By Marsh Davies on May 6th, 2014 at 7:00 pm.
Painted in watercolour and written in verse, Child of Light is a charming, if superficially childish, fairytale RPG. Beneath this breezy fable of lost princesses and talking mice, however, is a complicated combat system that calls back to Final Fantasy’s Active Time Battles – a dense interplay of buffs, interrupts and attacks that injects a realtime element to otherwise turnbased fights. You might call it a platformer too, but given that the heroine quickly sprouts wings, your exploration of the sidescrolling overworld is more aerobatic than acrobatic. I like all these things and yet it’s left me struggling to be enthused. Here’s wot I think.
The one good thing about uPlay misplacing my save file several hours into Child of Light is that it helped bring my feelings about the game into sharper focus. One feeling being a reluctance to play more of it than I really needed to. Another being that, since I had to, I’d have preferred the cutscenes to be skippable.
That reluctance sort of surprised me, though, because I can see a lot in Child of Light to like. It’s an adventurous and intelligently made game, I think, which tries to gussy up inherited JRPG combat mechanics in novel ways. The story, which sees princess Aurora awake unexpectedly in a benighted fantasy land that may be a dream, the afterlife or something else, is told briskly and with some wit. Every line in the game is composed in verse, and though it often struggles with this remit, grasping at dubious not-quite-synonyms and mangling syntax for the sake of the rhyme-scheme, some of the writing is rather sharp. I particularly like a race of obsessively capitalist mice, who talk in city-slicker jargon about emerging markets and liquidity. Or the hapless jester who reliably sabotages dialogue with a duff rhyme, forcing other characters to tetchily correct her.
And it’s certainly gorgeous to look at. It uses the UbiArt framework that recent Rayman games have championed, rendering the sidescrolling woodlands and caverns in a lush watercolour style that defies the visual compartmentalisation games usually undergo: platform, background, object, etc. Everything looks of a piece here – a single picture-book world through which you hop and swoop. And if you do very occasionally confuse which scene elements are obstructions or platforms the shear visual interest that this very analogue artstyle introduces makes it easy to forgive. So little of it is static: tree canopies undulate in the breeze and fog hovers over pools of water, while any motion of your character shows off the multiple layers of parallax, distant forests panning beneath distant clouds, giving a sense of depth.
It’s such a sumptuous and coherently composed vision that it almost makes up for the fact that there’s not all that much to do here outside of combat. Yes, at intervals you encounter characters with whom you can exchange a few stanzas, but the actual exploration and navigation of the world is just a little bland. It’s not that I want it to be difficult, but there’s little here that demands a more intense focus or interaction than prodding the rare, desultory flip-switch puzzle into submission.
Periodically you’ll come across bushes strewn with strips of glowing ribbon, referred to by companions as wishes. Disturb them and motes of light spring out and arrange themselves in a row, which, when swept up in order, boost your health and mana. (The fact that you are consuming other people’s wishes suggests a somewhat sinister ecosystem that the game sadly does not explore – no Dark Souls this.)
You can also use your ever-present firefly companion to do the honours. While you swish the princess about with WASD, the firefly is controlled independently with the mouse cursor, and since it isn’t impeded by scenery, you can use it to command the entirety of the screen, nabbing treasures that are otherwise out of reach, or zipping in to stagger enemies with a burst of light while the princess slips past. This adds a mild dexterity challenge, but the game’s overworld sections never squeeze this duality of control for its full potential, and I found that, for all the environment’s beauty, I was not terribly engaged by the process of wafting through it.
This ends up shifting a disproportionate burden onto the combat system, which almost has the opposite problem. When a battle is begun, usually by ploughing into a creature in the overworld, the scene changes: suddenly two members of your party are facing down a number of enemies (only one of which may be accurately depicted by the creature you attacked in the overworld). While combatants take turns to strike a blow, cast a spell or slug back a potion, these turns activate in realtime. Portraits of the combatants advance along a timebar, reaching activation when they hit its final quarter. As your own units reach that quarter, time pauses for you to select their action and an appropriate target. Then it resumes, with that action actually being executed only when the portrait reaches the very end of the bar. The twist is that characters will move along this activation track at different speeds, and their chosen actions may have their own speed values, too. Simple actions may be super quick, allowing you to overtake an enemy in the process of casting a lengthier spell and stun them before they have a chance to unleash it. Interrupting a character while they are in that final quarter of the timebar will bump them way back along the entire track, and much of the game is about setting up attacks at intervals to keep your enemies staggered and unable to cast.
Lots of spells slow enemies’ travel along the timebar altogether, giving you a relatively higher number of opportunities to attack them. Other spells might prevent you or a teammate from getting interrupted during that vital phase. Add to this a further complication: your firefly. It finally comes into its own here, albeit in a rather fiddly, distracting way. Place it over an enemy and you can dazzle them with light, slowing their progression along the timebar, often giving you a vital split-second in which to land an attack and successfully interrupt them. It’s not an unlimited resource, however – though clusters of wishes periodically pop up to allow you to replenish your supply of light.
It’s not hard overall – on the normal difficulty most enemies will eventually succumb to grinding incompetence, simply because you can always bring in replacements from your party when current combatants fall. But it’s an extremely challenging system to command, and out of step with either the demands of the platforming or the recommended reading-age of the fable it sits within. Keeping track of exactly which enemies you’ve slowed and by how much becomes no mean feat, and many things remain unknown to you or out of your control: enemies don’t have a visible health bar for one thing, and can suddenly manifest alarming and inexplicable counters which remove tactical options from the table. Some enemies are vulnerable to elemental damage, which you can specialise in by equipping particular gemstones before battle – but since two out of the three enemies are unknown when entering combat, you rely on the luck of the draw.
All this helps to shake off some of the number-crunching predictability of JRPG combat tropes, but it also feels a little like things aren’t really yours to control. Knowing how fast an enemy will move along the activation track, and keeping a sense of that velocity in your mind’s eye while making your own plans, is something I can do with no real certainty. Simply keeping track of the flow of battle requires a continuous mid-level concentration which begins to pall over the unwelcome timespans later battles force you to endure.
I really admire the ideas that have gone into the battle system – the realtime element is a thoughtful way to combine heart-racing action with turnbased stat-juggling. But it results in a challenge that feels emotionally polarised to me: either I’m relieved to win decisively, or it’s wretched, and I never feel entirely in control of either outcome. When a battle goes less than perfectly, your tactical options suddenly contract, as your troops get interrupted again and again. That’s not a fun way to fail, or, more accurately, succeed badly; I’ve never actually outright lost a battle on normal mode – but just not doing well somehow feels worse than failure. Playing on the hard difficulty makes the threat of outright failure real, but also exacerbates the sensation that battles are an exhausting scrabble for purchase on a cascade of variables just beyond your power.
There are ways out of this: you can simply make peace with that disempowerment, you can flee combat and respec your gemstones, or you can grind a lot more than I was willing, taking on every creature you meet. But these all feel a little like sops for a system whose boundaries of success and failure are skew-whiff.
I have a couple of other niggles about the readability of these battles, too: the way the scene is laid out sometimes makes it hard to tell which enemy you are targeting, and though the way you cycle through available actions is a neat bit of design for players with gamepads, it doesn’t offer the clearest spread of options a more PC-friendly menu might. Other menus, like the one for crafting gemstones, or levelling, are fussy and unergonomic.
It feels like a game of several parts and I’m not sure they fit together that well. The veering levels of challenge are perhaps explained by the notion of playing it with a child in co-op: Junior taking control of the firefly while you take care of the tougher business. I don’t have a child handy on whom to experiment, but I’d imagine their interest would wane during the more arduous fights, or as you pore over a page full of inscrutable icons deciding which skill to level up – mine did.
I want to enjoy it more: the hybridity of the game is daring and to be applauded. There’s obvious passion and idiosyncrasy here, which aren’t things you can always say about games spat from the cogs of AAA development. But delightful though it looks, and as winsome as its talking mice are, the combination of frictionless overworld and my frustration with its battle system left me feeling enervated. A less than fabulous fable, then, with a not so fairytale ending.