Child of Light is another one of those games that is hard to categorize. It’s a game marketed as an indie game but clearly developed by a major developer, Ubisoft, which can be fairly misleading for players if they don’t pay attention. This usually means that Child of Light gets graded on an easier scale because of the “indie” aspect in mind and while I don’t believe it should, I still think that the game is exceptionally done for what it is.
It’s essentially a basic platfomer with classic JRPG combat using elements to try and make the battle system more active than simply being “turn-based”, a clearly defined art-style that captures a whimsy of 80-90s European ‘Storybook’ Animation, a soundscape that’s as euphoric and resounds with the environment as Ni no Kuni (PS3) and one of the only other games in the past few years that made me enjoy an older style JRPG (the other actually being Ni no Kuni). If you’ve read any other articles of me criticizing The Final Fantasy franchise, the reigning poster child of what’s right and wrong with JRPGs, you’d know that I’m not entirely too happy with the current direction of the franchise so it’s great to see another game that can get me to be excited about an RPG that is of a slower pace like older Final Fantasies.
There are only a few issues with the game, but every other reviewer seems to be spouting the same thing, so I’ll keep it brief. The first is the story and characters are pretty one dimensional, meaning extremely cliché and easy to predict, so they become uninteresting fairly quickly.
The second is the dialogue, which is written in a rhyming scheme. While admirable to attempt it only works for a few choice sections of the game, mainly the intro and important story scenes, but trips over itself constantly which leaves it feeling forced for the majority of the attempts. The rhyming dialogue doesn’t detract from the game entirely, but at worst it makes you cringe for a bit and on average makes you roll your eyes with the thought of forced-“dad joke” in mind.
Surprisingly enough, they followed a delivery style similar to older Final Fantasy games which I talked about in my Dialogue Delivery – Shortened Dialogue article. It was surprising to see because it left the shortened dialogue feeling well written and as succinct as needed to get the character’s motives and personalities across, but also fell into the pitfalls that I mentioned regarding not enough dialogue to make characters feel diverse. Hence the one-dimensional aspect.
What’s interesting to me isn’t the fact that Child of Light is a good game with mechanics that are different from its contemporaries, but that a AAA development/publishing company like Ubisoft would have taken the risk with a genre that traditionally does not have strong new IP performance. But I think this speaks more to the use of the “Indie” scene that players have been expecting for some time. We see new titles come up with interesting mechanics and small problem spaces for these mechanics to be tested and toyed with for every variant in their game engine. Braid had you solving puzzles while controlling different aspects of time, from controlling global time while you move freely, to time moving when you’re moving, to only some objects move freely constantly while controlling time. Super Meat Boy had hellish obstacles and propulsion systems that caused the player to intermingle reaction, speed and planning in order to navigate through its increasingly frustrating game spaces. Braid, Bastion, BroForce, Super Hexagon, VVVVVV, The Stanley Parable. Each of these games find a mechanic that they believe is interesting and they design problem spaces that are solvable with the mechanic being explored, and try to bring new gameplay mechanics into the gaming discourse as a new tool in the developers toolbox for gameplay ideas. But what’s interesting is that they are generally developed by small teams within the independent community.
It is a definite risk for AAA development studios to test out new mechanics, new storytelling, or new characters especially when it takes 18-24 months and a few million dollars, but the “Indie” space is more forgiving in that it does not require as much polish, duration, or a larger design team to get the project done. This just means that you’ll be seeing a much small price-tag on your game. But maybe the AAA developers can start using the “Indie” space in order to develop new mechanics, new IPs, new means of storytelling because there is less risk involved and generates a more forgiving space to try things out. The problem now is that the term Indie-game no longer makes sense. We label independent games the same way that we label independent businesses, privately owned with regional branding and doesn’t have more than a few outlets (i.e. small teams, doesn’t have global reach and does not have a high volume of output). But if we start seeing independent games have the resources, experience, and polish from AAA studios then I think we should abandon this labeling. The label should be a signifier for what kind of game we’re about to play. RPG, Platformer, Shooter, Music Game. These labels help describe the kind of game we’re going to play. Independent Puzzle-Platformer paints the picture of a puzzle platformer that can be rough around the edges, but doesn’t necessarily qualify anything else. Experimental Puzzle-Platformer on the other-hand paints a different picture, that there might be something interesting in the mechanics that sets itself apart from just another puzzle-platforming game.
Child of Light is not independent RPG, but an experimental RPG. It experiments with its time-manipulated turn-based combat, its rhyme-on-time writing style, its Ghibli/Amano storybook visuals and I’m all the more excited because of it. I’m excited because I hope to see more big-name developers and development studios trying new things on a less risky market instead of relying on old IPs that they’ve created in the past.