I wish I liked Child of Light more than I do. On the surface it has a lot going for it - beautiful visuals, a wonderful soundtrack and a fun (though pretty basic) combat system - but in the end this isn’t enough. Child of Light is a lot of fun when you are fighting (and wonderful to look at), but everything outside of this kind of falls flat. The writing is irritating - the narrative clichéd and uninteresting - and the game doesn’t have enough compelling content to cover the eight hours or so it takes to play through it.
Child of Light does have its strong points. Though the beautiful watercolour visuals are the first thing you will notice, the real appeal of Child of Light is the combat. It plays like a turn based JRPG, with Final Fantasy style active combat and Grandia inspired interrupts. For the uninitiated this means your party and enemies take it in turns to attack, each character’s turn determined by a time bar displayed in the battle. The bar is split into wait and cast, every character has an icon which moves across it at varying speeds, and when you reach the divide between the two points you get to select an action. At this point time stops, meaning it’s not about fiddling through menus as fast as possible. This added time allows you to make smart decisions and take advantage of the combat system, while the active time around this adds a great sense of urgency.
By itself, this is a fun turn based system. There isn’t a huge variety of skills (and not many particularly interesting ones), but the abilities at your disposal take advantage of this system well enough. Slowing enemies down at the right point so that you can get attacks in before them, or quickening yourself to act faster, is enjoyable throughout - for example. Another fun feature is a little companion (on top of your two party members) who you can move around with the right stick or touchpad. He’s a flame called Igniculus and you can use him to slow enemies and collect orbs throughout battle (which pop up from time to time to slightly restore mana, health and energy). He has an energy gauge and you can press L2 over enemies to slow them, which is one of the most interesting and involving parts of fighting.
The real appeal of the combat though is the interrupt mechanic. If something is attacked during its cast period then they it is interrupted, thrown back on the timeline and not allowed to perform its chosen action. This is a great addition to combat and all of this adds up to make a really neat battle system. Fighting enemies in Child of Light is fun, but it is rather simple. This system isn’t built upon particularly and the game finds it difficult to make it compelling throughout. Later encounters become a bit of a chore, partly because the game’s design is so geared around simplicity. It doesn’t ever require you to really engage with it; it’s never challenging enough to incentivise really smart play and it’s far too tempting to coast by. When you properly engage with combat it’s a lot of fun, but there’s so much of it – and so much that doesn’t necessitate smart play – that coasting through becomes far too tempting. It isn’t quite as complex as it needs to be and the game doesn’t motivate you to play tactically or attentively.
This problem with simplicity runs rather deep, Child of Light is a very basic JRPG and that does get problematic. It has a sprinkling of RPG mechanics - levelling, skill trees, an inventory, crafting, etc –but none of these are particularly fully featured. The skill trees give useful skills that fit the combat, but nothing overtly interesting or that varied. Things are very similar and basic, making battling fairing standard at all times. Levelling up is also rather weird. Though you can only ever fight with two people at one time you do amass a large group of companions. This, combined with the relative large amounts of experience points you consistently get, means that after almost every battle at least one party member has levelled up. This starts to get a bit ridiculous and makes advancement meaningless. There is some benefit to streamlining an RPG so as to take out the need for grinding, but it does take out the satisfaction of a level up. You don’t notice the difference progression makes and it all seems rather pointless, just there for the sake of it.
This holds true of a number of mechanics, you have an inventory but it’s mostly trivial things. Potions that you rarely need to use make up the bulk of it, then there are craftable gems and items that boost stats. None of these are particularly interesting and the mechanics related to each are pretty surface level. The crafting system is neat, but you get so many materials that it becomes busy work to keep on top of it. Also, like with the combat, you never need to take advantage of it. If you have decent gems equipped you will have some cool bonuses, but that’s never required and not doing it means less time in menus.
Outside of all this is where the real issues lie though. Level design is very uninspired, though visually interesting, and getting around the world is never hugely entertaining. Early on you get the ability to fly and after that movement is not an issue, levels are set up like 2D platforming stages but there’s no challenge. Laziness may cause you to hit obstacles, but there’s no punishment and the game gives you tools to bypass most hazards completely - making the whole process incredibly unexciting. Outside of combat, it just isn’t that fun. There is some very light puzzle solving (mostly involving lights) every now and then, but none of these puzzles are good. They are incredible simple and not satisfying, serving as roadblocks to progression rather than meaningful segments. Exploration is fun in terms of visual variety, but the act itself carries no value. There are items to find and chests to open, but there’s never anything hugely useful to collect or find.
Child of Light is also very heavy on story. The problem is that the story is bad, it’s hugely predictable and completely generic. The writing is also very annoying. The game is written wholly in rhyme, this is cute to start off but the end result is what you get from bad rap music. It's just forced rhymes and bad writing that is only there to accommodate rhyming words. It’s always lines that don’t make as much sense as they should, everything feels forced and it’s hard to get invested with anything that’s going on. Rhyming throughout the entire game isn’t clever, it’s just constricting, meaning that you can’t say as much as you should be able to and perhaps need to. This creative choice holds the game's writing back, and isn’t helped by an incredibly standard (and trope ridden) tale of a girl's journey through a magical kingdom. You meet a varied bunch of characters, but they are only really useful and likeable in terms of their fighting abilities. I liked a character called Finn because he was my mage (and super useful), I didn’t like him as a character. As characters, the cast are all standard and forgettable.
There is a really endearing game here somewhere, but it’s overwhelmed by simplicity and annoying storytelling. If you want to play a nice simple JRPG, pick up Costume Quest. It has more inherent variety and it doesn’t outstay its welcome like Child of Light does (it’s also far more charming). There are things in Child of Light that I learnt to like, only having two party members in a battle felt needlessly restricting, but being able to switch between them all on the fly is a cool feature that added to the overall experience nicely. However for everything thing like this there was something else that just annoyed me - like no enemy life bars. Having no life bars over enemies is reminiscent of early Final Fantasy games and classic JRPGS, but reminiscent of an annoying part of them that we have progressed past. In the end, there’s a very fun core to Child of Light, the basic combat is a lot of fun, it just needs a bit more to it and some progression to the systems. Child of Light is ultimately a good game, but it could have been a lot better.