The funny thing about the best Japanese role-playing game in recent memory is the fact that it’s not made in Japan. Indeed, Child of Light – a gorgeous new story about a girl lost in a dreamland – comes from Ubisoft Montreal, the studio best known for Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry games.
Child of Light has all the hallmarks of JRPGs: cartoonish characters, experience points and skill levels, upgradeable weapons and armour, and a turn-based combat system. Yet, with relatively simple action and inventory-management systems, and a storyline that isn’t overwrought with melodrama and illogic, Ubisoft Montreal puts a decidedly modern and Western twist on a genre that often falls into self-defeating anachronisms.
In its first hour or so, Child of Light actually plays and feels more like Limbo, the 2010 side-scrolling indie game from Danish studio Playdead. The child in question is Aurora, daughter of a 19th-century Austrian aristocrat, who falls asleep and finds herself in the mythical world of Lemuria. In her quest to reclaim the moon and sun from the evil Queen of the Night and return to the real world, Aurora must explore this dreamscape, which involves simple Limbo-like platforming such as pulling crates to reach higher ledges and pushing switches to open doors. There isn’t much in the way of instruction or narration, which adds to the indie vibe in an industry dominated by big-name games that are often too easy and too instructional.
But Aurora soon gains fairy wings and thus the ability to fly, which is where the game’s real DNA shines through. Child of Light uses Ubisoft’s UbiArt Framework, the engine that has powered the company’s previous two Rayman titles. The similarities between the games are therefore obvious, with the 2.5-dimensional Lemuria rendering smoothly whether Aurora is moving horizontally or vertically. Even the sparkling orbs she gathers to replenish her health and magic ability resemble Rayman’s Lumens in form and function.
The biggest similarity between the games is also clear: they’re absolutely stunning to look at. Child of Light ‘s environments – dark forests, lava-dripping caverns, medieval towns, castles and monasteries – are rendered in a sort of semi-realistic watercolour style that perfectly conveys the dream-like quality of the world. The soft orchestral score, punctuated by the occasional flute melody, completes the illusion. The result: Lemuria is a darkly beautiful land that you can’t help but want to explore.
And there is much to discover. Like any good platformer, there are hidden locations and power-up items strewn throughout the land. Some are tricky to reach, with Aurora and her sidekick – a talking firefly named Igniculus – having to solve puzzles, some of which involve his ability to generate light.
The story is mostly text-based, another throwback to classic JRPGs, although it’s all in verse and every character’s lines rhyme. It’s a clever tool that adds to the whimsy and kept me reading all the dialogue, rather than skipping through as I’m often tempted to do in RPGs. Despite that, or possibly in spite of it, the game’s characters don’t really develop enough depth to inspire connections, but at least what they have to say is entertaining.
Child of Light most obviously resembles a JRPG when it comes to the action. When Aurora encounters an enemy, the game shifts into an arena encounter with the heroine, Igniculus and her chosen partner on one side, the enemies on the other. A “timeline” on the bottom shows the order of attacks based on all characters’ speed ratings; the faster ones go first, followed by the slower ones.
The catch is the all-important “cast” section at the end of the timeline, or the second or two that each character takes to perform his or her action, which can range from melee attacks, spells, drinking potions or defending. Each takes a different length of time to perform – defense is instant, for example, while a powerful spell takes longer. If a character is hit during this preparation phase by a faster attack, their action gets interrupted and they get bumped backward in the timeline.
Combat is thus a highly strategic affair where the goal is often to keep bumping enemies back, to prevent them from attacking. Sometimes, the opposite happens where the enemies team up to keep Aurora and her ally from unleashing their capabilities. In such cases, the good guys might need to use potions to speed up their moves or even flee the fight. Fortunately, Igniculus – who can be controlled by a second player – can alternately slow enemies or heal his friends.
As in all RPGs, experience points and inventory items improve abilities and skills. Each character has a trio of skills that can be leveled up. As the titular child of light, Aurora, for example, can cast various light-based spells that are devastating to the dark creatures of Lemuria. The allies she enlists during her quest, meanwhile, have various healing, elemental and defensive powers. Succeeding in combat depends on getting the right mix of these capabilities down.
Aurora’s party is also aided by power-ups crafted from the numerous gems hidden around the land. Combining emeralds, sapphires, rubies and other stones can improve elemental resistances or add extra damage capabilities to weapons.
Child of Light keeps both the advancement and crafting relatively simple, since players only have to worry about upgrading the characters’ skills and gemstones. But, while these systems aren’t as overwhelming as those found in many other JRPGs, they still require far too much attention. I found myself jumping into the management screens after every battle, or after finding every gem, to see who I could upgrade and with what. It’s unfortunate, because the player ends up spending a lot of time on these menus, rather than in beautiful Lemuria.
Nevertheless, Child of Light has a lot going for it – amazing visuals, serene soundtrack, cute dialogue, clever puzzles, a relatively large world to explore and challenging battles, all put together into a package that has an unmistakable indie-art game feel. While its inspiration as a Japanese role-playing game is unmistakable, Ubisoft’s effort is a real stride forward in a genre that hasn’t changed much to reflect modern sensibilities.