Japanese role-playing games aren't what they used to be. Once upon a time games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VII were system-selling blockbusters, fusing together epic narratives with tight, strategic gameplay. But like much of the Japanese video game industry, the genre has seen a steady decline, both in terms of popularity and creative output. There are still great games like Bravely Default that evoke the feeling of a classic Final Fantasy adventure, but they're relatively niche products. Few games have managed to bring that classic style of game into the modern day, but Child of Light is one of those rare experiences that successfully merges classic Japanese RPG gameplay with contemporary influences. And it couples that with some of the most beautiful 2D visuals you've ever seen.
The difference between Child of Light and other Japanese RPGs? It was made by a French company in one of its Canadian studios.
Child of Light was developed by a small team within Ubisoft Montreal, a massive studio best known for ambitious blockbusters like Far Cry 3, Assassin's Creed IV, and the upcoming Watch Dogs. Unlike those games, Child of Light is much smaller in scope — though of course you're still trying to save the world.
'Pan's Labyrinth' meets Hans Christian Andersen
You play as Aurora, a sick young girl in late 19th century Austria. Early on in the game she falls asleep and finds herself transported to a strange fantasy world shrouded in a mysterious darkness — here's she's a princess and a hero, and she sets off on a quest both to find her way back home and bring light back to the world. Though the story is a typical fairy tale adventure, it's surprisingly engaging. The oddball assortment of characters that you'll meet along the way are all loveable, which makes some of the darker narrative turns hit even harder. It's sort of like Pan's Labyrinth meets Hans Christian Andersen in video game form.
Unlike many JRPGs, which tend to be frustratingly verbose, Child of Light is efficient with its dialogue and story telling, which puts a larger focus on the gameplay — a very good thing in this case. Child of Light is essentially a blend of two different game types. As you explore the fantasy world there are some light platforming elements and simple puzzles to solve. Initially you can only run and jump, but very early on Aurora sprouts a pair of wings that let you fly around the two-dimensional world, giving movement in the game an almost Ecco the Dolphin-like feel.
At almost all times Aurora is accompanied by a tiny, talking firefly named Igniculus that you control with the right analog stick. This little blue ball can be used to collect items that are out of reach, as he can light up to help solve a few basic puzzles scattered throughout the world. (The game features a two-player mode that lets one person control Igniculus and the other Aurora.) It's all fairly simple stuff — hitting switches to open doors, finding secret tunnels to gather new items — but the real depth in Child of Light comes from its combat.
If you've ever played a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game, you'll feel right at home in Child of Light. Battles are turn-based, which means that you and your opponents take turns performing actions like attacking, defending, casting spells, or using items. Child of Light's battles work on a timer — each character operates at a certain speed, which determines how quickly you'll be able to perform your next action. A progress bar at the bottom of the screen lays out exactly when everyone's turn is coming up, letting you plan accordingly. Battles also feature other genre mainstays, like elemental properties (fire-based enemies are weak against water, for instance) and status afflictions like paralyzing your foe or slowing down their movement.
Perhaps the most beautiful game I've ever played
Child of Light's greatest trick is that it manages to make combat and character progression feel the same as the classics, while streamlining it for a modern audience. For one thing, you’re only controlling two fighters at a time, though you can swap them out for other characters at your leisure (a particularly useful feature when one of your characters runs out of health). Even more useful is the fact that every character — whether they participated in battle or not — gains experience. This greatly reduces the amount of grinding you have to do, since you don't have to worry about focusing on specific characters at the expense of others. In fact, you don't really have to grind at all — I didn't go out of my way to fight any extra battles, and at no point did I feel like my squad was underpowered.
The enjoyable story and fantastic combat are what will keep you pushing through the adventure, but what will likely attract you in the first place is just how amazing it looks — Child of Light is perhaps the most beautiful game I've ever played. It literally looks like you're playing in a painting, with lush colors and absolutely stunning depth and detail. I found myself flying around areas not to search for hidden treasure chests or items, but simply to marvel at the painstakingly realized world. To help craft the visual style, Ubisoft enlisted the aid of Japanese artist Yoshitaka Amano, best known for his vivid Final Fantasy illustrations. Meanwhile, famed circus troupe Cirque du Soleil consulted on the project, which explains the game's more theatrical elements like the spotlight that's projected on active characters. There's even a sad clown.
Blockbuster games are bigger than ever, and Japanese RPGs have struggled to find a place in this new world. The genre has essentially split in two directions, with retro-style games in one niche, and ambitious, struggling behemoths like Final Fantasy in the other. Child of Light shows what can happen when you straddle the line between the two, lavishing a classic formula with a beautiful art and modern sensibilities. It may not be made in Japan, but it definitely feels like it.
Child of Light is available April 30th on PC, Wii U, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One.