An enchanting new direction for an industry big gun

Jon Mercer
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With “Rainbow Six,” “Splinter Cell,” “Prince of Persia,” “Far Cry 2 and 3,” the “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, and the upcoming multi-platform “Watch Dogs,” Ubisoft Montreal is the go-to branch of the third largest gaming publisher in the world.

A screengrab of Child of Light, Ubisoft Montreal’s latest game release. — Submitted photo

Their output seems to be a nonstop parade of triple-A critical darlings and commercial smashes.

So, their release of “Child of Light,” a simple little downloadable title with the design conventions of a child’s storybook — and a love of game play from the heyday of Japanese RPGs (not to mention rhyming dialogue) — intrigues me. Does it have a happy ending, or is this fairy tale a sad lesson waiting to be taught?

Storybook graphics

Using the same Ubi Art graphics engine that powered the jaw-dropping “Rayman Legends” last year, “Child of Light” drums up interest just from its looks.

The massive background vistas, every single character — they all look as if they were carefully scissored from the pages of a hand-painted storybook.

The character models themselves are quite crude, but the texture work is so intricate, and the animation so fluid, that unless you’re scrutinizing them under a magnifying glass, you would never notice.

Working in league is some great sound design and a marvellous soundtrack by Quebecois singer-songwriter Béatrice Martin, a.k.a. “Coeur de pirate” (Pirate Heart). It all ensnares a player’s attention span and holds it above a smouldering log in hopes that their imagination will alight.

I can’t lie and claim that this spark detonates into a blaze of rich, rewarding game play and innovation that will breathe new life into retro-styled JRPGs, because “Child of Light” isn’t a game of that calibre.

But it’s not trying to be. It’s a simple turn-based role-playing game where gamers navigate a two-dimensional world by running, jumping and, soon after the prologue, flitting around on a pair of pretty little fairy wings.

When battle commences, hell is unleashed by a timed bar that dictates the flow of combat. The final quarter of the bar is marked in red, which represents an action being locked in and unstoppable. That could be an attack, using an item, casting a spell and so on.

Hitting an enemy before they reach the red section of the bar will interrupt them, and force them to wait longer and longer for their action to commence — save for taking a defensive stance, which is an instant action.

Timing actions properly alongside tactics such as blinding monsters with a controllable fairy/firefly accomplice is not only recommended, but necessary to get past some rather tough enemy encounters.

Sloppy players might even find themselves stumped by the very first boss until they accept that the game demands to be played in this fashion.

That’s not to say “Child of Light” is an altogether challenging title — on all but the hardest-difficulty setting, levelling up is a snap.

So much so that I found myself ignoring opening up the menu to choose new perks until I had amassed enough points to actually pick more than one option at a time.

World exploration is handled at a leisurely pace, and plowing through story and side missions is made simple by a quick and easy fast-travel system that makes returning to previously spelunked areas of the world an instantaneous act.

Across a 12-15 hour long story, there are several additional characters that join Princess Aurora on her quest to vanquish a Black Queen that has stolen all the lights out of the heavens. They all add new wrinkles to combat through their exclusive abilities, and later in the game can be switched out on command in the heat of battle.

In the second half of its main story, the dungeons begin to grow more nefarious in design, and the enemies start to gain ferocious strategies that give it a much needed steep incline on the difficulty curve.

“Child of Light” is an esthetically pleasing and wonderfully crafted little story that bears no burdens of modern game releases, nor any ambition to be anything more than charming. If it was simply a vacation in between the schedule of lucrative franchises Ubisoft Montreal has built, so be it.

But I wouldn’t be averse to seeing them stretch their imagination in this manner on a more healthy basis.

There’s more than enough content to justify its $15 admission price, and watching the zeal in which the familiar yet completely original tale unfolds more than makes up for any shortcomings.

Here’s hoping this is an enchanting first step on a new directive for Ubisoft’s talented collection of studios and artists.

Platform: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

Developer: Ubisoft Montreal

Publisher: Ubisoft

Release Date: April 29, 2014

Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via thejonmercer@gmail.com.

Geographic location: Montreal

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