enemies with a few debuffs before going in for the kill with the tanks.
However, combat does get fairly repetitive. Once you’ve memorized the enemy weaknesses, you can typically oust them without ever consuming health potions or worrying about death. I haven’t died once in the game, and for me, that’s quite a feat. That being said, bosses tend to be a nice respite from the grind. With more complicated abilities and attack patterns, it can be tough to find the right combination of characters and spells to get through them.
I do wish I’d been given more chances to explore using different characters, though. I pretty much stuck to a couple of faves and never felt the need to swap in the others. Worse, when I did swap them in, just to see what they were like, it actually tended to slow down my battles substantially. Perhaps a more tactical player than I would find greater uses for the broader skill sets available, but I ended up ignoring half of my team and feeling a little guilty about it.
Igniculus is an interesting addition to the typical side-scrolling RPG format. He’s a character, for one thing, so moving around acts much like moving two different characters, except that he’ll follow you around automatically if left alone (just like any mouse cursor would). You can use him to light up dark spaces, solve puzzles, collect certain treasures, or blind enemies temporarily. When Aurora must go without him, his loss is deeply felt.
I was pleased with the number and quality of female characters in Child of Light. There’s the protagonist Aurora, of course, but I’d assumed (as is usually the case) that she was a kind of one-off thing. The next thing I knew, Aurora meets her first human comrade—a young woman from the circus. Two female characters?! Unheard of! It was a theme that continued till the endgame, happily. The gender ratio was pretty evenly split. (Unfortunately the game didn’t do as well with ethnic diversity, unless you’re talking green and amphibious.)
The story is Child of Light’s critical weakness. The main premise is similar to “The Wizard of Oz”: girl finds herself transported to a mysterious land and must find her way back home to save her ailing family member. Meanwhile, she gets roped into saving the world. The wicked witch, in this case, is the stepmother (isn’t she always?). While I’m all for classic fairy tale princess stories, this one might be a little too classic. I wanted a bit more complexity, or at least something that turned a few tropes on their heads.
The dialogue is entirely written (almost none of it is voice-acted) in rhyme. Rhyming dialogue is an interesting choice for a game and lends itself to the fairy-tale quality of the story, as well as offering some opportunity for comic relief in the form of a jester who just can’t get her lines right. However, it also makes for some stilted and archaic phrasing at times, and in a game where the story was already suffering, this didn’t help matters.
This boils down to the most fundamental problem with Child of Light’s story: although I liked most of the characters, their backgrounds and motivations aren’t really explored. There is virtually no character development. Even Aurora, the principal character, doesn’t grow much. She starts out sweet and gregarious, and she ends that way too. I think we’re meant to believe that she, like Dorothy, comes to cherish and appreciate her loved ones, and attribute new meaning to the word “home”—but the theme falls a little flat since we never get to meet an Aurora who doesn’t cherish her loved ones. Aside from being perhaps a little childish, she doesn’t seem to have any character flaws at all.
The triad of main enemies—I won’t reveal who they are, since that would be spoiling it—aren’t given much in the way of motivation either, unfortunately. It’s evil in its most basic form: “I’m going to take over the world! And I’m going to kick some puppies while doing it. Just for funsies. Because I’m so sinister.”
I would’ve liked to have seen some gray-area morality, some wisp of internal struggle in any of these characters, but alas, it was not to be.
While Child of Light’s story leaves something to be desired, its atmosphere more than makes up for it. I’d peg it as one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever played, hands down. Everything is hand-drawn. The score is haunting. Aurora’s animation while traversing the misty, eerie landscape with her fairy wings is fluid and beautiful. There’s an air of childlike whimsy to everything, but the aesthetic is less “Blues Clues” and more “The Last Unicorn”—nostalgic, evocative, and just a little bit sad.
The scenery doesn’t suffer from the problem that some games do: lovely painted backgrounds with static characters and objects that look like they don’t belong. Ubisoft’s Ubiart Engine has made it possible for everything, including Aurora herself, to be fully hand-drawn. Child of Light is like interacting with a watercolor picture book—something I’ve dreamed of doing ever since I was a little kid.
The music is equally lovely. Coeur de Pirate’s score is, while at times repetitive, consistently gorgeous. There are no grand symphonic numbers; rather, the music consists of simple pianos and strings and woodwinds that make for a haunting, memorable melody. The score has an almost music box-like quality—the song you hear repeated is one that is meaningful to Aurora, and thus appropriately nostalgic. While I suppose some might get bored with the motif, it never lost its magic for me.
Appropriateness for Kids
I think I actually would’ve liked Child of Light better as a child than I did as an adult. If I had a much-younger sibling or a niece or nephew to play this game with me, I’d be over the moon. Though the game is rated E10+ officially, I didn’t encounter anything I would’ve been uncomfortable with as a 5-, or even 4-year-old. If you’re thinking of playing with kids who are easily frightened, you should know that there are occasionally skeletons, scary spike traps, and grim-reaper types that haunt the world of Lemuria. All in all it’s a very cartoon-type of scary, though. The violence is bloodless and the bad guys are Disney-esque.
Some of the language may go over the heads of younger kids, but hey! What a fabulous opportunity to introduce some new vocab, right? However, if your kids aren’t proficient readers yet they may need a helping hand with the dialogue since it isn’t spoken.
One easy way to co-op Child of Light would be to have your kid control Igniculus with the mouse while you navigate with Aurora (this may be tougher with a console, of course).
Despite a few problems with the story and characters, Child of Light is a wonderful game. Its ethereal art style and music make it feel like a watercolor picturebook come to life, and its gameplay is neither too violent or difficult for most young kids. If you read to your kids, you might find Child of Light to be another sweet way to share a story and an experience.
This reviewer played Child of Light on a PC using a Steam client.