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Does anyone actually enjoy story time with toddlers?

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    Child of Light

    Rating: 3.5 – Good

    Does anyone actually enjoy story time with toddlers?

    You’re building a house for nobody

    Who the hell is this for? Is there an unlikely market gap for rhyming children’s books for art hipsters who are into an unpopular gameplay mechanic which hasn’t appealed to the west since 2001 and mechanical flash games for bored people? I can’t explain in words just how little focus testing must have gone into developing this concept, but John Venn’s got my back, even if I’m too lazy to finish off his diagram:

    Obviously this is a perfect choice for a cynical thirty year old accountant with a drinking problem; all of us love rhyming, it’s why tax audits are often compared to whimsical musicals. This isn’t a game designed with me in mind, but look at that mess of concepts, it isn’t for anyone. When I started the game I wrote up an intro justifying ripping on things outside my tastes because it’s not inside anyone’s tastes, but something strange happened as I progressed through the twee wonderland Child of Light; I kinda fell in love. Don’t get me wrong there’s still a lot of eye-bleachingly cutesy rubbish here, but I liked this more and more every moment I spent with it.

    The stuff for four year olds

    Most strikingly awful in Child of Light‘s bag of tricks is the scripting; every single line of dialogue in is a rhyming couplet. Yes, this is 20 hours of rhymes. It may actually be more obnoxious than going on a drive with kids who really like Wheels on the Bus since it’s not very often that I feel the need to drive to Cairns. At least it’s quiet and can be skimmed over unlike the shrill joy of children enjoying life.

    I do story time with my daughter and the thing about rhyming stories is that they basically exist in the super short, super kiddie realm; you don’t see many rhyming books once there’s more than 12 pages or more than 4 lines to a page. It’s very much the realm of "read to the child" rather than "the child reads to themselves", and as a parent who hides the longer irritating books I don’t like so she can’t ask for them, there’s no chance I’d be narrating this saccharine monstrosity to her just so she could learn about turn based RPGs she’d have no chance of grasping.

    If trying to appeal the unviable market of people who can’t read yet wasn’t baffling enough, Child of Light also doesn’t know how rhymes work. Being generous I’d say that only half the rhymes in the game are actually functional. A lot of pairs straight up don’t rhyme, like "Isn’t" with "Mint", ¡°Pipe¡± with ¡°Life¡±, or "Reason" with "Cravin’". Hell, the world is called "Lumeria" and the protagonist is "Aurora"; they try to rhyme these together like four times. These are words they made up! They could have called it Lumora or the girl Auroria or anything other than boneheadedly trying to brute force their affront to language through anyway, but nah.

    The pacing is atrocious as lines with eight words will be paired with a single 2 syllable word. "They think it don’t be like it is, but it do" has more coherent grammatical structure. As you’d expect in a series of about 800 forced rhymes in succession there’s a lot of yoda speak to force it through, but being expected doesn’t make it enjoyable. This is a game about rhymes that screws up basic rhyming; it took about 4 minutes to click that it was a rhyming game because they miss their targets so consistently.

    Don’t get me wrong my four year old loves this sort of stuff, but nothing else in the game is quite so pre-schooler friendly. I hated the first 20 minutes of this, but thankfully it made a bold step forward into third grade.

    The stuff for nine year old fantasy geeks.

    We’re still in the bad stuff, and it isn’t helped by the incessant failed poetry at all, but at least the narrative and world building are a little further developed than "Baa Baa Black Sheep". It’s all basic light vs dark stuff without too much unique cleverness, but it’s certainly acceptable for a kids game. It’s about half way between a fairy tale and a SNES Final Fantasy; there’s not many big plot twists and the plot is incredibly straightforward, but lots of characters have their own little problems to be solved and there’s some semi-dark framing involved with the topics of suicide and getting orphaned via troll showing up.

    There’s an Alice in Wonderland style sense of whimsy with a large amount of ye olde English about and the forced rhyming does lead to some dense vocabulary the youngin’s would have trouble following. It’s basic story telling that could easily be described as "disposable" if it wasn’t for the agonizing scripting . You’re a princess who gets teleported to a magical land where darkness has taken over, and you need to gather the Sun, Stars and the Moon to make it nice again so you can go home, and it plays with a completely straight bat; it’s a generic kid friendly fantasy… plus rhymes.

    The stuff for twenty year old art hipsters.

    As we continue our passage into adulthood we enter the first category that somewhat suits me: arty farty toffs. Child of Light aims for a storybook visual style, but the methodology is as far away from a Yoshi pop-up book as imaginable. The watercolours are vibrant and it’s not exactly an imposing set of locales so it’s always "pretty", but there’s an incredible degree of mangled detail to the dilapidated ruins and twisted thorns and spikes that should appeal more to the Limbo crowd.

    And it’s gorgeous. Child unfriendly expletive gorgeous. Child of Light is easily one of the best looking games on the PS4. The mash up between the soft flowing of the watercolours and the intricate details poured into every inch is wonderful. I miss PS1 era turn based RPGs for a lot of reasons, but one which I feel is overlooked is having a pre-rendered landscape you move along. It allowed for gorgeous framed shots you just don’t get with a camera chucked over your back and a 360 degree view of things. Given the characters and enemies are incorporated into the scenery and it can run animations in the environment itself it already has a big leg up over stuff from twenty years ago, but this blows away everything from that era by and absurd margin. The Western market has been lacking something like this for too long.

    Every level is a massive hand painted masterpiece which you get to explore around freely and it’s one of the most absorbing experiences I’ve had in a game. Each stage is meticulously detailed, from sunken underwater caves to the spider ridden insides of a mountain giant, it’s all completely different yet flows together. Even the settlements manage to express a huge amount of character through their use of washed out backgrounds, realistic wear and tear and overgrown flourishes. The mouse city honestly give me the same initial impact of Novigrad from The Witcher 3 as this gorgeous hillside effortlessly rolled into a bustling landmark stretching back as far as the eye can see. Admittedly that one doesn’t run very far so it doesn’t hold up the wow factor, but I fell more in love with the visuals with every new discovery.

    Amazingly this 2 dimensional sidescroller utilizes lighting as well as any bloom filled tropical shooter. Every source of light glows magnificently on the textures that the watercolours create and having them move around brings the environments to life even more. Early in the game you’re given a little mouse cursor firefly who can illuminate areas for you and he makes the visuals really pop. Secret areas can be revealed by scanning him around as another satisfying way to browse the gorgeous paintings, and some things illuminate more than others showing new intricate ways that the layers all come together.

    The last hipstery art thing the game does took a little while to get into; flight. After beating the first boss Aurora is outfitted with fairy wings giving her the ability to fly. While this was my first "this is better than I thought" moment, it also struck me as not being as impressive as the devs had hoped. The first half hour has you pushing boxes for extremely mundane puzzles as the primary break between battles and it’s pretty awful, so once you can fly about quickly to explore these beautiful landscapes it’s a real removal of shackles and makes getting about a breeze.

    Sadly the dev’s play up the "LOOK! ART" angle and the music soars and it tries a bit too hard to feel magical and emotionally impactful rather than just "hey movement doesn’t suck now". But like everything else in the game it keeps getting better. As your natural skill improves traversing mazes of spikes at high speeds feels graceful, and the wind effects and animations are fantastic. You feel pushed around by howling winds and working around to backstab enemies while reading wind gusts feels great. It’s a joy to get around and it feels better with every scene, it’ll be hard going back to a standard platformer and not just flying over everything now.

    The stuff for thirty year old turn based RPG fans craving nostalgia.

    Turn based RPG’s have been missing from my gaming diet for far too long now. Back in the SNES/PS1/GBA days I loved this stuff but it’s genre that’s been sorely absent from rotation since the early days of the PS2. Along with skateboarding games it’s like my gaming nutrition pyramid has been missing foundation blocks. I really despise anime and the turn based genre has been mostly restricted to that style for the last 15 years, at least on the high profile stuff. It’s one of those instinctive repulsions I was born with, like how some people react to pineapple on pizzas, the word "moist", or a chunk of poo left on the toilet seat. Having the opportunity to experience RPG’s of this kind again without having to fight through the visuals was a huge appeal.

    Again, Child of Light is reckless with its audiences. People who are into JRPG gameplay tend to like the art style, and likely aren’t going to be interested in a Western children’s book approach, they can clearly read and therefore won’t get anything from the rhyming, and the arthouse crowd seems to correlate with the "Turn based is archaic and obsolete" crowd. Thankfully it offers more than "I can embrace nostalgia without resenting eyesight" satisfaction, it’s also a fun twist which grows more entertaining with time; baring difficulty I can’t imagine fans of the style not enjoying the gameplay. It’s still waiting for a bar to fill up then picking an action from a list, but with a heavy focus on timeline management.

    Both you and your opponents have an icon moving along a bar and around 80% through you hit the point where you enter your moves. Every move has a different execution time, so depending on selection that last 20% will rocket off in an instant, or linger for an agonizing few seconds. This variation is important since getting hit while in the last phase zone will trigger an interruption which cancels your move and sets you back to about 40% on the bar, thus making defending an viable tactic as it prevents this and brings around your next turn much faster. Likewise this applies to foes, so you’ll be switching out characters FFX-style to utilize speed ratios or timeline altering manoeuvres to constantly maintain dominance.

    Your light up cursor buddy comes into his own here as his brightness can blind enemies, slowing them down, giving you a live action manual crowd control option to use. He can also be used for healing, theoretically providing a decision to make between survival and domination, but healing isn’t really necessary as every stage has health recharging glowing flowers that can be collected and it’s more than enough for all your recovery needs.

    Every character has their own movesets and they do not cross over, something I’ve always liked in these kinds of games. No you don’t get the customization of a fluid job system, but it means everyone has a role to fill and there’s a lot of reason to swap them all around. Maybe you want to use the security guard’s group attack because of its % based chance of one shot kills, but the enemies may be close to a turn so you’ll switch to a jester for a quick attack. Maybe an enemy will counterattack you if you interrupt it so you’ll want to utilize Fishgirl to keep knocking it back on the timeline before it even gets to use a move. Maybe you’ll only have one viable elemental advantage over a boss and have a carousel of buffing, debuffing, and interrupting characters while your main does all the heavy lifting.

    It must be noted that Child of Light is phenomenally easy. Admittedly I played on casual (The default) since I am casual and I don’t care about being challenged in these games, but holy crap is it easy. Maybe the Expert and NG+ modes add some threat, but otherwise this is an absolute cakewalk. Not only did I not lose in the game, I didn’t even have to revive a character; I had one go into critical health once. I didn’t even get hit by either of the back to back bosses that conclude the game. This is considerably easier than even Pokemon. Further showing what a confused mess its target audience is.

    Even with it being this easy all the mechanics are worthwhile to utilize. Enemies are rarely one shot and elemental abilities are harshly limited to your mage and equipped add-ons so getting through an encounter completely unscathed takes a little effort. And why wouldn’t you want to come out of any encounter better than when you went in? Despite being the easiest RPG I’ve ever played, this is also the one I’ve mashed X on the least; every fight no matter how forgettable had me inflicting slow on enemies while switching between characters and specific moves based off their timing. To me it never stopped being enthralling and the game could have carried on a lot longer quite easily.

    The stuff for people who love Doodle God.

    The last aspect to the game is the gem crafting mechanic which functions as the equipment and gear upgrade system and is about 25% of a wonderful concept. You start with three gems to assign to each character’s three equipment slots related to attack, defense and… misc, like a very stripped down Materia system from FFVII. This is very basic and boring, but these gems can be combined with other gems to make brand new and stronger ones, and then those gems can be fused into even stronger ones after that, along with four increasing sizes which ramp up the power even more. It’s like a teensy contextualised Doodle God; the enjoyable free original flash version, not the ridiculous "Pay us to try more combinations" mobile fraud monstrosity.

    As with the comparison game, I found this wonderfully addictive in Child of Light. I may have had a few 3am nights replaying Doodle God once I reached this section. The drop rate for new gems is pretty perfect, low enough that you don’t just max out crafting trees every time you take a run through a stage, but it’s not so slow that you don’t feel like you’re making progress. Leveling a basic gem up to max requires 81 lesser gems and you’ll need several stacks of THOSE to reach maxed out gear so you’re always striving for something to enhance. It’s extremely addictive to maintain a good range of in-use gems for the team while also developing top end powers to use down the line, as is managing the elemental balance between melee strikers.

    But there’s so little of it. All up there only 10 types of gems and most of those are drab elementals or only affect a couple of characters, like how Onyx provides amazing magical power, but there are only two characters with spells. Despite this the game still ends before the higher realm can be played with much. I’m a grinder at heart -I went back through levels any time I came back from a break to farm drops- and still when the end came I had only had 4 pieces of high end gear and it takes three of those to make a single ultimate gem. I did much more than anyone just beating the pathetically easy game would need and it was still at least one full act away from reaching a satisfying crafting conclusion.

    When I wished the game was longer that wasn’t just a cutesy way of saying it was good; the game is genuinely too short for its mechanics. Child of Light ends abruptly; I entered an innocuous hallway while only having two of the 3 McGuffins and suddenly was in an uninterruptable boss gauntlet and straight to credits. It’s so sudden and the gem mechanic deserved more. The evil queen’s lair had to be a quest in itself and the quest needed a fourth chapter. Make Aurora gather the Sun, the Stars, the Moon and the Farts while doubling the amount of gems to create and then maybe the game would be long enough to do justice to the idea’s natural appeal.

    I’m the belle of the ball

    Child of Light is the biggest grower of a game I’ve experienced in a while; I’d have to go back to 2010’s Fallout New Vegas to find something that recovered from initial dislike this well. My thoughts changed with every new development and it was always positive. The timeline of my opinion is as follows:

    First Act: "Oh god it’s rhymes and block puzzles please kill me. At least it’s pretty 3/10"
    Gain Flight: "I can move about really easily now, that’s ok 4/10"
    Find a companion: ¡°These interruption timings are kinda fun to abuse, this is adequate 5/10"
    Find a Mage: "Character swapping around tactically this much is a blast 6/10"
    Complete the team and master all gimmicks: "Curbstomping is too easy but this is damn fun curbstomping. I can’t wait to see what’s next! 7/10"
    End: "Oh. It’s over."

    Child of Light keeps getting better as time goes by, but it ended immediately after it finally broke through to me. If this had a large extra chapter this would be sitting up there with Shovel Knight, Stardew Valley and Life is Strange as one of the essential non-AAA titles out recently. But it doesn’t. As it stands I recommend this for anyone because it’s good, but also to no one because something will irritate anyone who plays it.

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