Impressions: Ubi’s ‘Art Game’ Experiment, Child Of Light

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.

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39 Comments »

  1. Premium User Badge

    RedViv says:

    I was just yesterday happily smacking dream critters in the face with THE AXE OF BARBARA PRINCESS OF AWESOME [PLAY GUITAR RIFF HERE] and said to my dame and co-op partner that I would love to see the wonderful new Rayman engine used to make something like a beautifully drawn Shadow over Mystara equivalent, or just plain more RPG-ish things.
    And then this comes along. Glorious.

    Also thank you for more wolverine trivia. I was not aware they loved shredding games in the middle of winter. Nature is wonderful.

    • dannydimitri says:

      This game is so beautifully polished and the playstyle is what adds to the uniqueness.
      I found that it’s already been leaked http://www.getchildoflight.com. Just make sure you are using it for testing purposes only and if you love the game, buy it to support the developers!

  2. Snargelfargen says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings about this.Asymmetrical co-op is always interesting. I’m all for games trying to explore new styles and it sounds like this could have some fantastic art and story.

    On the other hand, combining rhyming prose with JRPG mechanics seems pretty self indulgent. I hope the gameplay has some meat on it’s bones and isn’t there just to pad out the plot. Yohalem being the writer is worrying too. I’m still not sure if he was serious or just presenting a moving target in the Far Cry 3 interviews, but they certainly were unbearable.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Anthile says:

    For some reason this lead to me to read the big Far Cry 3 interview again. Still rage inducing. I need a drink.

    • Josh W says:

      But he’s doing it, he’s actually making a different kind of game from what was expected!

      I really hope this turns out to be good. I tend to be more of a complex systems man than a curated journey man, but I want him to do well with this, not only because I want more good games, but because I want publishers giving real freedom to their creative people to win out over creators ironically subverting their publisher’s requirements.

      I want indieness and passion led design to infect the AAA land as much as possible, by the results turning out to be more valuable than the alternatives.

  4. Alien426 says:

    There’s an official trailer YouTube, but it is currently only available with Italian subtitles.

    The site in the video’s description is a placeholder from GoDaddy.com…

    EDIT: The site mentioned in the video itself is also parked…

  5. Scrooge McDuck says:

    The battle sounds like a less hectic version of Grandia. I love that battle system and hopefully this would deliver.

  6. maximiZe says:

    “Child of Light’s entire script is a 120-page epic poem penned by Far Cry 3 writer Jeffrey Yohalem.”

    Interest PLUNGED

    • Premium User Badge

      lowprices says:

      With Yohalem writing, it’ll either manage to completely fluff what it’s trying to say, like Far Cry 3, or it’ll be a clever, beautiful jewel of a story, like, umm…

      Either way the game sounds fascinating, and it’s nice to see more stuff in the UbiArt engine.

      • The Random One says:

        At best, it’ll be adorable and excellent. At worst, adorably horrible. Either way it’ll be a must-buy.

        • Premium User Badge

          lowprices says:

          On reflection I was a bit mean. Far Cry 3 fluffed it, but if I recall correctly Yohalem was writer for the Ezio-era AssCreeds, which were mostly good/pleasingly mad.

      • Premium User Badge

        cpt_freakout says:

        I’m in the “Yohalem is not a good writer” camp, but I still think he’s one of the few people in the AAA arena that are capable of pulling off something interesting. Unfortunately most of the game writers there are terrible, and while Yohalem is not that much better, he’s still got a lot more ambition and imagination than most of his colleagues. Besides, the only way he’s going to improve as a writer is via practice, and hopefully this time he’ll be ready to take criticism without falling into cheap topical defenses.

        • Slaadfax says:

          I haven’t played Far Cry 3, but as with many things, video game writing is not usually a terribly good indicator of someone’s skill at the craft. It’s more of a task of shaping and cramming text to fit a series of unconnected bits. The writing must constrain itself based upon a thousand unfortunate factors, and an individual’s skill in creating something ordered and not terrible in the tangled mess is at least somewhat impressive. It’s not dissimilar to writing flavor for board games, though there is a physical space constraint and few people bother reading it at all…

          This game looks as though it is being specifically designed around writing and story. While this doesn’t always work out (because game mechanics don’t always translate that way), it does give said writer a bit more of an opportunity to show his/her stuff.

  7. Premium User Badge

    CelticPixel says:

    Very keen to see more stuff from the UbiArt engine. For a big AAA developer to be embracing the potential for smaller, more personal games, you’ve got to say ‘fair play’. I can’t imagine Activision doing something like this.

    It’s also a good way to hold on to key senior talent by giving them the chance to spend some time on a personal little passion project, so they don’t leave and go indie!

    • ulix says:

      I concur.

      The UbiArt engine is amazing. Probably the best 2D-engine ever created, at least in the hands of capable artists and animators. Which Ubisoft has in droves.

      So I’m really happy that they’re apparently using it again to make not one, but two more games with it. New IPs, even.

  8. gruia says:

    well im not won by this script at all

  9. Premium User Badge

    Gap Gen says:

    Ubi seems to be making some genuinely interesting stuff. From the really rather wonderful Rayman Legends (cover it, RPS!) to this, it seems like they’re reserving part of their money pool to pay for beautiful 2D games rather than just graphicsy games about a man with green glowing eyes plunging knives into necks.

    • gschmidl says:

      There’s also Might & Magic X, another “risky” project.

    • Premium User Badge

      basilisk says:

      And people give me weird looks when I say I actually like Ubisoft.

      I know, they’ve done some stupid things, and they keep doing some stupid things, too, but to me, they’re the best big publisher there is right now.

      • The Random One says:

        Agreed. Their attempts to change are often disastrous, but at least they exist. If Assassins’ Creed had been published by anyone else by 2 it would have dropped all the conspiracy trappings and become a God of War clone starring Altair, Grimdark Hoodie Warrior.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Some Legends coverage coming up later.

  10. SirKicksalot says:

    It’s so easy to forget that Activision took the biggest risk of this gaming generation with Skylanders. All the art games put together don’t even touch the craziness of that thing.

  11. Premium User Badge

    Lars Westergren says:

    The first couple of seconds looking at the header image, I saw a green balloon facing left, with legs and a goofy grin, red hair combed front over its eyes, and a sword coming out of its butt. Then it snapped into place.

  12. Viroso says:

    Just one thing, usually turn based combat where you control one character isn’t that interesting, fun. The point of turn based combat is to create menu based combat, where you have a bunch of options to choose from without being overwhelmed. Finally, the whole point of having a bunch of actions to choose from is to make them all work together, and you do that using them all at once or almost at once.

    Another thing, specially for a more actiony turn based combat where everyone acts based on a timer is that having multiple characters gives you something to do while any given character is waiting their turn.

    If you have just one character, then you’ll be doing a lot of waiting, even if the time you wait is very brief. So I hope this game has more characters you the player can control, instead of just a co-op guy that works differently from everybody else.

    • Scrooge McDuck says:

      The second screenshot shows that you’d control two characters at least.

  13. GamesInquirer says:

    Yep, the gauge with the casting area potentially affected/cancelled by faster moves is totally right out of Grandia. A good thing, as that series has one of the best combat systems ever. I do hope we get to control more characters, but I think that’s a given as there’s a combat screenshot with the old guy in it.

    There’s also a trailer, guys…
    youtube.com/watch?v=bpqTiwfzqdo

    It’s a shame that the exploration won’t require much skill given the flying and I would have hoped for more action style combat, perhaps similar to Princess Crown, but this looks like a very nicely realized concept also. Perhaps exploration will be like in Aquaria, where you could swim rather than fly.

  14. Anders Wrist says:

    The pink haired princess reminded me of a younger Princess Bubblegum from Adventure Time. There’s even the gnome in the last picture called “Finn”.

  15. Emeraude says:

    Looks lovely. Love the animated papercutting feel of it.

    Unlikely I’ll touch this, but I guess it’s nice that it is being made.

  16. Tuor says:

    The word “co-op” utterly destroyed any interest I have in this game. Such a shame…

  17. Premium User Badge

    Bradamantium says:

    Seems pretty interesting. Let’s just hope Yohalem manages to get to his point in this one a little more clearly so we don’t have to have another interview that goes all “It’s like this ’cause I say so, and you misunderstood!”

  18. fish99 says:

    Do you play Garion?

  19. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    I’m sorry, what? Significantly less risk-averse?

    Is that the repeat prescription of digital prosac that is assassin’s creed, or the ability to bludgeon any concept into mindless pulp of any other series to an extent that is only surpassed by EA?

    If the best example people can provide is Rayman, a game which is mechanically inferior to numerous games made with a fraction of the budget, then times are really hard for gamers.

    Of course they’re eyeing up journey. It was hugely profitable. It’s as inane as Bioware saying they were looking at Skyrim for inspiration for Dragon Age 3.

  20. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Reminds me more of children’s books than of anything else. Which isn’t bad, per sé, as good children’s books are often easily enjoyed by older people as well. I suppose I’m hoping for a more story-focused experience, or perhaps more correctly a game in which the mechanics do not detract from the journey.

  21. PhilLThomson says:

    ℳy classmate’s step-sister ℳakes $82/h hourly on the internet. She has been out of a job for 6 ℳonths but last ℳonth her pay was $20983 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read ℳore on this site…

    ——>>>>> http://www.Rush60.com

  22. dannydimitri says:

    This game is so beautifully polished and the playstyle is what adds to the uniqueness.
    I found that it’s already been leaked http://www.getchildoflight.com. Just make sure you are using it for testing purposes only and if you love the game, buy it to support the developers!