The films of Studio Ghibli are punctuated with some of the strongest young women in world cinema. Nausicaš, San, Chihiro, Sophie and the diminutive Arietty all capture hearts without resorting to Hollywood stereotyping or crass sexualisation.
The world of gaming often feels barren of such characters... then along comes Aurora, the driving force behind Ubisoft's beautiful 2D JRPG throwback.It's the 1800s and Aurora, the youngest daughter of an Austrian duke, has just passed away. Rather than blip out of existence she instead reawakens to find herself trapped in a mystical realm, Lemuria.
To find her way back home, and to discover the truth behind her apparent death, Aurora must adventure to the highest and the lowest points of this land in order to reclaim the sun, moon and stars from her evil stepmother. Along the way, in true JRPG fashion, Aurora builds a following of party members, each with their own stories and personalities.
There's something delectably old fashioned about the way Child Of Light tells its story, requiring a little bit of effort on the player's part. Aside from the few narrated cutscenes, none of the dialogue is voiced. Instead you have to bring the game's cast to life inside your own head. Fortunately this isn't hard thanks to some great characterisation.
Aurora herself starts off as a petulant, but likeably headstrong girl, slowly evolving into a perceptive and kind young woman. There's a cowardly dwarf-ish chap called Finn, mirroring the Lion from The Wizard Of Oz in his search for the courage to face his fears. Robert, the entrepreneurial mouse-man suffering from unrequited love is another great addition. Our favourite though is Rubella, the jester.
The entire script is written in rhyme, a feat admirable in itself even if it takes a little getting used to. Her confidence shattered without her circus performing brother to fall back on, Rubella can't seem to get two words to match up. Each time she fluffs up a rhyme, though, one of the other cast members adorably finishes off her sentences.
And then there's Igniculus, the little blue firefly that accompanies Aurora from the very beginning. Rather than take on the role of fully formed party member, Igniculus is controlled via the right analogue stick. This chap flies around the screen like the second player-controlled Co-Star in Mario Galaxy, collecting shining baubles and unlocking hidden treasure chests. In battle Igniculus helps by healing friends or hindering enemies. Gaming parents will be glad to hear that he can be controlled by another player using a second controller.
Ni No Kuni has done the whole Ghibli RPG thing before, we know. But Child Of Light's battle system feels more refined. If you've played Grandia then you'll be familiar with its time bar-based intricacies. As you encounter enemies in the field you're warped into a separate 2D battle arena with your party of two on the left and your foes on the right.
At the bottom of the screen is a time gauge with icons representing the battle participants sliding across it. When the icons reach the far right it's time for that character to perform an action. This could be to attack, to defend, to heal or to switch out party members Final Fantasy X-style.
Each character has a unique role, from Rubella's healing and Finn's magic attacks through to Aurora's Light-based strikes. As you watch the icons slide along the bottom there's a constant sense of risk vs reward. Do you try to beat this spider's attack with your own to interrupt him? Or will you defend to take the hit? Veterans of older JRPGs will be happy to hear that some battles, especially towards the end of the game, can take an exhaustingly long time.
"Lemuria is a feast for your eyeballs. We'd go so far as to say it's one of the most beautiful storybooks ever committed to code"
Outside of combat you can unlock abilities for each character through a series of basic skill trees. There are no differing weapons or equipment, but you can attach gemstones, called Oculi, to your characters in order to give them additional elemental effects or stat buffs. It must be said though that outside of combat there's very little RPG depth on offer.
You rarely feel like you have a choice as to where to put skill points and the different Oculi you equip won't change the way you play. There are plenty of other things to distract you when swords are sheathed however. Lemuria is a feast for your eyeballs. We'd go so far as to say it's one of the most beautiful storybooks ever committed to code.
You start off in dark, misty forests, exploring hidden caves and ruined temples. A little later you're flying through creaking windmills, gushing waterfalls and breezy plains with washed-out watercolours.Later still you're swimming through underwater crystal chasms with Aurora's iconic red locks floating upwards behind her.
These environments aren't just static backdrops. Lemuria is a constantly moving world. Fish arc out of pools. Rabbits poke their heads out from behind rocks and birds flock in the far distance. At one point we spy a slumbering mountain complete with a giant waking eye ogling us as we navigate the surface of a craggy lake.
But it isn't perfect. We can't help but compare it to other fantastical climes that we've been whisked away to. From Jim Henson's Labyrinth, to Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth the best parallel fantasy realms boast tangible connections to reality to reflect upon. In Lemuria there are a series of pools in which Aurora can catch a glimpse of her ailing father in the real world. Sadly, these are static screens, constantly repeated throughout and a missed opportunity to lend Aurora's plight an emotionally investable focus.
"Child Of Light doesn't wholly tap into the spirit of Ghibli"
And the ending woefully disappoints. There are excuses to go back and explore past the ten hour story, but the narrative bookends much too abruptly. Many of the barely alluded to plot points are bound into one catch-all final cutscene, again plagued with motionless imagery.
Child Of Light doesn't wholly tap into the spirit of Ghibli. But then, it could be argued, that even Ghibli itself, with a helping hand from the folks at Level-5 couldn't perfectly re-create its brand of fantasy across a whole game. Regardless, Ubisoft Montreal's efforts come incredibly close and shine a light on the very best elements of Japanese style role-playing games.
Beautiful and heartfelt, this fairy tale is a testament to the JRPG formula's creative storytelling ability, even if it misses a few key beats.
- Lemuria looks beautiful. You'll happily get lost in its dungeons.
- The cast is full of loveable characters, each fleshed out with care.
- The moment-to-moment story is great, but the grand narrative falls flat.
- Few games have the temerity to end as abruptly as this.