Republished on Wednesday 30th August 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of September's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Child of Light, a new two-dimensional role-playing game from Ubisoft, is best described using the titles that it was so obviously influenced by. With a Limbo-esque atmosphere, a Final Fantasy IX-inspired narrative, a visual style straight out of a storybook, and the occasional smattering of Rayman-style platforming, this is an adventure for families and genre aficionados alike. But with such big names setting its direction, can it live up to that list of heavy hitters, or does it sink to the ‘lowest of the low’, where the dark witches live?
You can’t properly discuss this release without first mentioning its graphics, as they’re so clear on the PlayStation 4 that it really does look like a painting. This art style is not exactly original, but Ubisoft Montreal has really nailed it here – it feels like you’re interacting with an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland. Moreover, every object that you encounter fits in perfectly, and the hand drawn assets really add to the old-fashioned story. Only a few characters ruin the watercolour illusion – particularly the humans and the main protagonist.
Aurora is a little princess, who, upon falling ill, finds herself in a mysterious land. Desperate to work her way back to her father, she asks for help from a local seer and befriends a firefly – two things that you should always do when lost in a foreign country. She’s also three-dimensional. In a world of beautiful flatness, it’s instantly annoying to see something so obviously computer generated, and while this isn’t going to break your immersion, it does detract from the achievements found elsewhere. We suppose that this could be explained by the protagonist and her family being from a different world, but just because it makes sense, doesn’t mean that we have to like it.
Thankfully, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to drink in the more beautiful parts of the game. Most of your time will be spent exploring, using the heroine’s flying abilities to both search up and down forests, cliff faces, and dungeons. You’ll be able to collect chests, find ‘confessions’ (lost letters blowing in the wind), and there are even side-quests and optional bosses to track down. The story itself is linear, but the way that you tackle each village and landscape, and the amount of time that you spend levelling up your party of friends, is entirely up to you.
This is where Igniculus comes in. Your little firefly buddy is always on hand to offer advice, but he’s also your key to fully unlocking the environment (he never says “Hey! Listen!” though). By using the second analogue stick, you can move the winged accomplice around, collecting things in the distance, or solving puzzles with his glow. You can also use the DualShock 4 controller’s touchpad if you so choose, but it’s never nearly as accurate as it probably should be, which is a bit of a shame.
Along the way, you’ll find yourself assisted by a ragtag gang of moody teenagers, scaredy-cat dwarves, green people, and rats, all with the average age of about fourteen. It’s just like every movie in the eighties taught us: if you’re in danger, send children. Of course, these particular young people are each gifted in different ways, and can offer you a host of advantages in battle. Each also has their own backstory and reason for joining you on your quest. These additional narratives are typically quite simple – and subscribe to clichéd setups – but the way that they’re delivered really helps to suck you into the world.
Part of the reason for this is that the writing’s fantastic, as it’s all conducted in rhyming couplets. In fact, this is done so well for such long stretches of the game that you won’t even find it that noticeable, and because it’s handled with an air of light heartedness, it never once seems pretentious or showy. There are inevitable occasions where the dialogue is stretched to the point of awkwardness, and these moments stick out like a sore thumb, but considering just how much discourse there is, it’s impressive that these instances are few and far between.
As you explore and interact, you’ll come across constant threats. Knocking into enemy monsters will start a fight, and this prompts a battle system that JRPG fans will be instantly familiar with. The basics are all there: magic and physical attacks – but the addition of Igniculus makes for a whole new level of tactics, which are layered on top of the traditional turn-based format.
At the bottom of the screen is a time bar, which shows when both allies and enemies get to attack. This is split into two areas: waiting and casting. When you reach the line between these two sections, you'll need to choose what your character is going to do. However, if you’re attacked after that, your move will get interrupted, and you’ll be forced back into the waiting category. This is simpler than it may seem on paper, and it ends up being a matter of learning when to attack and when to defend. Alas, it’s the introduction of the abovementioned firefly that makes the battle system really shine.
By holding Igniculus over an enemy, you can slow down their time bar. Got a monster about to attack you? Shine a light on it and you may be able to sneak ahead, interrupting his casting, and squeezing in an extra move. When used correctly, you can dominate the battlefield, although it’s not easy to do, and you’ll need to constantly think ahead.
Unsurprisingly, after each battle, you’ll gain experience. This allows you to unlock new skills, boost attributes, or gain passive abilities. This is where old-school RPG fans should really go nuts, as the system works similarly to a simplified version of Final Fantasy X’s sphere grid, with each character possessing multiple lines of skills to travel down. The end goal is to unlock everything, but what you prioritise is down to how you want to customise your characters. You can also use and combine elemental stones to boost your attack or defence attributes, and there’s a whole crafting sub-game dedicated to that.
Sadly, if there’s any one issue other than Aurora’s three-dimensional appearance, it’s that the game is saddeningly short. It comes to a fulfilling conclusion, but running through the story will take you around five to six hours, and while there are other things to do, a pitiful Trophy list – which will see you unlocking around 95 per cent of the trinkets just for finishing the game – may leave you pondering whether it’s worth coming back for more. Make no mistake, the adventure is exceptional while it lasts, and doesn’t feel unfinished in the slightest – but we would have happily lapped up a couple more hours.
Child of Light has a few flaws, but these don’t prevent it from being an instant classic. A lot like Braid in 2008, this will be a title that comes to represent a whole new generation of ‘artsy’ affairs, and while its running time leans a little on the short side, its excellent battle system and outstanding art style will ensure that you enjoy every minute while it lasts. If you’re looking for something a little different for your PS4 – or you just want to reward the poor writer who had to spend months slumped over a rhyming dictionary in order to concoct the cunningly clever plot – then this is very much a must buy.