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Ubisoft hopes to reignite love for classic JRPG mechanics with Child of Light

Child of Light, Ubisoft's fairytale Japanese-style role-playing game, utilizes a combat system grounded in traditional, classic mechanics of the genre but with a twist that rewards clever thinking over button-pushing dexterity, game writer Jeffrey Yohalem told Polygon.

During a hands-on demo with Child of Light today during Sony's PlayStation 4 launch event, I played a level set in a subterranean network of caves back with massive spiders and three-legged archers. Playing as pink-haired Aurora while Yohalem controlled her sidekick, the floating spark Igniculus, I floated through the caves, sneaking up on enemies and engaging them in combat.

Child of Light's combat system was based largely on the system from Grand Arts' Dreamcast JRPG Grandia 2, Yohalem said. Players can sneak up on enemies in order to gain an advantage in battle — dropping on them from above or behind will let Aurora and her companies attack first, giving her a significant head start in whittling down enemies' health.

Once engaged, battle takes place on several raised platforms that Yohalem noted were inspired by the designs of opera sets. At the bottom of the screen is a bar that tracks the amount of time between each combatant's attack. Small pictures of each combatant will move along the bar as they prepare to attack, effectively counting down until the attack is executed. At the end of the bar is a smaller bar colored red; characters that are attacked while their picture is in the red zone will have their attack "interrupted," resetting their charging time and starting them over from the beginning of the bar.

This simple twist on the classic timed turn-based battle system is meant to add a unique level of strategy to Child of Light, an element that Yohalem names as "cleverness."

"Battles are based on cleverness, not dexterity — they require a lot of logic and strategy," Yohalem said. "You win fights and earn rewards based on cleverness.

"We wanted to create something minimalistic that would welcome new [JRPG] players in," he said. "We wanted to show people how we felt with the games we had growing up, and we feel there's an audience out there who has never played a game like this. Then there are people who miss games like this. We wanted to create a deep, passionate story and world that would welcome new players to this type of game."

"We wanted to create something minimalistic that would welcome new [JRPG] players in."

The game's battle mechanics feature familiar elements, a result of how the genre has been refined over time, Yohalem explained.

"Video games are still in their infancy, so this might not prove true on the future, but I feel gameplay evolves through society, not an individual," he added. "I think it's difficult for an individual to create a fun game, let's say — it's something that evolves organically over centuries, like chess. It takes time to develop these rules, and I think we have a toolbox of mechanics that we know are fun and interesting and as designers we play with those mechanics.

"If you go off and create something that doesn't build on that any of those, it's difficult to create something that people enjoy playing. It's great to create something from nowhere, but most of the time you make that thing and then players go, 'We like what you're trying to do but we'll stop after five minutes.' We know here we have something people miss and that people love. We can build on it."

It's interesting to note that the PlayStation's 4's launch lineup — and its window — doesn't contain any RPGs. Yohalem said he thinks this because developers have not yet figured out how to utilize the PS4 for the genre.

"Maybe people haven't figured out how to tap it correctly," he said. "I can't really answer what other developers are doing, but we believe people love games like this."

Child of Light's script also as a unique twist — dialogue is structured like an epic ballad, with every second and fourth line in its poem-like structure rhyming. Yohalem said he wrote the first 10 pages of the script before he realized it "had to be a poem" and from there set about writing the script directly into poem format.

Child of Light will launch on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U and Windows PC in early 2014.