A beautiful game marred by clumsy rhymes and too much combat.
Ubisoft made heads turn when it revealed Child of Light, a downloadable RPG starring a redheaded girl flying around in watercolor environments in a world built on Rayman Legends' engine. It contains all the hallmarks of an indie game, but powered by the publisher's tremendous development resources and marketing.
The game begins as a fairy tale, told by a mother to her daughter: in 1895, the red-haired Aurora falls ill the night her father, an Austrian duke, remarries after his wife abandons him. Aurora appears to have died, but wakes up in a magical world where she will need to find the Sun, the Moon and the Stars to banish the Queen of the Night and access her throne room, where she should be able to make it back to her own world.
When the player takes control of Aurora, she can only do basic platforming. After a few block-pushing puzzles, she soon gains the three main abilities that the player will use for the remainder of the game. She meets a firefly named Igniculus, whom the player controls with the right analog stick. Igniculus is capable of getting out of reach items, and can also shine light upon enemies to stun them, or on elements of the foreground to solve basic puzzles. At the same time, Aurora also gets her own special abilities. She gains a pair of wings that lets her scour the 2D environments, and finds a sword, which engages enemies in turn-based combat.
Those battles are where the influence of traditional RPGs manifests itself. Touching an enemy on the main screen initiates semi-turn-based combat. A progress bar represents the sequence in which your characters and the enemies will attack. After choosing an action in a menu, attacks or moves will take varying amounts of time before being carried out. If you can land a hit on an enemy between the time it initiates a move and carries it out, you can interrupt them and make them waste precious time. Just be careful to not have the same done to you.
Aurora is a decent physical fighter with a few light-based spells in her arsenal, but she also finds companions with useful complementary abilities. Some can cast spells to take advantage of certain enemies' elemental weaknesses. Fire enemies are weak to water, the earth enemies weak to fire, and so on. Some companions can cast buffs and debuffs, such as to speed up your party, slow down enemies, or make your attacks uninterruptible. Some companions can even heal and revive other party members. Your party will end up with over half a dozen characters, but in battle you only ever have two characters active at a time. All of them have their own specialty, leading to frequent swapping during the more involved battles, and can become vexing.
Despite that occasional frustration, the combat system is definitely one of the biggest strengths of the game. During my playthrough on the harder difficulty setting, I found myself tackling low-level enemy encounters in a completely different way than I usually do in RPGs. Normally, I would do a quick math before deciding to dispatch either the weak annoyances that I can one-hit kill or the powerful foe that can do the most damage to my party. Here, it can be more advantageous to try and constantly prevent the enemies from pulling off their (often) devastating attacks. On top of the necessity of developing a sound strategy with your party members, you're simultaneously encouraged to control Igniculus, who can shine his light on the enemies to slow them down, or on your characters to slowly heal them. All this leads to your attention needing to be constantly split between Igniculus, your characters' health, the incoming attacks, and more. It makes the battles more satisfying than in most RPGs, but it also makes them exhausting.
Other than battles, there is a dearth of engaging things to do in the game. Aurora's ability to fly makes exploring an area little more than just zigzagging up and down through it, making sure you haven't missed an inch before moving on to the next one. Gawk at the visuals, clear the area of enemies, locate every doodad, rinse and repeat.
The occasional puzzle sometimes lack variety and are too simplistic to break the monotony. You mechanically push blocks on switches without having to figure anything out. You match shapes. It’s real basic stuff.
The repetitive nature of the gameplay could be more easily forgiven if the game's original setting and characters had kept pulling me in throughout, as they did originally. Few games I've played aimed to be modern fairy tales, with fewer nailing the look and the tone the way Child of Light does. However, the dialogue is brought down by forced, clumsy rhymes, and plot clarity seemed to be less of a priority. As a result, some of the later twists seem to come out of nowhere. Important characters that were not even hinted appear suddenly, while conflicts seem to be resolved before they are even introduced. It reminded me of another similarly flawed fairy tale, the movie Howl's Moving Castle. In it, a character mentioned perhaps only once in the whole movie turns up in the very last minute, as if the writer remembered a loose end that needed tying.
In the end, I loved Child of Light less than I hoped I would. It is terrific to look at, and its battle system remained addictive for several hours of gameplay. The humdrum exploration, the too-repetitive (though fun) combat, and the unfocused story bring the title down after a strong first impression. I still believe it is worth experiencing, especially given the scarcity of RPGs on the Wii U, but some fundamental flaws keep it from getting my unconditional recommendation.