Wot I Think: Child Of Light

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.


  1. Ultra Superior says:

    I finished it
    and I think it’s too superficial, too much trying to be something it is not. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone really, it does not work as a RPG game, and it certainly doesn’t work as a fairytale either.

    My thoughts exactly about the coop with a child, however a game needs a somewhat intriguing story to catch the attention of a child – something to look for after all those battles, some sense for doing all that…

    Sadly, the story is crapity crapy crap.

    • Rizlar says:

      I think it’s too superficial, too much trying to be something it is not

      Called it!

      Well, sort of. Got the same impression from the artwork though. Which is a shame because it seems like there are lots of nice details that don’t quite come together successfully. Calling it superficial almost feels unfair, but it seems like in pursuing simplicity (in the drawn art style, the childlike narrative, the turn based combat) they have neglected the increased level of sensitivity and insight required to make simple things amazing.

      Fairy tales are very simple on the surface, but there are also mad social/cultural meanings and intense psychological aspects underpinning them. Wandering around in a game’s environments on it’s own can be a powerful experience when the whole place reeks of conviction and depth. I’m sure Child of Light is enjoyable enough to play anyway, will stop waxing nonsense and supposition now…

      • Ultra Superior says:

        Yeah, it strives for that fairytale magic, desperately, but it fails to deliver. Instead it uses most bland and generic shortcuts like “Queen of light” vs “Queen of night with her Creatures of darkness”.

        The world does not hold water at all. One village has gnomes turned into crows, the other has mice people who are not turned into mice, they’re mice by default, then there are fish people, everyone neatly contained in their city. Monsters make no sense, have no impact and generally don’t bother anyone really. There’s no substance – not even a playful nonsensical substance that children would go along with – just the art that looks like it’s from a nice book… dull battles… and very rushed & anticlimatic ending

      • sebmojo says:

        My five year old daughter loves it desperately, so I would be hesitant to write off that way of playing. It’s probably simpler than I ‘d play on my own behalf, but it’s a great combination of beautiful and not too scary for parents and young children.

    • chargen says:

      Jesus, RPS readers are easily influenced. You can claim Thaif is great fun and Child of Light is crap and the comments will just follow your inertia.

      • SkittleDiddler says:

        Fanboy alert. Other people think your favorite game sucks, get over it.

        • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

          So anyone who disagrees with an article and the majority is a fanboy. Right.

          • SkittleDiddler says:

            When they come out of the gate with that kind of defensive attitude, they generally are fanboys. It’s not like they’re that hard to spot.

      • Rikard Peterson says:

        If you disagree, how about sharing your point of view instead of flinging insults around?

      • Marsh Davies says:

        There’s a fair few commenters here that disagree with me about the game – politely and eloquently, too! Maybe you should try that.

      • WhatAShamefulDisplay says:

        To be fair, is anyone claiming Thiaf is great? Most I’ve ever seen is “alright”, and whilst I still can’t fathom any positive view on Thiaf, it’s different from “this game is a masterpiece”.

    • Darketernal says:

      I finished the game 3 times and am baffled by what you are saying. Since when is superficial in a fairytale not ok? Other then it being a fairytale i don’t think its trying to be something that its not. And the battle system works just fine. This game is one i would recommend to anyone who loves midieval fairytales.

      I loved listening to stories when i was a child, and all the more honour to this game for capturing my heart as an adult as the best story told of as yet.

      And the story does have an ending, for a game you dislike that much i commend you for still having the will power to finish it. I am really surprised , i feel asif both of us played two completely different games, i didn’t experience the game like you say at all.

  2. whexican says:

    Tried it for a bit
    And thought it was a hit
    But 2 hours in
    I was ready to say “Fin”,
    the rhyming gave me a fit.

  3. Premium User Badge

    chamdar says:

    I’m 3-4 hours in, and quite enjoying it. I agree the overworld is weirdly empty, I love the idea of the firefly, but want better puzzles to use him in, but I love the combat. I started on hard, and while I feel like the firefly stun and matching weaknesses is essential, I haven’t actually lost a battle yet. Does it get frustratingly hard later?

  4. Keyrock says:

    I haven’t finished it yet, though I reckon I’m pretty far into the game, and I’ve been enjoying it a lot. Suffice to say, the game should be played on hard difficulty, it’s too easy on normal. On hard difficulty you are forced to use your abilities and to utilize Ignaculus effectively to survive, particularly in boss battles. The Grandia-style combat system is really well made and the interrupt mechanic can be brilliantly exploited, or you can get exploited by it. I do wish there was more to do in the world outside of combat, but I do enjoy the little hidden paths and areas. Even being a guy who tends to comb areas pretty carefully, I find paths I had missed before when backtracking.

    I have no problems with the rhyming, I get a chuckle out of it, especially when Rubella keeps messing it up.

  5. AngelTear says:

    Nice review, I was waiting for this, but I would have liked one more paragraph on story, or even just a couple of additional sentences.

    You mentioned that the quality of the writing is up and down, but generally quite good, but what I don’t know is if the story being told in those stanzas is actually worth following, if it’s really childish and superficial, if it’s a Neil Gaiman style of fable “for adults”, or something else entirely.

    Given your mixed feelings about everything else, the quality of the story would make or break the game, and would decide my purchase, considering how I experience and enjoy games.

    • basilisk says:

      The story is, sadly, a very simple affair, with hardly any surprises in store. It’s mostly just going from A to B, with the occasional attempt at an emotional scene, but the characters are a little too flat for that. And yes, I also found the rhyming thing very grating, which only made it worse.

      There are semi-hidden hints that the world might have a very interesting past (a strong whiff of His Dark Materials there), but they never amount to anything more than that, which is a pity.

      I sort of enjoyed the game; it really is gorgeous and the battle system is surprisingly solid, but it all feels a bit shallow in the end.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      I suppose the reason there’s little on the story in the review is because it’s…well, not very good. It’s not very bad either, mind you, but it’s merely OK, passable. I haven’t finished the game, but the story’s sufficiently linear as to give me confidence in discussing it anyway (I’m about two-thirds into the game, I think). So far it’s a standard compilation of fairytale tropes without any meaningful exploration of them. I guess, like you, I wished for a Neil Gaiman kind of tale, but it’s very far from it, and does little with the characters and the world it has beyond the conventional. As for the poetry itself, well, if you’re really into poetry you’ll find most of it is pretty bad. It does have good moments, but they are rare, and come mostly from humorous contexts. If you don’t have a particular thing for poetry then it’s mostly OK, much like the story itself.

      I really wanted to give the story a chance (basically, to give Jeffrey Yohalem, who was also the Farcry 3 writer, a chance) but it’s superficial to its very core, just like Farcry 3 was. I’m sure he’ll come out and say there’s an incredible depth to be found in the game, but I firmly believe it’s non-existent. I’m glad he’s experimenting with different things, because that will make him grow as an artist, though. Hopefully we’ll see a good script/story/whatever from him yet, in the near future. Unfortunately, CoL is still not it.

      • Oozo says:

        Yeah, I couldn’t help seeing it as a second chance for Yohalem, who, while being a servicable writer, seems to have great and interesting ambitions, that unfortunately are not matched by equally grand talent.

        Of course, having ambitions and somehow having ended up in a position where he can try to pursue them still makes him a rather rare case, but I can’t help wishing that Child of Light had a story written by somebody who is less prone to go for obvious solutions.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      Oh yeah! Thanks for pointing this out – twas an oversight not to describe it more fully, but I also did not want to give away too many details of an already thin plot and leave nothing for the game experience itself.

      I think it’s probably fair to say that the story operates at the level of a picturebook aimed at kids between 6 and 10. I don’t mean that to sound derogatory, as stories for kids can be elegant and charming, and I enjoyed it here well enough. There are some small and welcome subversions to fairytale tropes with regards to the characterisation of the princess, making her a formidable actor in her own narrative. But beyond this, the story is extremely generic and simple. Which doesn’t make it a poor story in itself, but it ends up feeling very sparse when strung out across this expanse of RPG.

      • AngelTear says:

        Why, thank you very much for answering ^_^

      • Ultra Superior says:

        I don’t think this story would match any half decent book aimed at 8yr olds.

        It’s too generic, too videogamey, and there’s little to enjoy. Kids have higher standards than this. Kids like fun and comedy / there is none. Kids cry when the story is sad – there is nothing emotional going on (except for sick dying father.. without any connection to the game or a resolution…)

  6. BooleanBob says:

    Sounds like some liberal pinching from Grandia has gone on.

    • Wedge says:

      Exactly what I was gonna say. Sounds like pretty much the exact same battle system from what I recall, though it’s been years since I played it. Unlike it though, I explicitly remember (the PS1 original anyways) having an extremely explorable world as well, being it used (fugly ps1) 3d environments instead of pre-rendered backgrounds.

    • Keyrock says:

      Ubisoft taking ideas from an Ubisoft franchise? That’s madness. Madness, I tells ya!

      And yes, the combat system is very much lifted from Grandia, which is cool, since the Grandia combat system rocks.

      • Bradamantium says:

        I don’t know that publishing duties in a single territory make it one of UbiSoft’s franchises. Right about its battle systems, though.

    • Artea says:

      Only in the most superficial sense. The battle system is much too simplified compared to what Grandia did.

    • Damn Rookie says:

      Grandia! What a game, seriously. One of my favorites from the PS1 era. The music in it is just fantastic; really got the hairs on the back of my neck up.

  7. Piratepete says:

    How would you rate it for a 6 yr old girl? My daughter enjoyed Botinicula (but I played it while she advised) and I thought this might be of interest to her. And its got a fairy in it.

    • basilisk says:

      Well, I think that was the main idea here: to make a game that a father could play with his daughter. (Or other gender combinations, but it was more or less designed with this one in mind; the story certainly supports that.) So it’s absolutely worth trying it out, but the story may not catch her attention.

      Also, I think Marsh has it the other way around in the WIT; I believe the idea was that the child should be playing Aurora and the parent the floating elemental thingy – it’s pretty clear who the hero of the story is, but the support is very important, too. And it makes more sense within the plot.

    • Ultra Superior says:

      While I find Botanicula perfect for children, this is unfortunately not the case. The battles are tedious and not really rewarding. Puzzles are quite nice but little too simple and there’s total of 3-4 of them in the entire game…

      The story is bad for anyone. It doesn’t work even as a simple fairytale…. Evil queen stole the moon and stars, turned kitschy hobbits into ravens, you break her spell and slay her. That’s it.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      I am not a parent, so maybe I’m underestimating kids’ tolerance, but I’d be surprised if a six year old would stick it out. The story beats are fairly thinly dispersed and there’s a lot of grindsome, complicated battling in between.

  8. NationOfThizzlam says:

    Ah, yes, the ‘extremely challenging system to command’ on normal difficulty, which is now being relabeled ‘casual’ difficulty because most moderately seasoned gamers found it too easy? *insert complaint about dumbed-down expectations here*

    • Moraven says:

      FTL had Easy and Normal. Easy was basically Hard and Normal was Screw You.

      Generally JRPGs have a decent balance on “Normal” but really, if you ever want a real challenge in battles beyond boss battles, always play them on Hard. Bravely Default is great in that the later later boss fights are a good challenge on Normal (I play on Hard) that you still have to equip your character jobs accordingly.

    • Marsh Davies says:

      I think you’ve misunderstood my point there. It’s a challenging system to *command* but battles remain easy to *win*. Like, the punishment for a crummy performance is negligible – you still grind down your enemy eventually – but there are lots of things that dance outside of your control and make you feel disempowered, regardless of whether you ultimately (or indeed inevitably) beat your opponent.

      • NationOfThizzlam says:

        Oh, I understood the point. It’s just that when you say Normal/Casual difficulty forced you into ‘grinding incompetence’ and ‘crummy performance’, it still doesn’t seem to jibe with a difficulty level that others found easy enough to prompt a name change. I would suggest that even when a game is hard to fail, if it makes you feel like your performance is crummy or incompetent it’s less likely to provoke complaints about being easy.

        Then again, I haven’t played it so I obviously can’t say one way or the other. So you think that the opacity of the combat systems is a real frustration rather than a fair way of creating challenge that (some) gamers might enjoy? Honest question.

  9. Moraven says:

    The Firefly 2nd player reminds me of Super Mario Galaxy and the star you can be… mostly not really much to do.

    I prefer the Tales of series of co op play. Main player controls out of battle action, co op battles. Good series of games to play local same party co op. Bit different than say PC RPGs where each person is there own character (NWN, Baldur’s Gate, etc).

    We need a proper Secret of Mana remake/update.

  10. Nuno Miguel says:

    This is the second review I’ve read, and not a single mention of Grandia in those two reviews.

    Seriously? Every reviewer mentions Final Fantasy, but not Grandia? The combat system is almost exactly the same.

    • Oozo says:

      Was your Granny one of the developers on Grandia? That would basically be cool.

    • maicus says:

      Man I love that game. Being able to time attacks to delay enemies added an extra layer of depth that just isn’t there in other RPGs. I must have sunk hundreds of hours into that beast over the years. I dust it off about once a year – it’s a pity that the game doesn’t have a ‘hard mode.’

  11. RogerioFM says:

    I can’t really agree with this review, I loved the game, I greatly enjoyed the narrative it was simple and poetic, it didn’t try to be more that it was, the main quest the motivations were clear from the begging and the mood prevailed throughout. A lot of people tend to bash simplicity as it was really a problem, but not always sometimes it’s used to enhance a tale and focus on what really matters and the complexity in a lot of story stems from the inability of the author to convey an idea easily, I love Crime and Punishment just as the next guy, but sometimes Little Prince is enough.

    Regarding the combat, it’s pure Grandia which is not bad, that game was awesome, I liked the challenge it was hard without being frustrating, every time you are able to realize what you’re doing wrong and with a fight, even the boss ones, which are very fun and the pacing is very good. I do agree that the World is a bit empty though.

    And last, the art style is gorgeous and fits the story being told. I really liked this game, it’s simple but there is a freedom and originality that you don’t expect from a big developer, kudos to ubi.

  12. rusty5pork says:

    Like Torchlight, you need to play this game on Hard if you want anything approaching a challenge. I usually play through on Normal first, but it really is too easy here.

    • jrodman says:

      All players have the same skill level! That’s why they make different settings. To annoy us.

  13. malkav11 says:

    I confess to being rather put off by the $16 worth of launch DLC (seriously, more than the game costs). Granted, only one of the 7(!) pieces of DLC appears to matter in terms of content, the other six appearing to basically be cheats, but bleh. It leaves kind of an unpleasant cash-grabby feeling. Actually, especially since they’re charging so much for stuff you presumably can just get by playing.

    • Ragnar says:

      Eh, I’ll gladly take unnecessary and unneeded DLC over essential DLC or annoying free-to-play mechanics. DLC is always overpriced compared to the base game, so I’m happy not needing to buy it.

  14. racccoon says:

    Watchout for the sequal Child Of Darkness.

  15. Wraggles says:

    I’ve been playing this with my girlfriend. Myself as the firefly, and her as Aurora. We’ve been enjoying the experience thus far. She’s not accustomed to rpg gaming per say, and thus she finds the battles complex and difficult. I find it somewhat challenging and amusing to support with the firefly, if she casts something too long, I’ll slow a target, if she takes a beating I’ll collect some health or heal directly, etc. It leaves me in a mentor/support role while she gets to enjoy full control.

    As far as the story goes, it’s overly predictable and simplistic, but enjoyable none-the less. Finding some of the hidden/new quests when you backtrack leaves you with a fair amount to do in old areas, even if it would be a bit nicer to have a few more of these. While the battles are hard to lose, we also appreciated that we’re almost not forced to fight…any really, so if we feel like fighting we do, if not we just zip forward to the next bit of story.

    Anyhow, I really feel the game is meant to be played in a twosome, especially in an experienced/not sort of paradigm. We’ve had a few good “you could have done this here” or “well done at working out that combo” or “wow you really saved me there” moments, and at 20 bucks it’s cheaper than the two of us going to the movies in the evening, and with a lot more interaction.

  16. str8g8 says:

    I really liked the look of this, might give it a go despite the concerns. I think the idea of collaborative play with different skill levels is really under used, and is perfect for playing with kids. Hopefully there will be more of this kind of thing in the future.

  17. Jackablade says:

    Not quite the spiritual successor to Aquaria that I was hoping for then? Never mind, I’m thinking it sounds intriguing enough to give a try. I feel like it’s something that should probably be supported, even if it’s not super-amazing.

    In the mean time it may be time to reinstall Aquaria.

  18. jrodman says:

    I was tempted to sink time into this. Not anymore.


    With ubisoft crappy drm, I am saving lots of time and money.

  19. Spider Jerusalem says:

    i heard there would be poetry. came for the poetry. got horrible, forced rhyming but no sign of poetry. even putting it in blank verse would’ve saved it, but alas.

  20. belgand says:

    Based on this review it sounds similar to Costume Quest: a game with a great, original premise and plenty of charm to spare, but almost nothing to do other than engage in tedious combat that plays out the same way again and again.