An epic tale of nostalgia
Last year, the news of Ubisoft making an old-school throwback to the JRPG genre took a number of people by surprise. When Destructoid got the chance to check it out, there was a healthy amount of curiosity around it. Not too many people knew what to make of it, especially considering it was coming from the team that made Far Cry 3, which is a title that seems very far apart from it.
But after spending some time with Child of Light, about three hours to be exact, there might be more in common with these two titles than you think. I got the chance to talk with lead writer Jeffrey Yohalem, and saw what passion and a small team working on a unique throwback to JRPG titles managed to come up with.
Child of Light (PS3, PS4, PC [Previewed], Xbox 360, Xbox One, Wii U)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: April 30, 2014
Set in 1895 Austria, the story of Child of Light focuses on a young girl by name of Aurora. Born into royalty and daughter of the Duke, Aurora one day contracts an illness and falls into a deep sleep. Upon waking, she finds herself alone and in an unknown land not of this world. When she meets a mysterious firefly named Igniculus, she sets out on a journey to return to her own world, while restoring the balance within the mysterious new land she finds herself in.
Child of Light takes players across a bizarre and ethereal landscape filled with danger and curious individuals in need of help. Blending together classic JRPG gameplay with platforming and exploration reminiscent of games in "Metroidvania" style, players will traverse the land in search of answers, while battling foes looking to cause harm to Aurora and her friends.
Speaking with Jeffrey Yohalem, lead writer for Child of Light and also Far Cry 3, he talked about influences from classic fiction and role playing games, the themes of escapism and unity, and surprisingly, how Child of Light has many parallels with Far Cry 3.
"I grew up reading fantasy books, The Black Cauldron, The Great King, Narnia Chronicles, the OZ books...I love stories of people who wandered into other worlds, these secret spaces in our home and our woods," said writer Jeffrey Yohalem. "And to me, this was an opportunity, a once in a lifetime opportunity I think, and I jumped at the chance to make it."
The art style of Child of Light takes many influences from classic storybooks, artwork, and animated films from our youth. Using the UbiArt engine, the same technology used by Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the game artists were able to bring their concept art and original designs and implemented them directly into the game. Because of this, translation into actual in-game assets wasn't required and it allowed for the developers to work straight off the artist's concept work to create a more pure and cohesive visual aesthetic.
And does this game look stunning. I was an admirer of the art style from Rayman Legends, and the same tech is used even more effectively here. As Child of Light is more about exploration and traversal, you'll be able spend more time and admire the visuals. While I was only playing the first few hours, I saw a number of environments that took place in dense forests, ancient ruins, caves, and a seemingly abandoned town populated by crows wearing top hats. The visuals look mesmerizing and dense, and it goes to show that 2D graphics are in a league of their own.
As a narrative focused game, Child of Light focuses on Aurora's journey and how she grows as an individual. While at first she believes her adventure to be a dream, it eventually becomes something real to her and shapes her as a person. Yohalem wrote Child of Light as a critique on escapism within fiction, but also as a tale of the hypnotic pull of nostalgia. And strangely enough, his previous title Far Cry 3 share many parallels with this new one.
"Far Cry 3 was also like that. That island could be a real place, but we turned it into a very surreal place, you know that it doesn't quite exist -- it could be like an episode of The Twilight Zone," said Yohalem while discussing the theme of escapism. "Far Cry 3 was sort of punk [in reference to its critique on escapism], in that it's an attack on escapism. Child of Light is sort of a hopeful proposal. Here's what a game could be, in that it is worth loving, that there's more to life than addiction ."
When exploring, Aurora can jump, fly, and dodge enemies in the field, while finding treasure chests and other secrets located around the landscape. Also, your ally Igniculus can be controlled by the right stick, mouse, or by another partner with a second controller. Co-op play focuses on controlling Igniculusm who can interact with the environment and restore Aurora's abilities. The firefly can emit a powerful light that can heal Aurora's wounds, open locked chests, activate switches, and even stun enemies. However, when the enemy gets the upper hand, you'll have to do battle.
While Aurora is a stranger in a strange land, she's still more than capable of looking out for herself and going toe-to-toe with foes. With the help of Igniculus and other party members she meets on her journey, she'll gain power and resources to take down whatever obstacle is in front of her.
The battle system takes many different influences from classic JRPG title such as Final Fantasy and Grandia. Battles are turn based, and actions and turns are determined by a single time gauge on the bottom of the screen. There are two phases, Wait and Act. During Wait, character and enemy icons move across the time bar to reach the Act phase, and when it's your turn to Act, you can select a move and engage.
Timing is everything during battles, and while they're not twitch based, you'll have to think ahead and plan your moves in advance. During the Act phase you can prepare a move and your character will ready up -- but if an enemy attacks you during Act, your move will be cancelled and it will send you back to the Wait phase. Of course, you can take advantage of this as well to cancel enemy moves. There are a variety of different physical attacks, magic, items, and special skills -- but they each have their own unique charge period during act. So you must choose your move wisely.
Winning battles will earn you experience points, and getting enough exp will level your characters. When you level up, you acquire skill points which can be used to unlock new moves on each of the character's unique skill trees. You can augment character strength, magic power, defense, acquire new moves, and much more. The trees are fairly dense, it'll likely take awhile to unlock everything. But wait, your character augmentation doesn't end there. Over the course of the game you'll acquire Oculi, which are small gems and crystals. Many of these Oculi possess elemental and stat boosting properties that can buff your weapons and armor. Moreover, you can combine and mix different Oculi to create special rare types with special boosts to your characters.
This all may sound complex, but I assure you it is not. The game eases you into the combat and character growth nicely, and even newcomers to the genre will be able to pick it up right away. If anything, combat feels a bit too easy. Even though it was still early in my adventure, I was clearing through enemies and bosses with no trouble at all.
Moreover, players can even use Igniculus during fights, much like how they would in the field, to stun and slow enemies in battle. To be honest, it was very easy to take advantage of it by slowing a rather strong enemy's charge on the time gauge, and cancel his moves at the right time. Thankfully, Child of Light features a hard mode, which significantly buffs up the combat. Fans of the genre will likely want to start off with this mode.
It's safe to say that Child of Light might be seen as somewhat of an unusual title coming from such a big name publisher. Of course, there's the stigma of big publishers not caring too much about small titles that go for something a bit different, but Yohalem spoke very highly of the publisher and the experience.
"Ubisoft has just been so supportive of what we wanted to do. They've been really hands off and supportive of this title, every bit of writing for this game was exactly how I wanted it to be and what I intended it to be," said Yohalem. "But it's also frightening, and I think you do your best work in that situation. You have to make sure every idea has been looked at all sides by everyone. I'm really proud of Ubisoft and what the team created."
I came away from Child of Light very surprised, and intrigued. It was a game that was definitely seeking to recall elements of nostalgia and wonder from our youth, but at the same time bringing a perspective imbued with wisdom and insight that comes from age.
While I did have some issues with the difficulty, and particularly some troublesome technical glitches that caused some annoying stuttering during cutscenes and battles, I still feel there's a lot to admire about this title. It's definitely something that will stick out in Ubisoft's current 2014 lineup, as they've got a number big budget titles set for release. But I tell you, it's very refreshing to see so much faith in a title that's got so much charm and heart.