When Child of Light commences, the player is told the tale of its young hero via stained glass and watercolors. Daughter of an Austrian king in the late 1800s, Aurora is stricken with a mysterious wasting illness and passes away. She, however, wakes up in Lemuria, a fantastical world that’s home to a magic mirror which might allow her to get back to reality, and to her father’s side, before he too suffers the same fate. Eventually, the lilting narration stops and you’re left at a stone altar with a red-haired waif, and because there’s no delineation between the opening cutscene and the gameplay, the game gives the impression of painting brought to life and placed delicately into the player’s hands.
Child of Light was developed using the UbiArt framework development platform, the same engine that powers Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. That series’s pedigree can be seen in this game’s background art, effects, even a couple of minor gameplay touches, such as the power-up collection, which isn’t different than collecting Lums, and Aurora’s ability to fly, an exhilarating repurpose of the mechanics used for Rayman’s underwater levels. But the actual aesthetic has grander, more awe-inspiring ambitions. Fairly simple, archetypical fantasy designs are married with a gentle, dream-world fluidity of motion, and a quirkiness that’s pretty much all its own, all bolstered with the power of the PS4, running it at 60fps. The end result is a painterly world somewhere between Yoshitaka Amano’s old-school Final Fantasy art and a more fantastical Studio Ghibli film. It’s a place that invites player to slow down, explore, see more of the vast, detailed tableau UbiSoft Montreal has created here, instead of running circles in it to level grind.
To be fair, the game doesn’t offer the kind of challenges where grinding feels necessary. The overworld is a simple 2D sidescrolling experience, which becomes entirely free-form once Aurora gains the ability to fly. Combat is handled with a pretty basic set of turn-based RPG rules, with an Active Time Battle twist: Your living firefly companion (who can actually be controlled via a second player) can flit around during battle, either helping to heal allies between turns, or blind your enemies, slowing down when they get to take their turn. You gain perks on a grid, Final Fantasy-style, each time you level up, and there’s some basic item crafting in the form of crystals which grant rewards depending on how they’re equipped.
For newbies to the genre, especially since the game will definitely find its way into very young hands, it’s challenging enough to make the player think about each move. The consequences for mistakes are just enough to encourage trial and error, but not demoralize. For veterans, there’s a good chance of getting through the game without ever seeing a Game Over screen. The game is only about eight-to-10 hours total, meaning that for long stretches, chances are you’re leveling up almost every fight. You never quite get to a point where you’re just plowing through enemies, but if you’re paying enough attention, chances of failure are slim. None of this makes it a bad RPG so much as an RPG with its priorities straight. That priority is in letting the player inhabit Aurora through her living, breathing storybook, complete with dialogue told in loose, playful rhyming.
Someone will likely prove this statement wrong, but there hasn’t been a game that’s run this far with the storybook conceit, and if there is, it’s a near-certainty it wasn’t executed with this much beauty, heart, and care. Somewhere in the world, Child of Light just became someone’s favorite fairy tale, and it’s okay to feel the jealous ache for that person if they still have their childhood ahead of them.