Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Game Review - Child of Light (XBLA, 2014)

About a month ago, a friend and I lamented the fact that there haven't been any good turn-based RPGs recently.  It's an old school style of gameplay that has fallen out of favor in the last decade, sure, but I still enjoy those strategic battles from time to time.

Child of Light's arrival last week filled that hole in my gaming heart.  While not strictly speaking turn-based, Child of Light is a fabulous game that does a lot of things right.

The game's biggest success is its overall aesthetic - Child of Light is stunning from the moment you boot it up.  It features a whimsical world with characters and monsters straight out of classic fairy tales.  The graphics are incredible; smooth animation plus gorgeously detailed (and dynamic!) backgrounds do a fantastic job setting the stage, and each of the game's areas is as lovely as the last.

Child of Light is very possibly the most beautiful game I've ever played.

The sound quality is similarly high.  The major melodies throughout the game are haunting, effectively combining the fantasy tone with the tragedy and despair prominent in the plot (more on that shortly).  There are spurts of narration with voice acting, which are also well done, but they're brief enough to be forgettable.  Even so, there's not a blemish in the game's overall presentation.

Thankfully, the rest of the game makes pretty good use of this fantastic foundation.

The story revolves around a young Austrian princess, Aurora, whose death sends her father into a spiral of depression in traditional fairy tale fashion.  Her death is just a ruse, however, as she was actually transported to Lemuria, a mystical world populated by a variety of unusual creatures.

Aurora soon learns of Lemuria's plight: the Queen of the Night has stolen the sun, the moon, and the stars, leaving the entire world in eternal darkness.  Helping the people of Lemuria is Aurora's only chance to return home, so she embark on a quest to find and defeat the Queen of the Night.

As you can likely tell, the plot is as influenced by classic coming-of-age fairy tales as the overall aesthetic.  It's a little shallow when compared to its inspiration, as the sources of evil are pretty poorly developed, and it could stand to shake up the genre a little more (the characters are almost exclusively one-dimensional), but it's an enjoyable narrative nonetheless.

The best part of the story, however, is that the script is written entirely in rhyming verse.  It's essentially an epic poem, and while it is occasionally very forced (as rhymes can be), it's quite impressive.  This rhyming structure is even used as comedic relief at times.

When all is said and done, Child of Light presents a unique and enjoyable world to explore.

To top it off, the gameplay is a sleek meld of 2D exploration (think Metroidvania, though much more linear) and turn-based RPG combat.

The overworld exploration is full of goodies to uncover with excellent movement controls to boot.  Colliding with an enemy in the world will enter combat, which I'd say is the most compelling part of the game.

The basics are pretty standard fare: Battles use an active battle system, where each character progresses along an action gauge.  The rate at which the gauge fills is determined by a character's speed statistic, but the action pauses every time you need to issue a command.

However, there are two features that keep these battles interesting.  First, after selecting which action a character will perform, there is a brief "casting" period.  The duration of casting varies from ability to ability, but the important bit is that any time an enemy lands an attack against a character while they're casting, they will be interrupted and push them back down the action gauge.  Enemies can also be interrupted, so fights become more an issue of managing interruptions than choosing the most powerful attacks.  It's a cool system, making combat more tactical, and it's implemented pretty darned well.

Second, you're able to influence battles by moving what amounts to a cursor between the participants.  If you highlight a friendly character, you can heal them; if you choose an enemy instead, you can slow their progress on the action gauge.  Either action depletes some energy (which can also be used outside battle to heal your party), leading to an active component of these otherwise turn-based battles.

These ideas (plus a few other, less notable but also important features) are integrated almost seamlessly, giving a surprisingly fulfilling combat system.

Early on, these fights can get a little tedious, but there was a point within the first few hours where I noticed a big jump in difficulty.  After that, nearly every battle was a challenge, which was refreshing, as many RPGs these days are full of filler content.  To be fair, I played through the game on the "Hard" difficulty setting, so maybe the lower difficult setting isn't as exciting.  I was pretty satisfied with it overall.

Though I've been praising Child of Light throughout this review, it's worth noting that there are some frustrating flaws.

The most obvious is that the game is relatively short.  Once I completed the story and all the game's achievements, I had spent less than 15 hours on it, which includes a fair amount of experience grinding to deal with a couple of the bosses.  There was a ton of potential for a longer adventure, and while I'm happy they didn't drag it out with monotonous quests, I would have liked to have seen more content, especially in terms of side quests (as there are only a few minor side quests).

Another big complaint deals with the skill system - each playable character has a pretty large, seemingly complicated skill tree, though each reduces to three linear branches.  Basically, it looks like there's a lot more strategy involved in skill development than there actually is.

So it's not perfect, but those are relatively minor criticisms.  All things considered, Child of Light is an incredibly charming and entertaining game.  It's a beautiful game that's definitely worth your time.

My Rating: 9/10 - awesome.

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