Platforms: PSN | XBLA (current & next-gen) | PC
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Child Of Light was too big a secret to keep. As an interactive fairytale, respectful homage to classic role-playing games and a gorgeous use of Rayman Origins' UbiArt engine, Far Cry 3's creative director couldn't help but let the cat out of the bag at GDC.
You can hardly blame him, because after getting hands-on with Child Of Light at a Parisian preview session, I can report that it's shaping up to be something very special indeed.
The story follows Aurora, a young girl marked by destiny in a fairytale world that toes the line between whimsical and thoroughly twisted. Packing a massive sword, fake crown and a hovering magical companion called Igniculus, our heroine sets out to bring light to the darkness in a hybrid between 2D exploration and classic turn-based battling.
The demo began in an abandoned crow-infested village, but appearances soon proved to be very deceiving. As Aurora freely floated around the stage with simple left-stick commands, she discovered a sole inhabitant, who revealed that the townsfolk had in fact been transformed into birds by an evil force deep within the well in the central square. After being joined by the villager as a party member, Aurora and Igniculus descended into the depths, at which point the two characters revealed hidden depths of their own.
Aurora is a relatively traditional protagonist in gameplay terms; floating around the 2D levels a little like The Undergarden or Ecco The Dolphin (only on land, natch), exploring the caverns for hidden secrets and dodging past environmental hazards with an intuitive dash. Enemies can be engaged or evaded if you're fast and decisive enough, granting you plenty of options as you delve through the labyrinthine environments.
Igniculus, meanwhile...ooh. Aah. Hang on, I've just glanced at one of the screenshots and remembered how staggeringly wonderful Child Of Light looks. Rayman Origins' UbiArt engine brings artwork to life, artists free to directly transform their work into backgrounds and sprites without a single stylus stroke being lost in translation. It's not the empty, meaningless 'pretty' we're used to from soulless shooters, rather Child Of Light evokes the fairytale illustrations we encountered as a child, effectively becoming a moving, living, playable watercolour. Erm, sorry. Where was I?
Igniculus. Yes. Though Zelda veterans will initially balk at his uncanny resemblance to Navi, this floating magical being is a veritable swiss army knife, capable of illuminating dark corners (and any secrets therein), blinding enemies to stun them in place, collecting out-of-reach items and solving some surprisingly cerebral puzzles. Having encountered a doorway sealed by magical runes, for example Igniculus used his luminous body to cast real-time shadows onto the wall, moving around to correctly throw inky blackness onto the correct places. Solo players can swap between Aurora and Igniculus with a simple tap of the Triangle button, but local multiplayer makes for a much more fluid and dynamic experience as the two characters symbiotically riff on each other's unique abilities.
Exploring the visually rich world and ferreting out its multitude of secrets is set to be half the fun of Child Of Light, but the other half will come from a battle system derived from the classic JRPGs we used to love.
Active Time Battle fans rejoice, for the humble bar makes a welcome return. Characters act in order of speed, capable of deploying a range of physical attacks, elemental skills or healing abilities. Aurora may be an unlikely heroine, but she's a force to be reckoned with, gleefully raining down sword strikes and ruinous elemental spells onto enemy hordes. However, every action comes with a cost, both in terms of mana and time. Powerful abilities need time to charge, meaning that allies and foes alike can be interrupted and delayed back into the turn order. Timing is everything, as is ensuring that your adversaries don't get time to trigger their more devastating skills.
Igniculus, meanwhile, can move in real-time, slowing down (and effectively griefing) specific enemies or collecting hidden pickups to recharge Aurora's health.
A robust experience system and skill tree underpins the experience, unfolding much like Far Cry 3's freeform web of active abilities. Four elemental paths unlock a range of versatile skills from fire blasts to earthquakes, allowing you to take advantage of enemy weaknesses. Aurora's stats can also be boosted with a range of equippable crystals (known here as 'Oculi'), most of which will only be found by bringing light to the darkest corners.
There's also a Demon's Souls-inspired method of asynchronous communication. Igniculus can scrawl luminous messages on walls, perhaps drawing arrows to point at hidden treasures or dangerous monsters, which are then shared throughout your friend list. In this case, I encountered a foreboding missive writ stark on a cavern entrance: "level 4+."
I was level 3, and the anonymous warning soon proved to be deathly accurate. An enormous shadowy demon rose up from the depths and engaged Aurora, its tentacles acting as separate enemies capable of interrupting her attacks. A valiant last-ditch effort quickly turned to rout, and our heroes lay defeated as my time with Child Of Light drew to a close.
Many questions still remain, but there's only one that matters to me. What happens next?
We'll find out in 2014.