Shadows lost of light.
Like its watercolor visuals that flow between foreground shadows, etched lines and background shades, Child of Light is a game of several layers. The first is the painting-like look, rendered by the UbiArt engine that powered Rayman Legends, but peel that back and there's the fairy tale story told comprehensively in rhyme, even down to the most incidental bits of dialogue. Peel another layer and there's the distinct turn-based combat inspired by Japanese role-playing games, and behind that, fairly deep crafting and leveling systems, and even co-op play.
I kept peeling through all these layers when I played the first three hours last month, and while a cursory glance might suggest Child of Light is another pretty platformer, the least of the truth is that there's more to it than that.
The magical world of Lemuria draws from the real-life mythos of the once-believed sunken continent, while the story plays on a real historical event: the 1895 Easter Earthquake of Carniola, then a part of Austria. Aurora, the Duke of Carniola's young daughter, tragically dies at the start of the game only to wake up in Lemuria, lost and confused. She soon learns of her importance to this other world, but her mind is always on home and the grieving father who she adores. "Wait, my father, is he alright?" she asks the world around her, "I am surrounded by endless night."
"One theme in Child of Light is leadership," Lead Writer Jeffrey Yohalem told Joystiq, "so it focuses on the daughter of a leader, in this case a duke. As for Aurora's devotion to her father, that is integral to the plot. You'll have to keep playing to see what happens.
Dark spirits fly, I know not where.
The poem-like storytelling helps Child of Light oscillate between the whimsy of exploring Lemuria and the melancholy deep in Aurora's heart. Some of the rhymes are a little stretched as you'd expect with so many words, but just as predictably they're a strong fit for the game's fairy tale theme.
"While crafting our vertical slice of the game, we were struggling to find the right tone for the dialogue," Creative Director Patrick Plourde said. "One morning I had the idea to write it in verse. I liked it in the French movie 'Cyrano de Bergerac' and thought it would fit well in the game."
Yohalem, tasked with writing duties, was initially worried the idea was "impossibly difficult" because of the game's scope, and the danger of the rhymes sounding too childish.
"If every line rhymes you end up with a Dr. Seuss sort of rhythm that quickly becomes too much to take. But I took the idea home and mulled it over," Yohalem said.
"I became fixated on one of my favorite poems, Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner,' which tells a fantastical adult narrative. The epic ballad form Coleridge used (the ABCB four line iambic rhyme scheme) was built for long poems and had the flexibility I was looking for. Excited, I decided to seize the challenge."
How water falls with no rain?
Behind the lyrical European fairy tale, the real meat of the gameplay draws from oceans far away. As with many old-school JRPGs, the turn-based combat in Child of Light is distinct from the 2D exploration of Lemuria. If Aurora comes into contact with one of the griffins, spiders and trolls populating the world, the game transitions into a combat screen. Here Aurora and a member of her party do battle with up to three foes in what many JRPG fans recognize as an Active Time Battle.
However, it traces closest to Game Art's Grandia series and in particular Grandia 2. A bar at the bottom of the screen is split between Wait and Cast, and character icons move along it. When characters enter the Cast zone the battle pauses, and you get to choose a move for them. If your character then reaches the end of the bar before being attacked, he or she performs that move.
The twist comes from the danger of that Cast zone. If you attack an enemy while they're in the Cast zone, you'll interrupt its move and send it back into the Wait zone - but the same can occur in reverse, so it requires a bit of strategy and awareness. Again, there are quite a few layers to peel through here.
Different moves have different cast times, so if you're neck and neck with an enemy as you enter the Cast zone, you're better off going with a short, albeit weaker, move. Also, Aurora has a firefly pal, Igniculus, who you can guide around the screen using the right analog stick. Holding Igniculus over an enemy slows it right down, and that was particularly useful during the last boss fight of my three-hour session, even on normal difficulty.
I don't want to oversell the complexity of the combat; it probably places closer to more accessible systems like the one in South Park: The Stick of Truth, rather than the old-school JRPGs it draws inspiration from. There's a delicate balance between accessibility and depth that Child of Light seems to be going for, perhaps evidenced by its co-op mode. A second player can control Igniculus, and can play him a bit like Super Mario Galaxy's star pointer in the 2D platforming world, drifting over environmental flora to collect HP and mana. That control, however, is retained in the combat, and as Ubisoft's Plourde put it, the interruption system means he can be a "real game changer."
"The idea behind the timeline was to use time as a critical element in the gameplay," Plourde explained. "I wanted players to have to gamble on their choice each turn. The notion of risk allows for deeper tactical choices than simply taking the strongest attack and sticking with it. The notion of time was also critical to co-op, enabling the second character to be useful in battle while keeping it simple. The plan was to allow a fan of JRPGs to bring somebody from his or her family, even a child that can't read, to share the adventure, to be fully integrated in the gameplay."
In addition to Grandia 2, Plourde cited Final Fantasy 1, 6, 7 and Chrono Trigger as other JRPGs he analyzed when designing the game. "For Child of Light, since it was the first RPG I designed, I wanted to return to the basics of the genre," he said.
I could see some of that and maybe a bit more as I made my way through the first three hours: The crafting system, which allows you to combine buff-bestowing crystals into even stronger variants, has a touch of FF7's materia. The leveling system's paths of nodes that unlock abilities and attribute enhancements reminds me of FF10's sphere grid.
Nightmare, let me wake.
Papa, where are you?
My heart shall break.
There are other layers to Child of Light, a few I suspect I didn't see or explore in full during my time with it. On paper I'd be wary of a game with such distinct sides to it, but over those opening hours there was a pleasant if bizarre rhythm. A bit like the seesawing rhymes, lines of watercolor exploration floated into JRPG combat and back again, and it flowed well enough. Again, maybe Igniculus was a game changer here too, helping to keep me active and engaged during combat that at least on normal difficulty wasn't grabbing me for its challenge.
Whether or not that flow can be sustained over the game's full 12 to 15 hours is another matter, but I know that after 3 of them I'm keen to find out later this month. Child of Light is due to drift onto PS4, Xbox One, Wii U, PC, Xbox 360, and PS3 on April 30, priced at $15.