If you see a princess in a video game, chances are that she's the reason some hero with a giant sword is fighting his way through hordes of monsters -- to save her and the kingdom from some dreadful fate.
Ethereal Princess Aurora is not in another castle, but another world -- and she's the one with the giant sword. This was the first clue that the game was going to be something special: a glowing girl with dainty wings wielding a sword as large as her body.
The story is based on fairytale, and has several elements we recognise well -- a wicked stepmother, a perilous journey, and a sleeping princess. In this case, rather than waiting to be awoken, the sleeping princess is the hero. Aurora falls into a deep sleep on the wedding day of her father, an Austrian duke, in the year 1895. Instead of dying, Aurora awakens into the mysterious land of Lemuria, where the sun, moon, and stars have been stolen by the Black Queen.
The game itself is a mix of several different styles: a side-scrolling platform puzzler; an exploration adventure game; a turn-based combat RPG. Each of these elements has, like the story, a special twist that makes it all the game's own.
You start the game grounded, where you meet the first of your companions and the only one who shares the screen outside of battle: Igniculus, a small blue flame. Igniculus is controlled via the right thumbstick and left trigger, but -- if you're so inclined -- a second player can take control of him. He can help you collect wishes to replenish your HP and MP, shine lights to solve puzzles, illuminate dark passages, as well as slow enemies and heal party members during battle. It's a relatively uncomplicated role -- but one that could work brilliantly to get a less confident player involved in the game.
The puzzles are relatively simple. They often involve navigating mazes of tunnels or levels, locating weights to hold down buttons and shining lights (via Igniculus) through clear objects to place a sign or colour in a specific location. It gets a little more complex not long into the game, when Aurora gets her wings. These allow you to scour the screen from top to bottom, finding tunnels and passages tucked away containing hidden potions and Oculi.
Potions deliver heals, of course, but there are a few other tricks they can deploy, such as offering a speed boost during battle. It's the Oculi that are the fun part. These are gems that can be used to upgrade your equipment. Sapphires, for example, give your sword a water-based attack, or, added to your armour, protect you from them. You can also combine Oculi to create stronger ones. Three rough sapphires can be combined to create a tumbled sapphire, which gives you a stronger attack; and so forth. There is a lot of fun to be had from combining different Oculi to see what cool power-ups you can get.
As you make your way through the world, you pick up companions along the way, each with their own strengths. Rubella (yes, German measles), the circus acrobat, is a healer. Finn, the magician, has a variety of element-based magic attacks. Norah, Aurora's sister, can provide buffs.
To make things interesting, though, you can only have one character in battle with you at a time. These are played out in a kind of turn-based fashion. Turns are taken based on a bar at the bottom of the screen. When a character's icon reaches the red section, you can choose your action. You then spend the red section taking that action. If you get hit while in the red section, you lose your action and have to wait again. It takes a little while to get the hang of, but it does make the turn-based experience a rather more tense and exciting one.
The XP you earn during these battles is used to level your characters by way of skill trees. Each character has three different skill branches, and you can choose to concentrate on one branch or spread your skills out. Between the skill trees and the Oculi, there is a genuine sense of character development.
All this is played out in a simply breathtaking watercolour-painted world. We mean that quite literally, too: Child of Light was built using Ubisoft's Ubi Art engine, which allows hand-painted artwork to be ported directly into a game.
The result is a gorgeous dream-world that feels both delicate and magical. It's a genuine pleasure to watch Aurora's red hair plume around her as she flies, and we ended up spending quite a bit of time just flying her around to watch it move, like mermaid hair under water. Likewise other animation touches -- like how Aurora's crown falls off her head when she gets hit in battle, or how she stumbles backwards under the weight when she hoists her sword aloft in victory -- breathe life into a game that looks lifted straight from the pages of a story book.
Even the music -- fey, melancholy violins, pianos and flutes composed by Canadian musician Cœur de pirate -- contributes to this overall atmosphere.
However, it is possible that the game's creators bit off a little more than they could chew with the writing. All dialogue and narration is composed in rhyme, inspired by nursery rhymes and folk tales. Unfortunately, it doesn't work, and it's quite jarring. In most cases, the meter is off, which makes following along awkward, and most of the rhymes are uncomfortably forced, either shoehorning in a word that doesn't fit simply because it rhymes, or by using a word that almost rhymes but doesn't quite match up.
We can see what Ubisoft was aiming for, and it would have been amazing if the writers had pulled it off -- but they didn't. It's a shame, because it mars what would otherwise have been a just-about perfect gaming experience, and we can't help but feel that Child of Light deserved better.
Would that stop us from playing it? Heck no. It's a beautiful game, and one that the developers clearly poured a lot of love and work into. And it's a delightful contrast to the endless grit and guns and blood that mainstream developers seem to now think are so vital to the gaming experience. It's a gutsy move for Ubisoft, and we hope to see a lot more of its ilk in the future.
Child of Light is available now for PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 and Wii U.