In a turn of events that’s pretty rare these days, I actually finished a video game
two weeks ago relatively recently. The game in question is Child of
Light, an independent RPG developed by Ubisoft Montreal in 2014. I quite
enjoyed it, but for all the parts I liked, there were some I was indifferent
towards, and some that outright frustrated me. Polarizing experiences such as
these are always more interesting to write about. So much so, that this article
had to be split into multiple parts! Next week is going to be about the game’s
writing. The article after that will tackle the game’s combat. As for right now?
Everything else. But specifically, we’re going to start with...
Before I talk about the actual game itself, there's something that needs addressing. Child of Light is by a team at Ubisoft Montreal. I have no doubt that the team themselves are wonderful people who donate to charity and rescue buses full of drowning orphans on a daily basis. Unfortunately, their company affiliation means the game is tied to Uplay. This is like stapling partially decomposed roadkill to a cut of filet mignon. And the roadkill tries to sell you things.
Over a decade ago, Valve decided that digital games were the wave of the future, and they formed Steam. It had plenty of issues, some of which have been ironed out over time and some of which have not. But issues aside, it turned there were a ton of advantages to digital games like convenience, lower production costs and easier impulse buying. These quickly made the service rich. Only several years ago did game companies start fumbling into their own digital storefronts to compete with Steam. They were universally worse than their long-running counterpart, and are basically kept on life support by holding good games hostage. I can't think of a clear parallel to this before digital sales. Aladdin didn't require viewing through the official Disney Video Player. Lord of the Rings wasn't printed on parchment only visible to Barnes and Noble customers. This exclusivity is one of the most frustrating things about digital stores.
Of course, there are a number of OTHER reasons why people hate non-Steam digital storefronts. The first and most obvious being: They already have Steam. To buy games from a different digital store, you have to create a different login and keep juggling it on the side. The whole thing would be easier on you if they just put the game on Steam in the first place. Therefore, it was on the shoulders of these new digital stores to provide incentive to put in extra effort for them. Instead of doing that, they proceeded to be worse than Steam in every measurable way. They had sketchy and unsettling license agreements. They had less frequent and less drastic sales. And of course, they had a tiny tiny fraction of the games library and users that Steam already had.
Though their pace is downright glacial, some of these stores are graduating from "an active and horrible nuisance" to "a passable experience assuming nothing goes wrong". For example, EA’s Origin store started offering game refunds before anyone else and...I can’t actually think of another positive example of a non-Steam storefront. But they probably exist! Uplay has none of them, however. This brings us to Child of Light. I purchased Child of Light on Steam. What the Steam version didn’t mention is that it ALSO required Uplay, which I had to install entirely for it. Every time the game launches I also have to launch Uplay. For the purposes of research, I checked Uplay to see if it could offer me anything of value in exchange for its parasitic existence. I found a hollow husk of a storefront emptier and more depressing than my social calendar.
This is the entirety of the Uplay main page. I don’t even know how to access the store, I think they offloaded it to another site. This would be sad if it weren’t so pointless and terrible.
Basically, something pretending to be a service offers nothing of value to the consumer while making their existing experience less pleasant. It’s like if a clown spent his work day wandering the amusement park stealing lollipops from children. Maybe that’s not the best example, because by default clowns have slightly less fans than colon cancer, but...actually wait, that’s the perfect example. Screw Uplay. Now let’s get to the game already.
I've never claimed to be an expert in the field of visual arts. Until several years ago when I started dipping my toes in it, I'd say I was the last person to ask about it. But you don't get better at anything, whether it be art or criticism, by avoiding it. So I'm going to attempt to explain in more granularity than normal why the visuals in Child of Light are fantastic. Because make no mistake, this is an intensely gorgeous game from start to finish. Even if my comments will seem basic to anyone with half an art background, it deserves the extra analysis.
The world of Child of Light is a fantasy fairy tale, and the visuals aptly express both the whimsy of the latter and the, well, fantastic of the former. The whole game is like stepping inside a elegantly and patiently crafted watercolor painting. There is a ridiculous array of colors on display here, and yet used in very defined context. They don't just unload a rainbow dump truck onto the canvas or pump up the saturation. Each individual area has a more limited range of colors to convey specific mood, and the colors they choose blend together magnificently in a way I lack the specific vocabulary to describe.
Look at this magnificent god damn title screen. The ENTIRE GAME looks like that! You even start the game in the same spot.
The game also features an extremely varied selection of environments for an indie game. There are frightening forests, serene skies, parched plains, crumbling cathedrals, stormy seas, combustible caverns and more. Over the course of the game you're sure to see every color of the rainbow and many in between. But because the palettes are carefully constrained to defined areas it never feels overwhelming or distracting. The areas are all thematically clear and pleasingly composed. Sure some of them seem a bit stereotypical for a fantasy adventure. But I'm fairly certain people don't look at the Sistine Chapel and say: "Bah, what's the big deal? It's just some religious painting in a church, people have done that a million times before!"
“Pbbth, a painstakingly crafted image of pure wonder and joy? Lots of people do those, and I’ve been feeling joy since I first barfed on my parents at age 0.2! Where’s the INNOVATION?!”
Another reason why the art is so appealing is because it has a proper understanding of contrast. Shading and outlines are balanced such that nothing bleeds together and each object feels visually distinct from those next to it. Things POP in Child of Light. It's easy to tell what's in the foreground, and a layer behind that, and a layer behind that, and so on down to interesting landmarks in the far off distance. The backgrounds are all two-dimensional, but an expert use of these techniques makes them come alive, all without distracting from the action you need to focus on.
Note that this area is almost all the same color. Despite this, everything feels carefully arranged so that you can see crisp delineation between different objects and areas.
For a little contrast (heh) from the above, take a look at this screenshot from Fallout 3. There's actually WAY more variety in the scenery in this image, but despite that the colors are similar, washed out and have a filter slapped on top. The result is something that looks less appealing and more confusing, despite the fact that it has more going on.
Character design is also a point in the game's favor. The characters in Child of Light are detailed and colorful, with a plethora of little touches gracing their outfits. The game features close-up shots when two characters are talking and these display a great deal of personality and emotion. But despite all this detail they all have striking silhouettes. Bar one palette swap party member, it's easy to identify any of them at a distance and they're even displayed as silhouette head-shots when switching party members. In other words, the characters show interesting complexity while still being easily and instantly identifiable.
An example of the game’s close-up character portraits. No I don’t know why the dwarf-like people have angler fish lights on their heads.
That isn't to say that the visuals are absolutely perfect in every way. A single drop of imperfection can be found in this sumptuous stew of art. The character models for the main party members are merely decent. The designs themselves may look nice, but they don't move as smoothly as really good hand-drawn animation. They lack the quick, exaggerated and punchy movement that gives actions that extra oomph. In addition, the faces look weird up close, some not entirely on-model with their character portraits. Aurora looks like a doll with a face painted on, for example. And sometimes Aurora forgets to bring her hair to a fight, as it doesn't load in and leaves her with fighting with a buzz cut. None of these issues are particularly glaring, but it does show that, no matter how glorious the art is, there are flaws and I'm capable of mentioning them.
But what makes all this even more impressive is that Child of Light wasn't made by some towering palace of excess grinding gold bullion into animation frames. The game was ostensibly by an indie team at Ubisoft Montreal. Unfortunately, I can't actually determine the team size or the specific individuals who worked on it. Why? Because the credits decide to list every man, woman, child, aunt, uncle, cousin, grandparent, dog, friend, acquaintance, uncle's friend, mailman, homeless-man-who-lives-outside-the-office, and aunt's friend's dog who had anything REMOTELY to do with the game. Or anything to do with Ubisoft. And so on. Seriously, there's hundreds upon hundreds of names here. It's actually pretty frustrating, because I'd like to know who made the damn game. Given a random estimate by what's considered "indie" by publishers these days, it could be anywhere between half a dozen or 30 people. Even taking the upper boundary of that estimate, the game looks better than many, many games with several times the budget and manpower. It’s a testament to how much good art design and cohesive vision can absolutely trump technical power.
Discussing all the gameplay on display here is like biting into a twenty pound slab of grizzled beef. There's plenty of juicy tidbits to get to, but trying to chomp the whole thing will just leave you with a bloated mess you can't properly digest. So we'll set the main course aside for now and nibble on some appetizers until it's nice and tender. Let's start by talking about movement.
Early in to Child of Light, you gain the ability to fly. This ability is not limited in, well, any way whatsoever. No fuel, no restricted areas, just all flying all the time. There are some minor downsides to this. Avoiding or ambushing enemies becomes completely trivial, to the point that it becomes the norm and any other start to a fight is frustrating and likely accidental. Wandering big open areas like those high in the air often leads to getting lost, especially when hunting down 100% completion on hidden treasures. There are also even subtler ways it influences play, such as in the tone of the game.
I shall have to use all my cunning and guile to strike this enemy from behind and...oh wait, I remembered I can just fly behind it. Nevermind.
A game with free-form flight feels, predictably enough, breezy. Even in particularly dark or oppressive areas, it's difficult to ever feel intimidated, overwhelmed or threatened. Other games often have you looking up at some massive mountain or tall tower in awe and dismay, only to hours later look down from its peak in triumph. Granted, this is more difficult to acheive in 2D games where you can't physically see where you've been before, but even those can let you feel accomplished with a feedback loop of finding new areas and abilities to traverse them, Metroid style. Child of Light has lots of really pretty and grandiose scenery, but you sail effortlessly through it. These problems are so minor this isn't even criticism so much as a note of caution. When you drastically change how you move in a game, it changes the way it feels.
Of course, this can work to the game's advantage as well. Flying around in Child of Light is fun to control, and soaring through these picturesque landscapes is an airy and enjoyable experience. The relaxing parts of the game are amplified by the way you move, just as the intimidating parts are lessened. Ultimately, I'm not even saying this is an incorrect way of doing things. It's simply a choice they made, in game feel and mood. Though I'd bet it has something to do with the predictable puzzles of the game. Let's talk about those, shall we?
At an early brainstorming session for Child of Light, I imagine things went as follows:
"Alright team, we have some ideas on the combat system, the story, the music and art direction. Now we just need some thoughts on out-of-combat gameplay. I know the idea of in-game flight has been, ha, flying around the office. What else do we have?"
"Pushing blocks?" says one.
"If the character can fly, why push blocks?"
"Pushing switches!" says another.
"Okay that's...that's something. Any more, er, unique concepts?"
The first speaker snaps his fingers. "Pushing blocks ONTO switches!" he cries.
The lead sighs and writes blocks and switches on the whiteboard. "Anything else?"
"Well we could have a block you push onto a switch that opens the way to another block..."
The lead holds up a hand. "Okay, I get it, hold those thoughts for later. Anything else that DOESN'T have to do with blocks or switches?"
A silence dropped upon the crowd like a concrete paraglider. Fingers are twiddled. Necks are rubbed. Expressions purse and contort. Suddenly someone brightens.
"Ah, the firefly! We have that firefly companion as the cursor. The combat people had him healing allies and slowing enemies in battle."
"Good point!" The word firefly is scrawled on the board. "So what kinds of puzzles for him were you thinking of?"
"Oh. Um...you know. F-firefly type puzzles. Like uh, light? Something with light. He could press switches with light?"
Another spoke up. "What if...what if he could like, project shadows from objects. And then those shadows could be lined up with stuff."
The lead nodded. "Ah, now we're getting somewhere! I like that idea." Shadows was written on the board. "So how are we going to change the puzzle from being just lining up basic shapes?"
Once again silence dropped like a sick bass beat. Finger twiddling projections were at an all-time high. It was getting perilously close to lunch time. The first crowd member spoke up again:
"We could...push blocks with shadow shapes on them?"
I would never think to insult the humble block-pushing puzzle. You might call it the building block of game puzzles, if your primary source of joy is the groans of your friends and family. Mine certainly is. We owe much to this venerable ancestor of digital dilemmas. But putting a block-pushing puzzle in your video game is like bringing a barrel of plain rice to a fancy dinner party. There's a lot you can mix it with and you're not going to offend anyone, but it's not going to turn any heads.
Then there's the one unique puzzle of the game, casting shadows. One of the functions of your mouse-bound firefly companion is projecting shadowy images onto the background. As neat as this sounds, it can only be used on specific objects, usually conspicuous orbs with symbols on them. It's an intriguing puzzle the first time you do it and the other half dozen it's just kind of there.
Matching light to pedestals in this gorgeous cathedral feels mysterious and absorbing. Several suspiciously similar cathedral-like environments later it feels less so.
What may surprise readers after all this is that I didn't really mind. Child of Light doesn't bring much in the way of puzzles, but it's very short for an RPG. The game brings in plenty of the classic variants, like switches to hold down, timed switches, opening gates to other switches, etc. These fundamentals are plenty to keep its manageable running time from getting too dull, though if it were any longer I'd be saying otherwise. It won't win any awards for puzzle design, but they never really bothered me.
What did bother me was the lack of interesting side quests. There's a decent amount of optional content proportional to the main story, but most of it is restricted to single-room side areas or quick-and-easy palette swap bosses. Most of the quests you receive are for new party members. It seems like these might technically be optional, but I can't fathom why you would ignore them. They're usually as simple as talking to a character or telling them you've beaten a boss that the plot required anyway. Intentionally crippling your party isn't what I typically think of as optional content.
As far as the other side quests go, there are about 5 or 6. They're all some variant of "go here and search for a thing". Much like the puzzles, I would deem this plenty of optional content for a short independent RPG. But also like the puzzles, I'm not about to give a standing ovation for a handful of fetch quests. They're pretty thin in the writing department as well, which contributes to the world feeling rather perfunctory. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's just set that complaint aside for the article on writing.
Much like the game’s art, the music of Child of Light is incredibly gorgeous and dripping with atmosphere. Most songs consist of piano, some type of strings (usually cello), and some type of winds (usually flute). This makes for a very relaxed and flowing soundtrack, an excellent complement to the art style. Of course, as ever, the best way to explain something to your ears is to let you hear it.
Aurora’s Theme doubles as the main theme of the game, and boy does it deserve it. This song is absolutely beautiful. There is a wonderful weight and texture to the cello taking the lead with the piano. The background elements like the lighter strings and faintly strumming guitar are present enough to complement the lead without detracting from it. We get hints of distant drum beats about a minute in, which then transitions us into a more subdued piano solo. The last third of the piece starting at about 2:10 adds more strings and brings all the elements together in full force before peacefully tapering off. The melody is stronger than if Goku and Superman had a surrogate son who bench pressed terminators from the cradle. It all blends together better than a Velcro jigsaw puzzle slathered in molasses flavored superglue. I don’t know what else to say. It’s simply beautiful music.
Dark Creatures is the first battle theme in the game, and gives us a taste of what combat sounds like. The whole piece is one magnificent flowing crescendo from beginning to end. The essentials of strings and piano slowly build until the winds and brass come in at 20 seconds. By 50 seconds the background strings are sharp and the melody plays ever stronger, but we aren’t done rising yet. That happens at 1:20, when the final part of the song blasts onto the scene. This non-looping version then eases off on the gas towards the ending. The melody is actually fairly simple and repetitive, but it really works for the flowing sound and gradual crescendo. It’s a stirring but slightly subdued fight theme well-suited to the game.
There’s no relevance to this image. We’d just gone several paragraphs without ridiculously intense visual beauty and I thought I’d remedy that.
If I had to pick a song almost as fantastically beautiful as Aurora’s Theme, it’d be Pilgrims on a Long Journey. The whole piece is a superbly executed example of rubato, tempo speeding up and slowing at will. It takes its sweet time building up, taking a full minute for the cello and other harmonies beyond light strings to show. The melody is exactly the type of thing I’d expect to play while wandering through a massive watercolor painting. It’s an ethereal and emotional sound that emphasizes the space between notes with lots of reverb. For a lonely, picturesque journey, it’s a perfect fit.
Jupiter’s Lightning is the first song on this list that comes right out of the gate firing all cylinders. This isn’t another thoughtful contemplation of peace and beauty, this is a fight. The short sharp strings mete out of merciless melee melody accompanied by harsh yet harmonious horns. Despite this, the song still fits with the general tone of the game. The different portions of the song seamlessly blend into one another, and occasionally the intrusion of airy flute or slow waves of strings temper the raging fire of the main melody. This one is a lot of fun.
Continuing the pattern of alternating between atmosphere and combat, we have Down to a Dusty Plain. As always we have the trifecta of strings, winds and piano, but this one shows a bit of contrast by being more upbeat than the other out-of-combat songs. The flute plays a more prominent role, the background guitar is more prominent, and the pace is brisker. It maintains that consistently airy and flowing sound from the rest of the score, but shows that we’re capable of differing tones along the way.
I knew from the start that I would end on Metal Gleamed in the Twilight. There are several boss themes in the game, but this is far and away my favorite. Those first 10 seconds alone are an excellent way to start a climactic battle. Frantic strings and horns skip up and down as an underlying intensity builds to a thunderous crash of cymbals at around 50 seconds. Sharp snare drums contrast with flowing strings until the tempo slows down at 1:30. Though the next two thirds of the song have their share of great segments, I really do love that opening. The song works a string section like no other and all the elements come together marvelously. I wish I could say why more clearly, but at this point my powers of descriptive metaphor are already starting to wane. Since I don’t have time to sacrifice another goat to the gods of blog writing it’s time we wrapped up.