Child of Light review: about a girl

Child of Light seems content to only scratch its own surface

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Wii U, PS Vita, PS4, Xbox One
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date Apr 30, 2014

Child of Light is exactly the kind of game that I never expected to play.

Spawned from the tech that created the most recent Rayman titles and Ubisoft's Montreal studio, it's a handpainted storybook featuring a little girl as its lead character as she explores a fantasy as dangerous as it is beautiful. It's a role playing game created by a studio known for third person action games and shooters. It's a downloadable title created by a AAA team.

Going in with the conflicting expectations born of these seemingly opposed origins, I wanted to love Child of Light. And in the light of its beautiful presentation, I did. At least, at first. But as I dug for more below the surface warmth and depth, I came up wanting.

Child of Light opens on a young girl named Aurora as she awakes in a mythical and alien world. Her story isn't especially original, but that almost feels like the point. Aurora's background and the quest she's almost immediately set upon are a synthesis of the more epic fairy tales that kids have grown up on for, well, forever, just about.

This familiarity isn't a weakness for Child of Light, it's a strength. Ubisoft Montreal deftly plays with the baggage and expectations of its inspiration, feeling both comfortingly familiar and willing to subvert cliches enough to be surprising. I'm loathe to spill much in the way of detail about Aurora's quest or the characters she meets along the way because, to be honest, it's the best thing Child of Light has going for it.


Kids' Play

Whatever Child of Light's structural issues, its cast of characters is excellent - and commendably heavy on female leads. Women in Lemuria don't seem to be at a disadvantage to men, and a significant number of Aurora's coterie are female. I also appreciated the absence of overt sexualization, especially considering the lead character is a pre-adolescent girl.

Generally speaking, there's a sense of accessibility and kid-friendliness that permeates Child of Light, but all in a manner that's thankfully not dumbed down or immature. Wars have happened in this universe, and people die, but the presentation and the game's unique dialogue choices — the entire game is presented in poetic verse — make for something that parents can play with their children without being bored out of their mind.

Child of Light's systems are pleasantly streamlined — at first

These fantasy trappings house a strange role playing game-lite that owes more to older Japanese titles than anything else. As you navigate the world, you'll talk to NPCs, occasionally taking side quests (very, very occasionally, less than a dozen in total) that usually involve going to a place to kill some things, or bring a thing back. But the majority of your interaction with the fantastical world of Lemuria involves hitting other things with weapons or spells.

On the surface, Child of Light's systems seem pleasantly streamlined compared to the more demanding, hardcore RPGs that have serve as its inspiration. There's no gear to buy; everyone has their default kit that never changes. Instead, you'll find gems called oculi that modify attacks, defense, character immunities and resistances. Even combat is simplified. At any one time, you can only have two party members active in a battle.

On paper, this seemed like a nice enough change to the RPG status quo. Fights start out fast, using an active time bar on the bottom of the screen that skirts the line between traditional turn-based gameplay and experiments with "active-time" battles. Each combatant scrolls through the wait phase of the bar until they hit the ready zone, at which time they pick a move. A move takes more or less time depending on its power and the character using it. Faster characters will act more often than slower ones, and characters can use faster attacks to "interrupt" their enemies in the space between selecting a move and the time it takes to pull it off.

Learning how to interrupt and how to avoid being interrupted forms what initially seems to be a tight core for Child of Light. But there's an additional wrinkle to be had in the form of Aurora's sprite companion, Igniculus. You control Igniculus with the right stick on your controller, using him in the game world to activate various switches. But in battle, Igniculus is just as utilitarian.


By hovering over an enemy and holding the left trigger, you'll slow down their build-up to the action phase on the battle bar. This forced me to juggle enemies, keeping an eye on who need to be slowed down, and who should be allowed to pick an attack so that I could interrupt them with my own moves, canceling their actions. Of course, I could also be interrupted, forcing me to decide when to defend — which forfeits a turn in order to get to your next chance faster — or to take the chance that the potential interrupters would buff their own defenses instead.

This dynamic carries Child of Light for a while, in tandem with its gorgeous art and charming characters, but over time, the admittedly intentional-seeming limitations of its battle system wear thin. Other RPGs start more or less accessibly, but the amount of customization and potential for enemy variation slowly compound into something that searches for an ideal kind of complexity. In Child of Light, I felt starved for more depth than I ever found.

There's a way to switch other party members into a fight in medias res, but it's cumbersome, and ultimately doesn't add much strategy. If I needed an offensive spellcaster, I'd sub them in, but then I was still combining the powers of two characters max at any given time. It turns out that isn't enough to keep combat interesting.

With no loot or gear, the thrill and anticipation of winning a battle relies instead on leveling up. And strange as it feels to be complaining about this, levels in Child of Light come so often, and feature so many miniscule character improvements that they feel inconsequential. I would guess I fought somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-300 battles over the course of my 11 hours or so with the game, and my characters all hovered between levels 45 and 47. Feel free to do the math there.

There's no loot and no gear, and leveling can't make up the difference

But I was more disappointed that the story and its characters seemed just as willing to go a few inches deep, but no deeper. There are some wonderful sketches of characters in Child of Light, hints at motivation and desires and personalities, but it all feels cursory. And the world of Lemuria itself is gorgeously rendered, but often heartbreakingly underutilized.

Wrap Up:

Child of Light seems content to only scratch its own surface

I finished Aurora's tale wanting more, wondering what might be there below the surface that Ubisoft Montreal is content to only scratch. That's the problem with Child of Light, ultimately. It's a beautiful, familiar trip evoking stories I've heard and places I've imagined before. But it's all so ephemeral — less than a day after finishing it, I can already feel my memories of my time in Lemuria and the characters I met there drifting away.

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