By Nathan Grayson on September 10th, 2013 at 9:00 am.
Say what you will about Ubisoft, but you can’t deny that it’s significantly less risk-averse than triple-A publishing kin like EA and Activision. Assassin’s Creed III’s alternate history Washington DLCs weren’t the best, but that didn’t stop them from being patently insane. Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, meanwhile, was a quirky, out-of-nowhere gem. And then of course, there was Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, which Papa Ubi has apparently taken quite a neon-tinged, cyber-eyed shine to. But Child of Light might just be its biggest leap of faith yet. Inspired by the massive success of Journey on PS3, the publisher has let two of Far Cry 3‘s leads run wild on a co-op coming-of-age JRPG epic poem about a young girl and also there are drunken crow people for some reason. I recently got to play a small section of it, and I must say that I found it quite enchanting.
Child of Light’s entire script is a 120-page epic poem penned by Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem. The game itself, meanwhile, is a sidescrolling co-op JRPG – turn-based, clearly SNES-era Final-Fantasy-inspired combat and all. If you don’t know what to make of that statement, you’re not alone. One of my eyebrows packed up its things and migrated to the top of my head when Yohalem first told me about it, and it’s still living up there in a delightful little cottage as we speak.
But you know what? Against all odds, it kinda works.
My Child of Light session began in a village where everyone had been turned into crows. Some of them were going about their feathery business in a quaint town square, others were studying in school, and others still were studying the undersides of tables in the local tavern. It was all kind of adorable, and even though the crows eschewed my characters’ rhyming couplets in favor of non-rhyming caw-plets, I wasn’t entirely sure if I wanted to change everyone back. But I’d been charged with finding the source of the insidious avian spell, so I dove down a nearby well. (God help me that is the only part of this preview that will rhyme. It wasn’t even intentional. I am almost certain that someone on the Internet will try and pen a rhyming write-up to be cute, and the ghosts of poetry’s past will wail until language itself shatters into a million guttural screams.)
This was no ordinary well. As I descended, it opened up into a cavernous maw that seemed to go on forever. Ceilings higher than the sky, platforms and secrets off in the distance, and marauding creatures way too close for comfort. There was a hint of magical realism to the whole episode, and like the world above ground, this one was absolutely jaw-dropping. Child of Light’s bright, painterly art is a thing of wonder, and both areas I explored felt like they had a character all their own.
My character, a young yet capable girl named Aurora, could fly wherever she pleased and dash to avoid traps like gnashing spikes or arrows slung by eager enemies. I set to exploring the cave, finding all sorts of secret paths, stat-boosting Oculi gems, and a couple basic puzzles along the way. There were elements of platforming, but that wasn’t really the point. Flying dismantled any challenge the environment might have produced, so exploration smoothly, naturally slid into the driver’s seat. It was kind of Metroidvania-esque, though progression through the area was overall a bit more linear.
The demo was light on dialogue, so I didn’t really get a sense for the quality of the game’s poetry (disclaimer: blah blah blah subjectivity blah blah blah poetry can’t be judged on an objective basis blah blah blah kind of like videogames blah). But the scenes I did witness mixed some possibly cheesy melodrama (“I do not like this place / It is cold as Death’s own face”) with welcome, grin-inducing lightheartedness (At one point a puzzle involved lighting my elderly healer’s backside on fire, to which he retorted with a line about wishing the party had at least bought him dinner first). I wish I could’ve seen more story sections, but – if nothing else – the bits I came across could’ve been far, far worse.
According to Yohalem and creative director Patrick Plourde, however, the demo was purposefully spoiler-avoidant, with the story’s full scope expanding out to encompass Aurora’s entire young life – from humble beginnings into early adulthood. During that time, she’ll be defined by both the (apparently highly metaphorical) hardships she faces and the player’s decisions in reaction to them. Promisingly, the duo – who previously took Far Cry 3 into some at times rather, er, uncomfortable territory – were adamant that Aurora’s story is one of both hard truths and self-reliance. Growing up won’t be easy on her (the story apparently makes some allusions that are quite “modern”), but this won’t be about finding a “Prince Charming” with whom to live happily ever after. Aurora’s life is her own, and she’ll be the one who makes something spectacular of it.
So Child of Light’s world is gorgeous, and the writing seems like it could be quite interesting (especially for a game from a triple-A publisher), but you know what really surprised me? The combat. I was not at all expecting it to steal the show, but it’s actually very cleverly designed. In a past life, I tore through JRPGs like a young wolverine with rage issues on Christmas, but I thought I was done with their plodding, oftentimes mindless battles ages ago. Child of Light, however, does away with a lot of the rote tedium by a) allowing you to avoid battles by simply flying right over enemies while exploring and b) giving combat an ebb and flow that forces you to pay close attention.
The biggest addition is a meter at the bottom of the screen with icons for each combatant on it. There’s a red zone at the end, and it represents the point at which any given character is just about to attack. In essence, think of it as a race. First to red gets to deliver the next blow… unless they get hit while in the red. The resulting interrupts quickly became my best friend, sending enemies to the back of the pack on the attack meter (more unintentional rhyming I AM A MONSTER). It was, then, a matter of watching who was coming up right behind me and what pace they were moving at. Proper timing meant the different between a clean sweep and a messy game of patty-cake-with-swords, especially since enemies were more than capable of interrupting my party if I didn’t watch my back.
And then there was my co-op partner. At any given moment, another player can take control of Aurora’s faithful ball of light sidekick, Igniculus. Out of battle, he can illuminate secrets, but once fur (and feathers and armor and carapaces and spider legs) start flying, he performs a much more potentially tide-turning role. Instead of being locked into a rigid turn structure like everyone else, Igniculus can flit around freely and blind enemies at will, slowing their pace on the attack meter to an agonized crawl. Co-op’s not required for success by any means, but it can certainly make a big difference.
Not-so-random battles got me into the swing of things, but combat really shined during the demo’s lone boss battle. I went toe-to-tendril with a giant squid dragon monster, and two of its tentacles functioned as separate entities on the battlefield. The head? Slow but powerful, like that of an enraged giant or someone who’s spent too much time at black metal concerts. The tentacles, however, even managed to outspeed Aurora by the slightest of margins, and my poor healer was positively left in the dust. Juggling interrupts was absolutely crucial, and on a couple occasions I even found myself turtling – choosing the “defend” option to avoid rain after rain of blows, praying for a strangle-free second to strike. When I finally leashed the kraken, it felt like quite an accomplishment.
That said, I do have some concerns. I could see this battle system going in some extremely interesting directions, but it’s still rather simplistic in the grand scheme of things. Granted, there’s also a rock-paper-scissors-style elemental dynamic in place to spice things up, but I’ll need to see more character progression and enemy variety before I’m fully convinced. Also, while non-boss battles were technically avoidable, I had to engage fairly often in order to keep from being severely under-leveled. In these moments, the methodical nature of combat backfired, and I found myself wishing I could sit back and coast instead of studying meters and trading calculated blows. But then, as I leveled my skill tree opened up into a few abilities that battered all baddies at once, so maybe I just needed to make it a little further for some more efficient options.
As is, I’m definitely fascinated by Child of Light. It’s an inspired fusion of JRPG mechanics and Western aesthetics/writing, even if this particular combination – old-school Final Fantasy meets epic poetry and “all is not as it appears” symbolism – seems like kind of a bizarre thematic jambalaya. It’s certainly out-there, though, and I have to applaud Ubisoft for at least taking a chance. I don’t think it’ll be The Next Journey like Ubisoft seems to be hoping, but it’s an intriguing, off-the-beaten-path effort. May more big publishers follow suit.
Child of Light will be out sometime next year. Let us hope it does not commit a crime against rhyme like I just did.
We’ll have a gigantic interview with Yohalem and Plourde up as soon as a transcription finishes falling out of my mangled, pretzel-fied fingers. Soon, you will be enlightened.