Once Upon a Nuanced Game
Child of Light efficiently synthesizes gameplay and art direction. The art style is supported brilliantly by a light-hearted story, and a nuanced battle system. The underlying RPG mechanics contribute to the complexity of the game by utilizing expansive skill trees, crafting, and world exploration. Every character and location brim with personality, while the atmosphere is both relaxing and fantastical. These facets combine elegantly to create an enjoyable fairytale with thrilling battles, but the game culminates in a drawn out final act that left me utterly frustrated.
The spirit of Child of Light lies somewhere in between a bed-time story and Stairway to Heaven. The story follows Aurora as she travels through a dreamlike world of Lemuria, assisting its denizens so that she may return to her father. The watercolor art style is gorgeous and varied, taking the player to locations such as cursed forests, floating cities in the sky, and underwater labyrinths. The level of detail here is astounding. The environment is layered with discernable foreground, middleground, and background: which creates a feeling of scale and grandness. Adding to the sentiment of whimsy is a script executed entirely in iambic pentameter that makes the dialogue sound like a song. The soundtrack beautifully augments the atmosphere with subtle guitar melodies and mellow woodwind tones which are layered with sound effects such as rustling leaves and wind. All together, the sound design made me want to go lay in a meadow and fall asleep.
The characters and locations are overflowing with personality. Each character introduced throughout the plot is wonderfully unique, which comes through the dialogue and even the fighting. Every character has a distinct attack, dodge, and defense animation that range from cute and funny to rowdy. Ingniculus, your companion, is sweet and offers comedic relief, Rubella has trouble rhyming, Robert wants to make a quick buck, and Finn struggles with cowardice. Apart from the characters, even the locations and their inhabitants have their own personas. The dwarf-like Capilli congregate around breweries while the Bolmus village is filled with gentry rats who worry themselves with profits. Nothing seems tacked on and everything from the plot and characters to the hidden notes of poetry has a high level of execution.
The world of Lemuria uses its beauty to entice exploration, which is well rewarded. False walls give way to treasure chests that constantly reward wondering players with gems or potions. Small doors can be found that lead Aurora to dungeons full of treasure, traps, enemies, and puzzles. The puzzles here are inventive and implore things like wind currents, rising lava, levers and timers, as well as light reflections. The open handed rewards coupled with breathtaking visuals made exploring every corner of the screen a pleasure.
Child of Light doesn’t rely on its well crafted characters and music alone: the gameplay here is excellent. The battle system puts each character on a timeline. As characters reach the end, they attack, and if they strike an enemy within a certain zone, the enemy will be knocked back on the timeline. This simple system is gradually augmented with new abilities and more foes which ultimately creates deep fighting mechanics without becoming convoluted. The game does a stellar job at easing you into harder battles by incrementally adding enemies to the fights, introducing elemental damage, and giving you attacks that manipulate the timeline. As your party grows, so does your access to a litany of unique abilities and attacks. When you encounter a beast you’ve never seen before, there is a genuine tension as you try to figure out how fast he queues on the timeline, and what moves he possesses. The juggling of queuing moves, slowing enemies, and switching party members creates a truly satisfying victory that incentivises encounters so that you can master the battlesystem.
Unfortunately, there is some ambiguity in battle. Enemies have neither health bars nor elemental indicators. Instead, health is communicated visually as enemies’ animations begin to wilt. Initially this is fine, but when the battles become longer and the enemies stronger, it becomes annoying to be left in the dark, especially when the enemies’ weaknesses are potentially not being exploited.
Undergirding the deceptively complex battle system is a simple and straightforward gem crafting mechanic, which is unlocked early on. Different color combinations yield different stat boosts–such as health, elemental damage, or paralysis–and combining same-color gems enhances the outcome. This allows you to equip all members of your party in a customizable way, and make them prepared for the variety of enemies thrown at you.
Further strengthening the customization are expansive skill trees. They are linear enough to create a basic set of skills for each party member, but open-ended enough to allow you to strengthen each aspect of the character that you prefer.
Throughout my 11-12 hours with the game, I was enraptured by the atmosphere and fulfilled by the deep combat. That is, until the final act. On two separate occasions I thought I was fighting the final boss until the real one finally appeared on screen. The last hour threw an unproportional amount of dialogue and characters, as well as plot exposition, at the player. Throughout the game, I was eager to read the banter or listen to plot narration, but by the end there was so much that I just wanted to get through it so I could get back to the game.
Finally, the last bosses created a large spike of difficulty that broke away from the natural build the previous encounters had established. Instead of deftly stringing attacks in order to keep a formidable opponent down like with earlier enemies, I was simply waiting for my turn to use a health potion, so that the boss could then take out one-third of my health in a single blow. I frustratedly resorted to chugging potions. It just wasn’t satisfying or fun to be continually bludgeoned by an enemy that clearly had the advantage, relegating my actions to pure survival.
Despite being betrayed by the last act, Child of Light is a great game. Child of Light is gorgeous. Every screen could be framed and hung on a wall. The world is well-realized and loaded with personality, the battle system is intuitive and deep despite its simple facade, and the the wide range of characters are as endearing as the locations. For those who wish to stay in Lemuria longer, side quests embellish the main story, along with a new game plus mode that adds more playtime. This is welcome, because despite the credits rolling, I wanted to continue exploring the world and listening to the soothing music so I could get over the anomaly of the frustrating final moments.