Child of Light
Multiplatform (Played the XBO version)
Completed the main game on Hard mode
Here’s the short and sweet, non-spoiler review. Child of Light has gorgeous 2D visuals (complete with great use of parallax scrolling of multiple layers), a beautiful and very non-traditional musical score, and fun strategic combat heavily inspired by the Grandia series. I didn’t like the story or the writing, but I enjoyed the game otherwise.
Okay, that’s done, so now let’s move onto more interesting things like analyzing what it does well and where it could have been improved. Spoilers ahead (mostly gameplay related though) so you’ll probably want to have finished the game before reading this.
Warning, there’s not a whole lot of organization here. These are basically design notes of mine on the game.
Child of Light uses a modified Grandia combat system. For those unfamiliar with the system (and who haven’t played our own Penny Arcade RPGs which use a similar system), the core is that by hitting enemies right before they make their next move, you interrupt them which knocks them back on the time bar, essentially stunning them briefly. Child of Light makes a few changes to the basic Grandia system – you only have 2 characters at any one time (Grandia had a 4 person party) but you can swap characters in and out mid-battle with ease, there is no positioning aspect (in Grandia, allies & enemies moved around the battlefield & different attacks had different ranges & areas of effect), ALL attacks can interrupt enemies (in Grandia, only specifically marked interrupt abilities did this), and you have a firefly friend who can slow enemies down.
The firefly solves a key problem that the Grandia system has long had. Grandia’s battle system is primarily a reactive one – you wait for your turn, see where everyone is on the time bar, and then decide if the current situation lets you interrupt enemies. The firefly in Child of Light solves this issue by giving the player a finer level of control over enemy time positions thus allowing the player to actively set up interrupt situations instead of just take advantage of situations as they arise.
Where the firefly’s implementation falters in Child of Light is with its alternate function – healing allies. Unlike the slow down function, healing can be performed while combat is paused on the menu screen. The problem is that the healing is so slow that using it feels more tedious than it’s worth. To fix this, I would have changed it so that the healing function used up your entire firefly meter and healed an amount based on how much meter was spent. Therefore, it would have a clear use (emergency heal) and a clear cost (now you don’t have any more meter for slowing).
Child of Light does a good job at keeping things simple in many ways – low active party size, each character has a clear niche, streamlined equipment system – but falters in others. One such aspect is the LV-Up system. On the one hand, it’s relatively simple – get a point with each LV-Up, use that point to progress down one of three paths for each character – but at the same time, it could have been even simpler. Once you’ve passed the early LVs, leveling up no longer gives new abilities, but only gives minor stat bonuses & upgrades existing abilities. You can adjust characters somewhat based on which path you choose to focus on (making your Jester a great physical warrior with decent healing abilities vs a decent physical warrior with great healing abilities), but in general, the LV-Up system isn’t all that exciting and for some characters, one path seems clearly superior (like with the mage, getting +30% to all spell damage is a lot more useful than boosting his crummy physical attack capabilities). I feel the game would have been served better by going to more of an extreme – either simplify things further and make leveling up a strictly linear experience (set stat bonuses & abilities at set levels) or increase the number of interesting choices in developing each character. On a similar note, the game would have been much improved by having more late-game abilities to get excited over.
One interesting choice that Child of Light made is by giving each character their own unique attack command which could be improved further. The power and speed of each attack equivalent varies from character to character and several characters even have secondary characteristics (like a chance to inflict an ailment) attached to their attack as well. Besides adding an extra level of strategy to simple attacks, these variations helped to add personality to each character. Unfortunately, they missed a chance to do something similar with the Defend command and gave everyone the same Defend (although it can be upgraded, just like other abilities); it would have been easy to create various defend variants like a Defend with an increased chance to dodge, a defend that doesn’t protect as much but has a higher speed bonus, or a defend that also protects allies.
Speaking of Defend, Child of Light is one of the few RPGs where the Defend command is very useful. There are three reasons for this. One, the aforementioned Interrupt system. Two, frequent use of “Charge Up” abilities from a number of enemies. Three, a more powerful Defend than in most games – whereas the typical RPG Defend command merely cuts damage in half, at max rank, Defend in Child of Light cuts damage to 1/5th as well as gives you a bonus to speed for your next turn.
I felt the game could have used more transparency in combat. Specifically, there’s no way to gain information on enemies – their Max and Current HP, strengths, weaknesses, attack patterns – short of trial & error. Because of this, it’s much easier to just develop a general purpose strategy for winning in combat rather than try to adjust your strategy on a fight by fight basis.
Especially later in the game, Child of Light has frequent encounters with enemies that are highly resistant to either physical or magical attacks, thus forcing you to use the appropriate attacks against them. This is reinforced even further by often giving these enemies counter-attacks if you use the “wrong” attack type against them. Rather than feel clever for using the right attack against them, the frequent use of this sort of brute force approach to balancing makes the player feel like they’re just playing along with the developer’s “puzzle” rather than being able to devise their own strategy for victory. And since there are only really 2 characters in the game with decent magic capabilities (the main character and your attack mage), this felt more restrictive than it had to be.
I thought it was interesting how the game foreshadowed an event via gameplay. Specifically, ability overlap between characters hinting that one character would be leaving your party soon.
Ailments & debuffs are highly effective in Child of Light since nothing is immune, but buffs are a lot weaker than they are in most RPGs due to the small party size (so group buffs only affect 2 people) and frequent need to rotate characters in and out of combat. To counter this, one option would have been to make it so that buffs no longer targeted specific characters but instead targeted your entire party, regardless of who was in combat at the time of their casting.
Although I didn’t personally mind, I could see how some people could find the constant combat in Child of Light tiresome. There is some attempt to counter this with the occasional conversation between party members, but I think the game could have used some more non-combat situations (larger or more frequent towns, more puzzles, and platforming-esque challenges).
Having each oculi act in a different way depending on where it was equipped and having those same occuli be the foundation of the crafting system was an elegant idea, but the user interface made it more complicated than it needed to be. Some simple changes like being able to see all effects on a single screen or being able to see how many total occuli you have (including the equipped ones) when crafting would have made things easier.
Not going to get too into the story & writing since I’m no expert on poetry, but I felt like the way the dialogue was presented made it harder to read than it need to be. Specifically, sticking multiple characters in a single dialogue box made it hard at times to remember who is talking. Also, displaying the dialogue one line at a time made it more difficult to figure out the appropriate rhythm to use (unlike say, a children’s book where you can easily see an entire exchange at a glance).
And there you have it. I really did greatly enjoy the game (and in fact, it’s the first RPG that I’ve played all the way through this year), but there is definitely room for improvement.