Playing the right notes on a piano can result in the perfect execution of a classic song, but that alone isn’t enough to be a brilliant pianist. Child of Light is like this, it possesses all the right parts, excellent timing, and a pretty solid pace, but is less than the sum of its notes. Whatever that special thing is that populates the indie titles it tries to imitate, Child of Light only gets within reach of that quality.
You’ll play as Aurora, a young princess who is feared dead by her father back in the real world. As her body lies in state there she falls into another world, a world of fantastic creatures, adventures, and amiable companions on a quest to get home. The story is told through a rhyming script that permeates the narration and dialogue. The writing meanders between clever and amateurish as it tries to shoehorn a magical tale into sets of words that tend to either fit nicely or get forced to fit the rhyme scheme.
These visuals have a fun mix that add up to a storybook atmosphere. During the adventure the 2D stages don’t have everything on the same plane to give a sense of a bigger world. The caves seem more cavernous, the sky seems more momentous, and the forests seem more dangerous. Aurora’s streaming red hair is especially appealing to the eye as it seems in constant motion. The basic presentation is that of whimsical watercolor paintings representing a classical fantasy scene. When speaking to others the principle characters are shown larger on the screen with new art styles. We get a closer look at them in cutouts that are both like a painting and a sketch at once. There are a few light sources, especially your firefly buddy Igniculus, that light up the scene in certain areas but they aren’t as impressive as one would have hoped from this gaming engine. The character designs are both classic and commendable for their interpretations. All this said, the game is not a visual feast. Things are muted in a way that is probably intended to create a dream-like quality. In that sense it is functional but after a bit of play time the gamer can disconnect from this state since nothing on screen feels visually important.
The title is purposefully retro so minimalism is the order of the day for the audio. We aren’t treated to voice performances but instead read the dialogue as it comes. That’s not problematic because it adds to the storybook aspect of the tale. As such all we have left are the sounds effects and music, both of which are adequate. The music is a bold attempt at duality in which it mostly succeeds. It is at once majestically orchestral and understated. When the action ramps up so does the tempo, and when things slow down the music does as well with fewer instruments. Violins handle the intense moodiness of the adventure as Aurora goes from highs of hopes to depths of despair. The dreamlike quality can have the same drawback as the visuals though, over time the gamer can disconnect for lack of attachment.
Gameplay is familiar and obviously very nostalgic at first. You’ll run, jump, solve basic block and switch puzzles and even fly (something accomplished excellently). You can also make use of your firefly friend’s light to reflect certain engravings to make entry into important levels. It’s a clever system. Whether in battle or in level Igniculus can be ignited to glow bright for various effects. He can light your way in a cave, heal you, blind the enemy to sneak up on them, or open special treasures. He is operated by the right stick or a second player and adds the one new thing to this adventure you won’t find in other games. When his power bar is exhausted from use either he or Aurora can recharge it by touching plants that contain wishes and collecting them as they are expelled into the air.
On touching an enemy you’ll find yourself in a very familiar place if you’ve ever played a good JRPG. Aurora and one other companion enter battle standing on platforms to your left while enemies stand on platforms to your right. You can act, use potions, or flee. Acting opens up abilities both physical and magical. Each character has their specialties with Aurora being balanced and adept at Light Magic. The little girl carries a big sword, making for some charming animation. In true old style you don’t go up to the enemy, you just strike out in front of you and it damages them half a screen away. Each enemy has their own elemental strengths and weaknesses you’ll have to discover to stay alive and be effective. It is great classic turn based action which unfortunately gets pretty stale pretty quickly. Thankfully Igniculus spruces things up a bit, more on that in a moment. The turns are based on an out and out theft of the system used in the Grandia series.
There’s a time bar that you and the enemies are represented on, time winds down and the icons move toward an action area on the line. Once at that place the character begins their action, if they are interrupted during that action their move is canceled and their icon gets shot back across the line and the have to move back to where they were. It’s highly effective for time managers because where you are based on the line will tell you if you’ll want to defend, attempt a canceling maneuver, or try the longer process of casting spells. Igniculus plays a cool role here. You can use him by either shining on yourself to restore HP or shining on enemies to slow their position along the time line. The best use of this is to slow them enough while they are in the action space for you to cancel whatever they are doing. You’ll want to manage your use of Igniculus though because he can run out of energy and there are only 2 spots to refill on wishes per battle screen. They do regenerate but not for a long time.
The leveling system is so standard it’s boring. You level up with experience and gain skill points. Then you go to a map and add skills from a few different paths which seem to have no rhyme or reason to the skills they offer. Good stuff opens up and you grab it whether it’s more MP, more HP, higher evasion, or new magic. Simple is good, but the generic-ness of it is disappointing. You can augment your character to personalize their usefulness in battle. Each character has a weapon, a shield, and an accessory. You can add special abilities to them by assigning relics that you find. So for instance, as you may expect, a red relic will add the fire element to your weapon, or fire protection to your shield, etc.
Lasting appeal and replay value is going to depend almost entirely on your personal experience with the title. If you really connect with the story and nostalgic gameplay or find a particular beauty in the presentation you may wish to come back to it once in awhile. Barring that I can’t see much of a reason to play this game more than one time.
Child of Light is a noble attempt to create a game that reproduces the dream-like quality of childhood imagination. It often succeeds in hitting the right notes but ultimately feels like what it is: an imitation of indie brilliance using elements approved by a corporate entity. Since it is very well done technically I have no quibbles with how it plays, looks, or feels and believe it deserves a good solid score for that. However, it is only a pretender to other works of genuine talent for connecting to the player.