Where things get interesting is in the design of the game’s world. JRPGs love structure. Even as you venture out into vast, unknown worlds, there’s always a comforting sense of order to things. Whether you’re discovering a new civilization, or exploring the remnants of an old one, the signposts, paths and familiar frameworks are there — that next town always feels like it’s just around the next corner. Most JRPGs feel like taking a guided tour of an ancient European city as opposed to plunging into the untamed jungle. Exciting, illuminating, but not intimidating.
By comparison, the world of Child of Light feels more open, more free. In some ways this is exhilarating — you spend the first half-hour of the game platforming and block pushing and, you assume, this is how the rest of the game will play out. Then you gain the ability to fly. Anywhere, anytime, with no limits! A real, made in Japan JRPG would never give you that kind of freedom. At least not so early. But freedom can be a double-edged sword. Child of Light’s airy unstructured world can leave you feeling a bit lost in the woods. The game gives you very general instructions, like “head left to go to Town X” then sets you free to flit about, never quite sure if you’re headed in the right direction until you reach your destination (I frequently found myself wandering down side paths I wasn’t necessarily supposed to be on). Some may appreciate this sense of freedom, but a lot of longtime JRPG fans may miss the genre’s soothing structure.
So, Child of Light isn’t perfect, but maybe perfect isn’t what it needed to be. Ubisoft could have essentially remade Final Fantasy VI or Secret of Mana with fancy graphics and new characters, but what’s the point in that? Final Fantasy VI and Secret of Mana already exist. Child of Light attempts to fuse Eastern and Western RPG design, and while the recipe isn’t quite right yet, most of the flavors are there, and the occasional misstep is easy to forgive in a game so obviously made with passion and love.
Hopefully Child of Light is the first step towards a more epic, polished Western take on Japanese RPGs, but I have my doubts given Ubisoft’s penchant for occasionally dipping their toes into interesting territory only to dash back to the warm embrace of Tom Clancy and various hooded assassins. Perhaps another publisher will pick up the torch? But even if Child of Light doesn’t lead to anything bigger, it remains a unique and beautiful little spark. There’s a good chance it will simply fade out, but if you give it a chance, it might just start a fire that lights a new way forward.