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GAME REVIEW: ‘Child of Light' is a soaring tale of childhood

There is beauty in a certain type of sadness – the loneliness born of a longing to return to the innocence of youth; to be reunited not only with lost loved ones, but with the child within ourselves. For that is the nature of existence; we are born, we grow, and in the process lose pieces of ourselves to time and the hardships of life. But it is also in loss that we learn, and eventually find our way again.
Few games have sought to explore, let alone express the quiet melancholy that presides over one of life’s most pivotal transformations. But this is exactly what “Child of Light”, a side-scrolling RPG from “Assassin’s Creed” developer Ubisoft Montreal, accomplishes. “Child of Light” embodies this most intimate and delicate of sorrows, painting it with broad strokes upon a canvas as wide as the imagination, speaking to us through watercolor worlds as ephemeral as a dream.
Waking up
“Child of Light” is a fairytale, the kind told during those slow, foggy moments just before slumber. Which is fitting, given that the story begins with a child falling asleep.
Aurora, an Austrian princess, wakes to find herself alone in a strange, secluded forest. Yet this hauntingly beautiful realm – with its wispy tendrils of color, and gentle brushstrokes upon patches of painted moonlight – is not without peril. Dark creatures lurk in the shadows, while in the sky looms the visage of a great evil, eyes glinting with malice as they watch Aurora’s every step.
What is a little girl to do, whose only desire is to return home to the loving embrace of her father?
But Aurora’s destiny is not to perish within these veiled woods. She soon meets and befriends the firefly Igniculus, who lights her way. And as a mysterious voice leads her from despair to hope, she learns of the malignant forces that have assailed these lands.
The Dark Queen, Umbra, has stolen away the sun, moon, and stars from the enchanted world of Lemuria. And the only way for Aurora to be reunited with her father is to bring them back.
A painted dream of childhood
What distinguishes “Child of Light” from the often derivative landscapes of whimsical fantasy is its ability to convey the subtle aches of growing up. This it does via mesmerizing visuals lavish with somber, earthy tones, and dapples of subdued shades and hues. Indeed, any scene in “Child of Light” – whether it be of a lonesome glade or weather-beaten cliffs overlooking a grand vista – is akin to a watercolor masterpiece in an art gallery.
Character designs elicit a classic charm. Robert, an anthropomorphic mouse who becomes Aurora’s ally, seems to jump straight out of the Beatrix Potter books. Aurora herself emanates both fragility and feistiness, and an awareness of her surroundings that belies her tender years.
What the visuals accomplish with the paintbrush, the soundtrack achieves with the crystalline tinkling of the piano, and the sweeping, plaintive cries of strings. When Aurora treads treacherous grounds, the choir booms with the gravity of the danger surrounding her. It’s a wonderfully memorable score, effortlessly communicating the story’s physical and emotional scale.
“Child of Light” may be a fairytale, but it is far from childish. Lemuria is a realm paved with darkness. Despite the countless joys found in its gorgeous locales and colorful folk, there is suffering, death, and war peeking furtively from the corners of its history. Aurora’s desperate quest paints a meaningful and emotive picture – one that parallels the pain of being torn from those things that once made you feel safe and warm.
Journeying through Lemuria
Lemuria opens itself up fairy early in the game, when Aurora is bestowed the power of flight. Exploration is no mere matter of running across screens or jumping on and off ledges – there are also palaces upon soaring heights to be discovered, and cavernous depths to plumb.
But there are dangers to flying in Lemuria. Spikes eject from the ground to impale Aurora. Lava streams spew globs of fire to burn her gossamer wings. Strong winds prevent her from accessing otherwise open routes, forcing you to seek alternate paths to her destination.
Lemuria is also replete with environmental puzzles to solve. Some entail pushing blocks or playing with levers, while others require Igniculus to interact with objects or manipulate shadows. Such challenges are rarely difficult, but they are always entertaining, not to mention rewarding. Fat coffers lie at the end of such obstacles, promising a wealth of powerful items to help Aurora on her journey.
And of course, Umbra’s dark intentions have spawned all manner of fell beasts throughout Lemuria. Thankfully, Aurora doesn’t have to face these horrors alone.
The strength of friends
Aside from Igniculus, others will join Aurora’s cause, each with their own class idiosyncrasies. There’s Rubella, an acrobatic healer who is also a terrible lyricist; lovelorn and commerce-obsessed archer, Robert; and more. These friends offer side quests, and assist you in the simple yet immensely satisfying combat system.
Enemies freely roam the lands of Lemuria; you can give them a wide berth if you aren’t hankering for a fight. Ambushing them from behind allows you to execute the initial battery of attacks as soon as the battle commences. But if they spot and touch you first, they are awarded this opportunity instead.
Combat, which is turn-based with elements of real-time thrown in, transports you to a JRPG-inspired battle screen. At the bottom of the screen, icons representing friends and foes slide along a timeline. When a character reaches the “cast” portion of the timeline, they are permitted to perform an action, such as attack or defend. If, during this phase, that character is injured by the opposing team, their action is canceled and they are pushed back along the bar.
Combat therefore evolves beyond knowing the right spells to cast, and when to switch a character out for another. The tactical timing element will keep you on your toes as you decide among which enemies to interrupt, and when one of your characters should sacrifice a turn so another can implement a more effective maneuver later.
Igniculus has a role in these battles, too. By shining brightly over and blinding an enemy, he can slow its timeline movement to a crawl. He can also harvest luminous flora for colorful globules that restore your heroes’ health and magic, and recharge his energy meter so he can continue harassing enemies.
Growing up
Battles give you experience, which improve party members’ basic attributes; and skill points, which are spent to purchase new attacks, spells, and other character-specific upgrades.
Other rewards include crafting stones called oculi. Attaching oculi to a character will endow them with status bonuses, such as enhanced timeline speed or increased elemental defense. Oculi can be combined to create more potent effects, paving way for complex character customization.
What the game lacks is a gear acquisition system. Characters are stuck with whatever starting weapons and armor they come with. Though there are villages to visit and people to talk to, there are no vendors or inns to spend money at. In fact, there is no in-game currency at all. This is missed potential, given that the inclusion of simple commerce in a game can add to its depth and replay value.
Above the clouds
“Child of Light” is as rare as a polished gem.
Sure, the rhyming doesn’t always work, sometimes even preventing us from fully relating to the characters. And the game could have used item trading options for further party modifications.
But for $15 dollars, 12 to 15 hours of this downloadable, side-scrolling RPG is worth more than other games twice its length and price, thanks to its excellent combat, stunning world, and fascinating characters. Its exquisite, handcrafted aesthetic; glorious, orchestrated soundtrack; and a moving story both familiar and deeply personal, all evoke the fleeting joys of youth, and the pain of losing what it means to be a child.
And as we watch Aurora grow from a helpless, frightened girl to a bold and confident young heroine, we are reminded of our own journeys through life, and how, in every one of us, there is a child of light just waiting to soar above the clouds. — TJD, GMA News