Review: Child of Light

I’m about two years late to the Child of Light party, but now that I’m here, I do want to talk about it. I had multiple recommendations to play it, due to my dabbling interests in poetry and it being one of the few games I know of that employs the use of poetry in any relatively meaningful way. I was really ready to like it, and I did, but I left the game with an odd mixture of admiration and disappointment.

If you’re any kind of RPG platformer fan with a love of fairy tales, Child of Light is a gorgeous breath of fresh air from the usual platformer. It takes most of its cues from children’s storybooks, with a watercolour paint aesthetic of cartoonish, stylised line work and gentle palettes punctuated by bright primary colours. Every time there is ‘darkness’ on the screen, it is offset somewhere by light, creating a visual reminder that this is the kind of story where the hero will always rise again.

The dialogue is delightful, too. It allows itself to be a little more free form than typical nursery-book rhyming schemes tend to be, having a pleasing ebb and flow that is both formal and mimics the relaxed ease of colloquial speech. It is not advanced literature, but it is charming, quirky and full of love, which makes the dialogue absolutely perfect for its aesthetic.

But in some ways, I found the child-friendly, storybook approach to be rather dissonant from the RPG system, to which it stays fairly true. It tells the story as if to a child, and yet the average play time of 12 hours is hardly a casual amount of time to spend on a game. That hardly stops any children from enjoying long games, obviously, but I did expect the difficulty settings to reflect potential different needs of engagement. I know parents who are quite deliberate about how much time children are allowed to play games, due to kids needing a fairly balanced lifestyle, and the attention span to keep coming back to a game to finish it is not a universal one. I played on ‘easy’ so that I could jump in and out, get the narrative experience without getting too sucked in by game play, but it took me 14 hours to finally get the full story, mostly due to the amount of time it took to get through combat, and getting through the end was not a matter of feeling invested in the game, but battling through boredom with the sheer desire to finish it for completeness’ sake.

As someone interested in poetry for its brevity and tightness as well as its other techniques, the time necessary for combat created a different literature experience than the one I was really interested in. Game lengths continue to be something which divides the medium from traditional literature in a way which often means games are looked down on, so even though I know games should also be taken on their own terms, it can be frustrating to see this crop up again and again, especially in games which aim to be understood as a work of art. Assessing that, whether it’s a problem of the game’s or simply a matter of myself not being the right audience for it, I’m drawn back to examining the reasons why people blend different artistic mediums together.

Case one is to bring “idea two” to the realms of “idea one”. In this instance, bringing storybook, saga styled poetry into games, for the purpose of enriching a game. Case two would be to enrich the mediums of poetry and games by using techniques from both to create something that could be appreciated from the perspective of either medium without regular involvement in the other. Case three would be to bring games into poetry and children’s books, to appeal to the usual audiences of that and get them to expand their previous ideas about language and engagement with interactivity. Though I was most interested in case number two, Child of Light sits very squarely in the camp of case one, which means that as an artwork it’s heavily reliant on its own medium for enjoyment. It often feels far too distracted by its own loyalty to the established status quo of games to be as universally appealing as it could have been. Its story arc is staid, a simple hero’s journey, something which may suit the genre of children’s stories but does mean that I wouldn’t make the recommendation of playing it to an adult unless they had an established interest in RPGs and patience with shallow narratives, and thanks to its long length I wouldn’t recommend it to that many children, either. The soundtrack is pretty, but suffers from the long game length, making the sensory experience a repetitive one that I was glad to leave behind by the end.

For RPG lovers and people interested in getting their “money’s worth” out of an indie game, I’m sure the length added to the game’s level of enjoyment. Even on easy, one required good technique to get the most out of the battle experience. The turn-based system created a classic feel while the recharge time between each move, with all the enemy and ally speeds displayed on a single UI bar, added to the atmosphere of danger and urgency. There’s something I love about a game with themes of childhood using a turn based system. Regardless of its interruptions and nuances, that basic mechanic reminds me a lot of the way I played as a child, and the rule sets we invented during play to make sure things were fair and didn’t start any fights or tantrums. Although you gain many companions throughout the game, only allowing two on the screen at any time meant that you always appear ‘outnumbered’ by the dark monsters that plague the world (minus your firefly companion, but as he’s the size of a pea onscreen, he’s easy to discount). It wasn’t the most satisfying way to manage a huge host of extra characters, but it was a cute visual representation of conflict and positioning the protagonist and her friends as the underdogs of the story, battling against the odds.

The pacing and sense of scope to the story suffers greatly from the use of the flying mechanic, however. When I first gained the ability to fly, I thought I’d reached the halfway or even three-quarters mark to the story; it gives you such a newfound sense of freedom and magic, it inspires the kinds of feelings that one might imagine feeling as a hero finally growing into her own power and becoming ready for the final challenge. Unfortunately, it simply marked the ending of the second chapter. By the time you do reach the third-quarter mark, the flying mechanic is as normal as walking, and the symbolic representation of your hero growing into her power—by literally growing past puberty—has no meaningful impact on the game play. This creates a dissonance between the narrative and the mechanic’s ideas of power. The experience system goes to great lengths to make sure that power is not meaningless in the game, but it definitely lacks a lot of the substance that it could have by using mechanical feedback loops to match the character’s growth. The sense of freedom you gain in flying is also quickly curtailed by the level design, and remains a two-dimensional and sometimes claustrophobic experience once the initial novelty wears off. The environments are still gorgeous to navigate, and thanks to certain puzzle designs the flying is an absolutely necessary tool to progress with, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a lost opportunity for the overall design.

It is a beautiful game, but it’s definitely not as friendly to newcomers as I was hoping a story about a little girl would be. That is kind of satisfying on one level of representation; I still know many female RPG fans for whom this still tickles their fancy enough to get into, and if my little sister ever wants to play more games when she’s a few years older, I may direct her attention to this one. The inability to skip battles or at least cut down on their length is still an accessibility issue though, one that could have been easily circumvented had it thought to include a narrative-focused mode, but since that isn’t a staple of the RPG genre, it’s not available here. This limitation puts Child of Light back into an awkward genre niche that I really wish it had grown beyond; so while its quality artwork and blending of ideas could have made it groundbreaking, and may make it a nice experience, I don’t think it will ever be a classic.

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