It was only a bit more than a month ago that I expressed why I was looking forward to Child of Light. Now I played through the game with my wonderful but not very video-game-experienced wife and can share our thoughts. In somewhat of a different perspective, I played as the partner rather than the person actually playing as the main character, but my wife and I talked a lot about her feelings as well. And even the artist that she is who studied fairytales and literature in college, she found Child of Light to be rather lacking.
So how did it function?
The game is set up to have some platformer aspects added on to a JRPG. In between your JRPG action/turn based hybrid fights, Aurora is navigated around the colorful map to usually find whatever her current quest is calling for or to find a path to the next area. Fights start whenever Aurora bumps into an enemy who is present on the map and goes into a combat I have heard described as nearly identical to the Grandia series. For those, like myself, who had never played a Grandia game, this involves all characters, allies and enemies, moving along a timeline at the bottom. At a certain marked point, the character chooses and action and then when the reach the end, they act. Different actions will alter the rate at which the character reaches the end. If they are attacked before then, they are interrupted and sent back to about midway through the timeline.
The ally (who I played) is a firefly. This character can fly through walls to get to some treasure chests or switches in the game world. He can also stun enemies to allow them to be avoided or attacked from behind for a surprise attack. In battle, the firefly can either slow enemies or heal allies. He also can go collect more wishes (his unit of effort used to slow or heal) as well as some mana or health orbs to help the characters.
At certain points in the game, there are also puzzles. They tend to boil down to casting the correct shadow from some object (which might have to be moved) onto the wall in the background. There can be subtleties to that, but the basic formula holds throughout.
Progress in the game comes down to experience points to level up and some gem crafting. When a character levels up, their stats go up and they can purchase a skill along one of three skill paths for a separate permanent benefit (such as more stat improvements or skills). Gems come in many forms to give various physical and magical attack or defense bonuses as well as traditional elemental affiliations.
An art filled fairytale
Both my wife and I agree that some of the artistic expression is really rather lovely in the game. I don’t mean the game as a whole. But looking at the visuals and listening to the music is a very nice experience.
We played on the Wii U which was happy to run the game with only minimal slowdowns in some cutscenes. The colors were enjoyably vibrant with a somewhat distinctive but very consistent style. This made looking around the world a delight for me as just a firefly since I just followed the main character. There seems to have been a great deal of care put into making the game world a beautiful place while enforcing the whimsical nature of the fairytale.
In addition, there is a very well scored soundtrack that really does feel like the appropriate companion to a heroic journey. As we flew through the world, there were enough changes that kept of overall feelings we had quite pleasant.
And the idea that it is a fairytale is huge in the game. Every bit of style reminded me of the worlds from those stories where any animal could become your best companion and even the landscape might want to have a chat. There were definitely some points where it felt like being able to explore around in one of the fairytales of youth. There is a clear villain while you get to play the hero and roles stay just so clear. And everything remains whimsical throughout though there are definitely some times where the Brothers Grimm seem like much more of an influence compared to others.
Falling down by playing
Unfortunately for Child of Light, it isn’t just an interactive fairytale. It is, in the end, a game. And Child of Light isn’t particularly good at being a game.
The combat isn’t bad. It just never really gets past the point where you have to manipulate timing of enemies with the firefly and you should choose to attack with whatever the enemy is weak to. Even the boss battles are just more of the same. Each boss has something they are weak toward and maybe something they are strong toward. The firefly always slows the same way or heals the same way and the enemies tend to never have any strategy that involves more than maybe 2 actions. The end result is something that seems neat at first and can provide a sense of satisfaction when you deny the enemies the ability to attack, but never seems to get deeper.
Speaking of denying attacks, the reverse can happen as well. It feels odd to me that the firefly can either slow enemies or heal as opposed to speeding allies up. There are times where the only relief from being completely overrun by enemies is them making the wrong choice as very fast enemies that can attack all of your allies have a great ability to deny you the ability to play the game. But at least on normal difficulty, they aren’t smart enough to actually persist that pattern unless they are a boss.
Though the combat is disappointing, I’m always talking about loving a narrative, so having something that is supposed to be a tale should be great. This is the biggest failing of Child of Light. The story itself and its presentation are lackluster at best and downright bad enough of the time.
The story is the story of conquering an evil step mother. There is technically one twist, but it is less consequential than it should be. There are also a lot of other side missions you can go on… about something. They never feel particularly important to the extent that the one sentence summary is more interesting than trying to parse what the characters actually want done or why. They all boil down to a fetch quest which may or may not lead to combat. That’s really it.
And then there’s the dialog. I would like to say it is interesting to take the approach to dialog to make it so every line is presented rhyming. Unfortunately, if Child of Light is any indicator, if anything, it makes all of the characters seem incredibly unrelatable. People do not talk like that meaning the characters can’t feel like actual people. The closest is one character who makes mistakes when trying to rhyme, but the way other characters correct the rhyme turns from a joke to something much worse as it goes on.
Even all of this description assumes the lines are actually rhyming. Child of Light seems to think it was composed in rhymes, but, at least in English with United States pronunciations, they really are not. And this just means that everything is stated in an awkward way that has absolutely no benefit to your experience. I am not ashamed to admit that my experience in the game improved when I stopped reading the dialog. I feel that speaks volumes to a glaring flaw that holds back the enjoyment of the story which wasn’t great to start.
There are other smaller problems with the game, but none compare to having uninteresting combat and a bad narrative experience. I could complain that characters really didn’t have well defined roles overall or that the skill paths were rarely a distinct way to build a character. My wife noticed that the characters are tiny on the screen when floating around making them just that much harder to ever become attached to since it’s harder to see them. I was saddened by the fact that the game decided that the way to keep platformer-like jumping puzzles in a game where you could fly was to make it so you couldn’t touch the walls in a narrow path (essentially making it like a game of Operation). But in the end, I feel all of these are just disappointments rather than glaring issues.
Child of Light is not a bad game. It has bad dialog, but the rest of the game aspects come down to being less than they could have been. The visual art seems to be what the focus really was in this creation. Impressive as it might look, a game is inherently interactive. Child of Light is not particularly enjoyable as an interactive medium. That fact makes the game nearly impossible for me to recommend since watching the game on youtube will provide you with all of the visual and auditory benefits without the lackluster rest of the package.
I wish Child of Light was an inspiring game, but instead it just disappoints. I could see a child or someone who didn’t have a lot of metrics to compare the game to enjoying it more, but I feel that is essentially winning for all the wrong reasons. In the end, Child of Light is a boring and mediocre game hiding behind beautiful visuals to try to appear like something more.