The difficulty of reviewing role-playing games is that they so often seem more an assembly of parts than a sum, and, while Child of Light's parts do cohere nicely, it remains a challenge to describe as a whole rather than a collection of discrete elements. Perhaps this reveals that its coherence is an illusion, or it could just be the nature of the genre. It's a game that clearly has a soul, but that soul doesn't seem to come from a single auteur so much as a group of artists and designers working hard to ensure that their ideas coalesce. At times, they strain themselves, but to their credit the seams rarely show.
Child of Light is a Japanese-style role-playing game along the lines of Final Fantasy but agreeably streamlined. You play from a side-on perspective, traveling through landscapes filled with roving enemies, environmental hazards, simple puzzles, and secret paths and alcoves. Exploration is a pleasure because of the freedom afforded by the ability to fly in all directions, and each area feels fluidly laid out and is full of treasure to discover. The protagonist, Aurora, is accompanied by a light elemental named Igniculus who can interact with objects and stun enemies, enabling Aurora to move past them without a fight or to get behind them for a surprise attack.
Battles pit Aurora and one of her companions against an enemy set of up to three, and all participants move along a timeline displayed at the bottom of the screen. This timeline is the core of Child of Light. It is divided into two regions: a long wait period and a short cast period. When a combatant reaches the threshold between them, s/he chooses an action to perform. The cast time for any given action depends upon the character's speed and the specific action itself, and, if a character is successfully attacked during his/her cast period, the action is interrupted and s/he gets set back on the timeline. The only exception is for defending, which has no cast time; thus, when choosing a character's action, the player must decide whether it can be completed before an enemy attacks or whether it is best to be safe and defend, effectively forfeiting the turn. Finally, Igniculus provides the flexibility of control: the player can position him over a single foe at a time, slowing it down as it cowers from his light. This allows you to make tactical decisions constantly, changing a turn-based game into something much more directly involved.
Many of the best systems in videogames are very simple but allow for great depth, and Child of Light accomplishes this by providing lots of tools that can be used to manipulate the timeline. The items that are hidden throughout the world are gems that confer attributes when equipped. Some of these are standard RPG fare such as fire, water, and lightning offensive and defensive affinities, increased damage resistance or attack power, and bonuses to hit points and magic points, but the most useful—and interesting—gems affect the timeline. Tourmaline grants attacks the possibility of paralyzing their targets, citrine yields a chance to set enemies back on the timeline, and spinel causes characters to begin every turn with a bump forward. A crafting system allows the player to improve or transmute these gems as strategy requires. The final piece of the puzzle is the characters' skills, which are quite varied. In addition to the expected haste and slow effects, there are skills that set enemies back on the timeline, jump allies forward for a set number of turns, paralyze enemies for a given duration, and prevent interruption altogether during the cast phase. Enemies provide their own interesting wrinkles, though; particularly later in the game, many will counter your interruptions with their own buffs, requiring you to alter your tactics and show restraint even when you have the opportunity to prevent them from acting.
Dominating a group of dangerous enemies by carefully controlling the timeline is quite satisfying. However, Child of Light, being a role-playing game, cannot be won through skill alone. If you play on Expert difficulty—and you should, as Casual is too easy to allow you to experience the depth that its systems have to offer—you need to make thoughtful use of the gems that you find and craft while exploring, your different characters' skills, and your real-time ability to selectively slow enemies; but you also need the numbers to back all of that up. If your characters don't progress at a sufficient rate during their adventure, no amount of tactical mastery will make up for their statistical shortcomings.
That's where the game's main design flaw comes into play. To be fair, it's not entirely Child of Light's fault; this is a problem inherited from the long tradition of Japanese role-playing games. While placing enemies within the game world for the player to avoid or engage at will happily eschews the standard exasperation of constant random battles, it represents a hypocrisy of intent since, while battles are made to appear optional, they really just aren't. Taking advantage of this opportunity to avoid combat gradually puts players at an increasing disadvantage; those who are careful to circumvent what enemies they can will find their characters underpowered when they are forced to fight. The ability to bypass battles sounds great on paper, but its implementation requires a more thoughtful approach for making it challenging to do so and for rewarding successful evasion with character progression to substitute for the experience that would have been gained through those battles. For the player, the workaround is simple: make sure to fight enemies regularly throughout the game, even though you don't have to. It's unfortunate and disingenuous for a game to indirectly force us to regulate our behavior like this, consciously preventing ourselves from taking advantage of an ostensibly viable gameplay option, but the problem does disappear in practice once one reconciles promise with reality.
As you're likely to have noticed already, Child of Light is remarkably composed of watercolor art in motion. It's gorgeous from the start and straight through for the entire 20 or so hours it lasts. The score by Cœur de pirate, the stage name of musician and composer Béatrice Martin, infuses the game with the most pervasive melancholy, albeit one occasionally relieved by notes of triumph. This music might actually be the strongest aspect of the entire game: it thoroughly characterizes the experience and often seems more profound than the fairy tale narrative warrants.
The fundamental plot is clichéd, all evil stepmothers and light in the dark, but it is rescued in the telling due to the novelty of its rhymed verse. Some may find it precious or cloying, but it charmed me. While the writing can certainly come across as forced at times, it always arrives in bite-sized chunks, so no fault is ever severe. There are plenty of dialogue exchanges that made me laugh or feel affection for the characters, and Child of Light plays with form by intentionally deviating from its rhyme in a couple of key moments. Unfortunately, despite presenting a well-paced journey overall, the final moments of the game are rushed and sadly don't provide as satisfying a conclusion as they should.
Although my opinion of Child of Light may sound measured in some respects, this is the result of taking a step back from the game to think about it critically; the truth is that I delighted in my time playing it. Both established fans of RPGs and those curious enough to try a streamlined gateway into the genre should consider it highly recommended.
This review can also be viewed and rated on Steam.