I had been toying with the idea of getting a Nintendo Switch for a while now. Given that I considered it a substantial expense to get, my rubric is not to buy unless there's a game (or two) that I really want to play. Until then, there's no point in me buying a system to simply have it. When the remaster of Links Awakening and the Crypt of the Necrodancer spin-off Celeste of Hyrule were announced, that requirement was met. I waffled a bit on it, but eventually gave in.
While those games haven't been released yet, I discovered that the online store for the system is full of indy and lesser tier games that I had been unable to play until then. My primary system is Linux, and while the Steam store has taken great strides to make more games compatible, there's still many obvious gaps that have made trying to find games to play disheartening. There's also the fact that my main and only fully functional system is also the one I use for work. Often, at the end of the day I'd rather not pick up my laptop and use it to play this game or that. I'd rather not sit at my desk to unwind after spending 8 to 10 hours there working. Furthermore, I enjoy sharing games. It's fun for everyone in the household to sit down and watch someone play, or to play with a tiny, well-trusted audience. I can't easily do that with Linux, although I do have a controller, Bluetooth input devices, and a spare HDMI cable. So the Switch quickly filled a gap I had previously been ignoring.
Over the last couple of months, I've been picking up games that seem interesting, mostly when they were on sale. I told myself at first it was gap-filling. I had just bought a system, but the primary games I wanted to play weren't out yet. So I needed to do something with the system so I felt the purchase was emotionally justified. In that time, I've powered through a few games, the most recent of which is Child of Light.
I'm not sure what's going on with this, but a lot of the games I've been playing on this system seem to start out much the same way.
You're a young girl. And you're dead. Kinda.
In Goetia, this was rather explicit as you literally play as a disembodied spirit. Gris implies this rather heavily early on in the story, although it is subject to interpretation. Here, you play as Aurora, the youngest daughter of the Austrian royal family. The opening continues in a rhyming, fairy tale style, tells how Aurora and her father were close especially after the loss of her mother. Then, the king finds a new wife, and some time later, you fell deathly ill.Then...you wake, on a vine encrusted altar in the fantastical land of Lemuria. Fortunately, you're not alone. Your constant travel companion is Igniculus, a "firefly". To my constant amusement, Igniculus bares no small resemblance to the Druplicon -- the logo for the content manager I use for nearly every site I work on.
Even better, Igniculus is almost a second player-character.
The game gives you little to no direction as to the controls. I rather like this approach from games like Gris. It forces you to explore the character and get the feel for your avatar. You quickly discover that using one analog stick, you can control Aurora, while with the second stick you can control Igniculus. This works because the entire game is a 2D side-scroller. As such, there's no need to use the auxiliary stick as a camera control.
Shortly after meeting the Drupal -- I, I mean firefly -- you also acquire a sword as large as Aurora herself. Then, you set off on adventure, to free Lemuria from oppression of the Queen of the Dark.
As you wonder Lemuria -- right to go earlier in the story, left to go further -- you will encounter dark creatures who stand in your way. These enemies are not random encounters, but rather shown on the screen much like in Chrono Trigger. I always liked this method of providing encounters as it does afford you the ability to avoid a fight if you can. Some enemies will hide in dimly lit areas or blend naturally in with their environment, others will be obvious and out in the open. Often, an enemy will appear in front of a treasure chest, an opening, or other blocker to your progression. This approach is wonderfully...honest? You won't be randomly attacked just walking around an unpopulated screen, but you cannot completely avoid fighting either.
The battle system is very familiar to anyone that's played a video game RPG in the last decade, earlier Final Fantasy games in particular. Your team is on the left, the enemies on the right. Like Final Fantasy 7, you are playing a variant of the Active Time Battle system, although this one might be my favorite riff on this particular method.
At the bottom of the battle screen is a timeline, with a marker for each character and enemy. The markers advance from the left on the "wait" state, to the right or "cast" state. When a character's marker crosses from wait to cast, you're given a menu with which to choose your action. Each character has different abilities and you can swap out a character without losing your place in the timeline.
And this is where depth enters the system. While the timeline is paused when a menu is open, different actions you choose require different times to execute: instant, short, medium, long, and very long. While casting, your character is vulnerable to being interrupted by being attacked. If they cannot dodge (a stat based trait), you are "knocked back" in the timeline, and are forced to wait until you can cast again. This sounds frustrating and unfair, but you can also do this to your enemies as well. Through careful timing, you can constantly interrupt your enemy and prevent them from acting completely. Furthermore, actions such as quicken (haste), paralyze, and even one simply called "knock back", can give you tactical advantage or stymie your opponents. The mechanism is similar to one I imagined for my failed video game project back in college, which I found utterly delightful.
Here, Igniculus also plays a role. By positioning him over a player character, and asking him to glow, you can recover small amounts of HP. You can also position him over an enemy and glow to slow their progression on the timeline. This, combined with a fast character and action can often get you a critical interruption. There are also glowing plants in the arena which can be used to further recover some HP and MP.
As an RPG, Child of Light allows you to grow your characters and customize their abilities to some extent. This game uses a point based skill grid. Upon leveling, you are awarded a level point, good to advance to (most) adjacent items in the grid. Except...it's not really a grid. In practice, it is three lines of progression coiled around each other like an old-fashion game of snake. Each character starts out with some squares on each line already allocated, and it is up to you which of those three adjacent squares to allocate next.
The skills for each snake remind me of Diablo II. Physical attacks such as Aurora's sword are leveled along with passive abilities, stats such as speed or defense, magical abilities such as lightning, and attributes like MP and HP. Often, the abilities are vaguely related to each other. For the character of Finn, physical attack level were on the same snake as fire magic.
While the grid is surprisingly clear and easy to understand, it seems...underdeveloped. Compare it to the sphere grid in Final Fantasy X and there seems to be a lot that was missed out. The ability to jump around the grid, take branching paths, or reallocate points could have added a lot of customization to the game, but would have also increased the difficulty.
In addition to the grid, there are two other methods to customize your characters. The first is stardust, a consumable item that increases a base stat such as attack or magic resistance. You find a number of stardust items around the map, but they are limited in number and not renewable. Fortunately, even if you skip them all, the game doesn't punish you. The second is occuli. These gems allow you modify your attack, armor, or defense. By adding a particular kind of gem applied to a character's attack slot can add elemental damage to a regular sword slash. It's not a complicated system, and the crafting of gems can get a little grindy at times, but it allows additional battle customization in a welcome fashion.
If Child of Light stopped there, it likely wouldn't have been all that memorable of a game. The story isn't all that unique or complex. As you meet characters and add them to your party, you learn of their colorful personalities and their plights. The jester Rubella is looking for her brother. Robert the mouse wants to woo the girl of her dreams. Finn the magician has unsettled issues with his father. Each requires a little effort, but nothing so deep or final as I would expect from say, Mass Effect. Still, I enjoyed it and it fit the tone of being a playable fairy tale.
What it lacks in complex strategy or deep storytelling, it makes up for by being a pure, audio/visual delight. Child of Light actually relies on many hand drawn and watercolored pieces of artwork sourced directly from concept art. This gives the game a unique story-book feeling. While this means the animation and UI elements are rather old school, the art makes it pleasing to look at. Characters feel more emotive and expressive despite being stillframes. The backgrounds are lush while not hindering gameplay. The soundtrack is fantastic, with the battle music in particular being memorable with it's constant contrasting of major and minor keys and quick arpeggios.
In terms of art direction, I rank it up with Gris. The art is perfectly tuned for the setting, minimalist, and beautiful.
While I love this game, it's by no means perfect. After a while, the enemies can get boring and easy to defeat. It falls into the same trap as Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, where you see different flavors of an enemy for each element. This is fine, but only when the entire bestiary makes up for it. Child of Light isn't a long game, so unless you particularly enjoyed the fighting (like I did) you might not notice this.
The ending...was rushed. While the final battle with The Queen of the Dark was tense, the post victory scenes seemed like they were thrown together at the last moment. I found myself wanting something more Peter Jackson-esque. I wanted to have a choice of endings based on how I resolved each PC's plight, a longer cut scene where all of Lemuria came to my aid just when things looked darkest. I wanted the chance of a Bad Ending, Good Ending, and True Ending. I wanted to see how the party broke up, and where they went home to now.
Instead? We get a brief cutscene, credits, and a quick post-credit sequence implying the story isn't over yet. Indeed, they are making a sequel to this game. Perhaps you'll start off with the same cast of characters in the next, or meet up with them as you confront your new foe. The effect, however, was disappointing to say the least. It lacked the emotional gravitas I had hoped, that even games like Undertale managed to pull off with far less technical ability and budget.
The graphics are easily the best part of the game, but I found myself wanting more enemies and character animatics.
There's some amazing stuff in here, but aside from the battle music it doesn't have the staying power or catchiness I've been spoiled on by recent indy titles.
It's...not that complex. The constant rhyming can get a little grating, but it's not trying to be a complex story and it doesn't fail in any major way other than making the ending feel cut-off.
It's fun, straightforward, and easy to master. It has enough depth to keep me interested, but it might seem too easy if you prefer something more challenging.
Verdict: Definitely worth a play
Despite the fact it was a bit short, Child of Light was worth the time I invested in it. I hope that the sequel adds some additional depth to the battle system while retaining it's easy-to-understand roots. With the game being a feast for the eyes and ears, picking this one up for a play makes for a fond memory.