Western game designers have never been terribly shy about, uh, borrowing from their Japanese colleagues. Japanese platformers, brawlers and horror games, we’ve happily carbon copied ’em all, but the Japanese RPG? Us gaijin seem to be afraid to go there. Maybe it’s because the JRPG is the most Japanese-ey of Japanese genres. Maybe it’s because the earliest JRPGs were inspired by American titles like Wizardry — copying JRPGs might imply they improved on our original formula! Whatever the reason, for years gamers have just had to accept that RPGs come in two distinct flavors (overwrought anime and brown-grey gritty) with no mixing of the two allowed.
Surprisingly the first major western attempt at emulating Japanese RPGs comes from Ubisoft, a company that’s mostly hitched its wagon to violent open world action games over the past decade. Child of Light tells the story of Aurora, a late 19th century Austrian princess who, after falling ill, finds herself transported from her sickbed to the ethereal dream world of Lemuria. How much of Lemuria is real, and how much is a reflection of Aurora’s own dire state? You’ll have to play to find out.
In many ways, Child of Light sticks surprisingly close to the classic JRPG blueprint. For starters, the game’s absolutely gorgeous, looking like a modern HD successor to the stylish 2D JRPGs of the 16 and early 32-bit eras. Child of Light feels lively, handcrafted and, frankly, puts most of today’s fussy, lifeless JRPGs to shame.
The game’s music also serves as a fine tribute to classic JRPGs — Ubisoft skilfully compliments the game’s visuals with a stirring string-heavy soundtrack that’s equal parts spirited and mournful. Warn everyone you know now, because you are going to drive them crazy wistfully humming Child of Light tunes all day.
The game’s battle system is reminiscent of classic Final Fantasy or Grandia titles — every ally or enemy action has a casting and cool down time, and unleashing attacks at the right time can interrupt your enemies. Like most classic JRPG battle systems, there’s a certain art to things for the dedicated to master, but if you prefer you can muscle through most encounters by spamming your strongest attacks and guzzling healing potions. Aside from the battle system, there are also skill trees to navigate, gems to collect and stat boosters to allocate. It’s nothing a JRPG fanatic hasn’t done dozens of times before, but it’s all done well.
Child of Light does flub a few of the basics — the game is auto-save only, which is fine in an action game or platformer, but in an RPG you’re always left wondering if the game saved that last conversation of bit of character tinkering you did before you shut it down (or maybe that’s just my rampant OCD speaking). Much of the game’s text also auto-scrolls, which usually wouldn’t be a problem, but everyone in Child of Light speaks in sometimes slightly tortured iambic pentameter and occasionally you need an extra second to decipher exactly what is being said. These shortcomings can probably be chalked up to simple developer inexperience.
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.