In Child of Light, indie meets AAA to create something pretty special.
That’s because while this may look like the latest crowd funded indie game it actually comes from the guys at Ubisoft Montreal. You know, the once responsible for Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed and a little something called Watch Dogs?
That means this is something a little different, a conscious effort by one of the largest and most financially successful studios in the world to do something smaller and more arty. You could suggest that it’s a calculated move to capitalise on the goodwill towards indie efforts but it feels like an altogether genuine effort from Ubi.
The story centres on a little girl called Aurora living in Austria in 1895 who gets sick and falls into a coma, waking in the magical realm of Lemuria. But all is not well in this place, and she soon finds out that the sun, moon and stars have been taken by the evil Black Queen. Aurora must get them back, and return to her ailing father before it’s too late.
It’s a simple set up and one that feels like an instantly familiar fantasy place, even if that means it often slips into the realm of cliché. In terms of presentation, its mostly text on screen with some narration by Hannibal star Caroline Dhavernas and while there are some emotional moments it never really grabbed me.
After the intro video, the first thing you’ll notice is how Child of Light looks. And gorgeous does it something of a disservice. The game is built on the same engine as the recent Rayman games but manages to create a very unique style. The backgrounds are almost painterly but often animated and full of detail and the character models are stylised, almost cell-shaded. The visuals are perfect for conjuring the fantasy atmosphere, even if some of the NPC’s look a little basic.
You might expect the game to follow the platformer template familiar to many an indie title but there’s plenty more going on here. Sure, you’ll start the game running from the left part of the screen to the right and there are certainly moments where pulling levers and navigating platforms will be necessary. But once you earn the ability to fly within the first hour and team up with helpful ball of blue light Igniculus things get a whole lot less generic.
You’ll earn your wings after a big of light puzzling and it’s an especially magical moment. To the strains of Canadian singer Beartice Martin’s perfectly haunting theme, you’ll escape the room, testing your new ability and stumble upon a vista of floating houses in the sky.
Igniculus too is a surprising addition. More than mere comic relief in verse (the entire game is told in rhyme) he’s vital to exploration and puzzle solving – illuminating dark places, collecting power ups and being self-reflexive from time to time. But its in combat that he really comes into his own.
Child of Light introduces a turn-based battle system that is streamlined enough to not scare off real-time fans and has enough depth to keep most purists happy. Aurora and one of your party (which you can swap out any time) face off against multiple enemies and take turns battering eachother.
It’s all about the action bar down the bottom – which was simple enough even I could understand it. Your character portraits move along it from left to right, and can’t act until it hits the final third. Then, you’ll select attacks or actions which all take a certain amount of time to complete.
This adds a huge tactical element. If you line up a complicated attack, you run the risk of an enemy interrupting and making you lose the turn. Or you could keep throwing out quick and simple strikes which could interrupt their larger attack, knocking them back in the timeline and hoping you’ll have time to wind up a better hit next round.
The visual bar means you’ll always know when you’re going to get an chance to strike again, and you’re free to use magic (which is a limited resource) physical hits, potions, defence and healing abilities.
There’s even a real-time element – you can move Igniculus around the screen with the right stick and blind one enemy at a time with his light. This slows down their progress on the action bar and is curiously addictive but also drains the little guys energy. Even this choice is tactical, as you can also use this energy to heal your team mates or zip around the screen collecting extra health and magical power.
Ubisoft has also included a generous skills tree which unlocks new abilities and buffs your character as well as pick-ups which can be used to permanently increase your stats as well as weapon add-ons which can be swapped to take advantage of your enemy’s vulnerabilities.
The exploration element does seem light by comparison but there’s plenty to pick up and taking out easier enemies make the numerous bosses that bit easier to conquer. And while the battle system may sound complex it’s surprisingly easy to get the hang of and losing a battle doesn’t incur much penalty.
There’s a good amount of content here too – with 12 to 15 hours of fairly leisurely play. You can also take the journey with a friend, giving them full control over Igniculus and making those battles a little less frantic.
Child of Light is a slightly curious product from a major developer but as an experiment its pretty successful. The art is wonderful to look at and the gameplay has more complexity than you might expect, though its still a game that younger players could easily enjoy. That sometimes shines through the simplistic plot and cloying dialogue but for the most part its an utterly enjoyable experience and one well worth seeking out.