Publisher: Ubisoft | Developer: Ubisoft Montreal | Out 29 April
We’re in a curious position as an industry – we’ve only been around for 30 or so years, and the videogames community as a whole has been maturing and developing meteorically in that time. We’re approaching a stage where creators have the opportunity to use the games that resounded with them in their most influential years to springboard ideas and make progress in genres that have passed out of trend as technology advances, opening doors to newer, fresher ideas.
The side-scrolling RPG last saw true market dominance in the mid-Nineties, with Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI pioneering the genre, both travelling divergent paths that highlighted the detail and wonder a side-on view into a fantasy world can offer. Since then, the genre has been fairly devoid of innovation: RPGs have either retrograded themselves, opting for the isometric top-down angle, or adopted 3D environments with floating cameras. Child Of Light is a rare and refreshing injection of life and colour into a genre that was in danger of becoming all but defunct. If nothing else, it’s proof that the presentation of a world like this can still be engaging.
The creative force behind Child Of Light is Ubisoft Montreal – the same team that developed Far Cry 3. Artistically, the two games couldn’t be more contradictory, and it’s a credit to the team that Child Of Light feels so authentic – so spot-on with its nostalgic gameplay elements yet so modern in its approach to teaching you them and employing them throughout the game. The RPG elements are standard, and clearly influenced by the 16-bit era of side-scrolling role-playing games.
Your main character is Aurora – a bright and bold pragmatist that avoids all the mopey clichés of RPG protagonists and injects the game with a well-written stubbornness that complements the eclectic cast of supporting characters she recruits throughout the game. Her progression is charted with an experience system, familiar to anyone that’s picked up an RPG before, with the main facets of customisation boiling down to three paths each character can take – one usually focuses on a class-based skill, the other on a defensive progression and the other on offensive tactics. The RPG elements are vague, but are presented effectively enough – grinding early on in the game will grant you stat boosts that become clearly obvious the more they stack up.
This becomes important in battle, because the system Child Of Light uses is dissimilar to anything implemented in an RPG in recent history. In fact, the most recent example of the mechanic we can think of is in Grandia II – each character moves forward on a timeline, which is split between Wait and Cast. The final 25% of the bar, labelled Cast, requires the acting character to remain uninterrupted as they head towards action – meaning every turn becomes an exercise in micro-managing each sprite on-screen. You either have to be patient and defend, if there’s any chance of an incoming attack, or gamble your turn trying to interrupt an enemy’s move.
There’s a fairly steep learning curve in place, but once you master the system (and level up your team), it becomes possible to prevent a team of four enemies from ever getting an attack in. It’s a system that hardcore turn-based RPG fans will likely balk at, but it creates a rhythmic and infinitely more involving pace than the standard tactics or S-RPG game does.
The uncomplicated role-playing mechanics are complemented by the more intricate platforming sections – the stats you achieve from in-battle rewards have no effect on overworld navigation, so once you achieve the power of flight for Aurora, the world becomes your oyster. Rarely will a level operate on only one horizontal plane – the most enrapturing part of Child Of Light is the exploration you’ll do through its wonderful hand-painted world.
The whole thing feels lifted from the illustrations of Arthur Rackham, and resounds with a disorientatingly familiar Slavic flavour. The UbiArt Framework is rapidly becoming one of our favourite engines; the scope and detail the engine allows for, especially with hand-crafted work, is simply stunning. We often found ourselves slipping out of the game’s A-to-B narrative and into a reverie of our own, simply gazing at the charcoal-smudged skies or storybook villages, populated by anthropomorphic critters that each have their own, distinct personality.
The poetic inclination of the game is the only creative facet that didn’t really pay off. The game – the entire game – is written in rhyme. And not even consistently cadenced rhyme. It creates an arrhythmic and immersion-breaking flow of words that just don’t seem to fit to any specific syllabic formula, and at times it can really feel forced and unnatural. Otherwise, the game spins an eloquent and unique story – albeit somewhat odd – an introspective rabbit-hole adventure through a world reminiscent of something between Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. It’s an RPG with all its French-Canadian roots on show, a spectacular and unique amalgam of genres and ideas that creates something we really think any RPG fan ought to experience.