Child Of Light may have been pitched as an indie experiment – a project made with an almost rebellious small-team attitude within the walls of a big publisher – but this is a Ubisoft game through and through. And we don’t just mean the obligatory main menu nag to log into Uplay, Ubisoft’s social-network-cum-game-store, which the publisher’s persistence in pushing is now almost perversely endearing. There’s a crafting system, with collectible gems combined to make more powerful ones to slot into weapons for little stat or elemental buffs. There’s a levelling curve that doles out skill points to be spent in a colossal tech tree. And there are Confessions – scraps of paper that flutter on the breeze and, when collected, fill out the story.
Thankfully, Child Of Light has plenty to distinguish it from its stablemates, much of which comes from creative director Patrick Plourde’s desire to make a game parents and children can play together. The setting is not a hostile tropical paradise, but the fairytale land of Lemuria, a world where an evil witch has transformed a town of dwarves into crows, and where mice in period attire live on the back of a giant and fret about the state of the local economy. It’s a hand-painted, and often beautiful, 2D world into which protagonist Aurora awakes after seemingly dropping dead in her native Austria. And so she sets out to find a way back to the real world – her progress sped up by the power of flight, granted by a magical crown passed down by her father – helping out the stricken Lemurians as she goes.
Child Of Light has been mechanically tailored to family play. Battles are turn-based and largely stress-free. They’re basic, too: while your party will be six strong by the end of the game, only two members of it can participate at once. Whether you’re flitting around Lemurian skies or locked in combat, however, either the main player (with the right stick) or an accomplice (on another controller) can also take control of Igniculus, a talking firefly. Out in the world, he can access treasures and activate switches Aurora can’t reach, and he takes a role in simple environmental puzzling whose solutions invariably involve casting the right shadow on the right object. In combat, however, he’s even more important.
At the bottom of the screen sits a timeline along which scrolls an icon for each friendly and enemy combatant. The final portion of the bar is coloured red. When an icon reaches the start of this final section, you make your move, but it doesn’t necessarily play out instantly. If you’re hit beforehand, you’re dumped back along the line, forced to skip your turn. By positioning Igniculus over an enemy and squeezing L2, however, you can slow them down; hover him over an ally, meanwhile, and he’ll regenerate their health a little. All of this is governed by an energy bar refilled by absorbing little orbs, called Whispers, from glowing plants found out in the world and on the battlefield.
It adds a dynamic realtime element to click-and-wait turn-based combat, but it does make for an even smoother ride in a game that is far from a challenge. Combat is almost impossible to fail. By the time the game gets hard enough for one of your number to fall in battle, you’ll have a healthy stock of potions to revive them with, and you can instantly swap out a struggling party member for one with full health. Enemies get stronger, of course, but so do you – for the first half of the game, you’ll see the level-up screen after just about every fight, and your party accrues XP irrespective of whether or not they set foot on the battlefield. There’s a period around two-thirds of the way through the game where you briefly feel threatened; your party’s differing skillsets suddenly appear useful, perhaps even vital. Then your ranks are swollen by a warrior with a taunt to draw enemy attention, high health to ensure he’s rarely in danger, and better damage output than anyone else in your party. There’s no reason not to use him, no incentive or need to mix up your approach, and the rest of the game is a walkover as what should be a tactical and dynamic combat system instead becomes one-note.
The story, meanwhile, is a procession of fairytale clichés with a twee, forcibly rhyming script. Its low point is a twist that will struggle to catch even younger family members off guard, and which anyone who played Far Cry 3, a game with which Child Of Light shares both a creative director and a writer, will have seen coming a mile off. Thankfully, Aurora is a delight, a strong-willed, kind-hearted soul who not only saves the day in Lemuria and Austria, but just about rescues Child Of Light as a whole. She’s delightfully animated, her long red hair swishing as she turns, her wings fluttering delicately as she zips up the side of a mountain. While she, like everyone else, is unvoiced throughout, she gives the game its greatest sound effect: the soft clap of the soles of her feet when she lands on a stone floor. Had the same attention to detail been lavished on Child Of Light’s pacing and structure, Ubisoft Montreal might have had a hit on its hands.
Instead, Child Of Light is an already slow game that’s needlessly bogged down by those signature Ubisoft systems. The levelling is the worst culprit: by the time the credits have rolled, there will be over 70 skill icons on six separate trees, and most offer up the same minor bonuses you get automatically when you level up. It may be designed for families, but Child Of Light is too cluttered and too slow to hold the attention of lone players, let alone multiple generations sharing a sofa. Bickering over whether to spend a skill point on a couple more magic points or a minor damage buff isn’t much of a family pursuit, after all. It’s a game that, for all the intricacy of its systems and the charm of its painterly world, feels oddly empty.