We love it when a developer throws us a curveball. In 2012, creative director Patrick Plourde and writer Jeffrey Yohalem were putting the finishing touches on a by turns beautiful and gruesome romp around a tropical island that had players shivving pirates in the back and tossing grenades at the local wildlife. Far Cry 3 was the series' most successful entry yet. So what might you expect the brass at Ubisoft put Plourde and Yohalem to work on next?
“From the start, I wanted to make a game that would be the complete opposite of Far Cry 3: poetic instead of violent, nostalgic instead of psychotic,” Plourde tells Red Bull. “Child of Light is created to generate a different set of emotions. It’s important for me to be able to change tone from one project to another, otherwise it gets boring.”
Child of Light doesn't do pirates or tigers or bloody, knife-throwing takedown moves. Instead, Ubisoft is promising gamers a living painting; a children's fairy tale rendered in swirling watercolors that follows a tiny heroine on a journey through the mystical land of Lemuria. It couldn't be less like its predecessor. As Yohalem puts it:
“Far Cry 3 raged, Child of Light builds. While Far Cry 3 came from a place of subversion and anger, this game is about hope.”
But where games like American McGee's Alice or Grimm trade in taking the fairy tale storybook aesthetic and perverting it to gruesome effect, Child of Light sticks close to the classic themes of children's stories: good versus evil and the heroes challenges of growing up.
“I was really inspired by the artists of the golden age of illustration: Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, John Bauer and Kay Nielsen,” says Plourde. “They mostly illustrated children books, especially fairy tales and their artwork is really amazing.”
“So while I built up a bank of images that I liked I came to realise that most fairy tales are about growing up; the passage from childhood to adulthood and that the gameplay of RPGs is also about growing up, from weak to strong. It gave me a hook to build the game around.”
Child of Light will also be a sharp break for most gamers in gameplay terms. Rather than dropping players into the first or third-person perspective of a Western RPG, Child of Light plays out on a flat background, with sickly heroine Aurora (looking not at all unlike like a painting of Merida from the Disney movie Brave) awaking in a magical world that she explores in side-scrolling 2.5 dimensions – with the background and foreground layered on top of each other like a theatre set. As you'd expect from any good magical dreamworld, Aurora's is filled with characters and towns she can interact with an accept quests from, new allies to make and a looming and terrible evil to thwart – in this case, the malevolent Black Queen who has gone and run off with the sun, moon and stars, which isn’t really on.
As in any good fairy tale, Aurora isn't alone in her quest. So far, the team has revealed just the one companion for her: a floating blue-ish white orb called Igniculus. The companion system is where the game's drop-in-drop-out co-op comes in. While you can play through Aurora's adventure solo, a second player can take control of her companion (which span all castes of magical archetype from healer to elemental mage) and use their special abilities to help explore hidden areas or solve puzzles. In Igniculus' case, that means drifting through walls to spring open loot chests or traps – but the characters that Aurora can pair herself with are more than just sentient utility knives or anthropomorphised key fobs.
“Igniculus came into being when Aurora enters Lemuria, so she has a parental relationship with him,” says Yohalem. “Her simple wisdom about the world is passed on. As they both grow, her truths become more complex and, ultimately, their relationship changes. There is a key turning point that I won’t spoil, but the friendship becomes more complicated and is never the same afterward.”
The path Aurora walks through the game is, according to its developers, linear – but along the way there will be plenty of opportunities to explore Lemuria and take on sidequests. And if you're a completionist, or just the sort of person who likes to play through games again with your own self-imposed challenges, Ubisoft has you covered.
“[The game] features a dozen side quests and a couple of dozen hidden challenge rooms to discover in the environment,” says Plourde. “For players who want to spend more time exploring, we give rewards that can change how you play the game. For example, you can finish the game without having any partners with you.”
“We also have a tester who completed the game by fighting only the bosses (around 10 fights total). So the game systems are flexible for those who want to play with them.”
Of course, this being an RPG, you'll open up plenty of different ways to play as you explore – Child of Light has a whopping 216 skills to unlock across its characters. This is the lone element we've seen that immediately reminded us of Far Cry 3, with skills presented in a linked table where unlocking one gives access to the next. Each character gets its own unique skill tree and their abilities and presence will provoke different reactions and open different scenes and conversations with the NPCs that you encounter.
You'll need those skills and the help that your companions provide, because, despite the soft focus art style, Lemuira can be a pretty hostile place for lost little girls. The Black Queen's minions are none too pleased at this Child of Light coming to fetch back the sun, moon and stars and while the land above ground has a Studio Ghibli-esque serenity to it, Lemuira's caves hide monsters to rival any that you might find in Skyrim. Giant spiders, beastmen and even dragons call Lemuria home and, while you can sneak past many encounters on your travels, from time to time you'll be forced to square off against hostile fauna and the Black Queen's bestiary.
Combat is taken wholesale from Japanese RPGs. You don't just charge in, swinging Aurora's oversized sword and casting spells until everything around you rolls onto its back. Instead, you fight turn-by-turn, selecting attacks and powers for each character in your party and observing how the play out against you enemies. Certain enemies will be resistant or vulnerable to different kinds of attacks – ice or fire-based magic, for example – and where it's not obvious, a little trial and error will go a long way.
It's the polar opposite of the big budget Western RPGs that encourage fast, hectic combat and quick decision making; in Child of Light, you're rewarded for taking your time and planning on how you'll balance offence and defence turn-to-turn. Think Final Fantasy or South Park: Stick of Truth-style gameplay and you'll be well prepared for scrapping in Lemuria.
All told, Child of Light is a pretty strange proposition then – especially given the developers' pedigree in firing AK-47s from stolen jeeps or blowing up mercenary convoys with rocket launchers. But while the combat is unorthodox for a Western game and the art style is both gorgeous and unique, it's Aurora – as both a child and a girl – that really sets Child of Light apart for us. We've had burly, brown-haired men and sexualised female protagonists for years – and even a limited number of boys in games like South Park, Pokemon and Ni No Kuni – playing as a young girl is something completely new to us.
“For me it was natural that the main protagonist of the game was going to be a girl,” says Plourde. “I loved the concept of creating a fairy tale in which a 'princess' would not need to wait for a Prince Charming. It updates the classics for our time.
“Finding Aurora’s visual identity was not easy. We made a bunch of concepts, but she always looked either too much like a warrior or too much like a doll. In both cases it was not true to her character. One day our art director, Thomas Rollus, made a sketch of her at six years old and I immediately fell in love with it. From that point on, there was no question about making Aurora a boy or anything like that – we had found our heroine.”
Child of Light is due on April 30 of this year and its timing puts it in good company, launching close behind other Westernised JRPG-style titles in South Park, Final Fantasy X HD and Bravely Default for Nintendo 3DS (all three of which Plourde cites as “the ones to beat” in the genre). For a lot of players, it's a new style of game that they'll only have heard about in passing or seen play out in trailers for larger JRPGs and their particularly devout fanbases. But if Final Fantasy is too involved and South Park isn't to your taste, Child of Light might just be the game to turn you on to something new and wonderful.