Nostalgia is tough. There’s a cheap version of it, in which you simply highlight something that used to be popular and say, “Hey, remember that?” “Family Guy” and Seth MacFarlane’s other 6,000 TV shows indulge in way too much of this, and it reeks of a lack of effort or imagination.
When nostalgia’s done right, though, it’s immensely satisfying. And to do it right you need to nod at the source material, really get inside it, while providing something new and worthwhile that stands on its own. That’s what Ubisoft Montreal has done with “Child of Light,” a new role-playing game for PC and the XBox and PlayStation systems that embraces the best of so-called JRPGs of the past (the “J” is for “Japan,” since that’s where these games have traditionally come from), but does so in a wholly original, creative way, particularly when it comes to its wonderful visual presentation.
The story is . . . hold on, I’m going to the game’s website to remember. Oh yeah! You play Aurora, the daughter of a powerful duke. One day the duke finds her apparently lifeless — only she isn’t. She’s somewhere else. You must “join Aurora across the mysterious kingdom of Lemuria on her quest to return home,” as the site puts it. “Helped by Igniculus the firefly, Finn the Capilli and many more, she must defeat the Queen of the Night who has stolen the sun, the moon and the stars.”
Sorry if I am being slightly glib on the story thing. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the imagination I used to, or maybe it’s because I’ve played too many of these sorts of games, but I find it very hard to pay all that much attention to their stories. In this case, my indifference was mixed with annoyance: Just about all the game’s dialogue (delivered mostly via text rather than voice) is in rhyme. I appreciate the attempt to ramp up the storybook element, but it doesn’t really work — too much of the rhyming feels contrived, and it too often makes the dialogue more roundabout than it needs to be.
Luckily, the game itself is very good, a nice combination of old-school role-playing game with some innovations thrown in. The game is structured like many JRPGs of yesteryear. (“Final Fantasy II” for SNES, one of my favorite games of all time, is a classic of the genre.) You control Aurora directly in an “overworld” consisting of beautifully rendered two-dimensional environments, exploring forests, caves, a giant thorny tree, and so on. Everything looks like it was drawn and painted in watercolors by the world’s most gifted child artist. I say “child” because while there’s enough familiarity to ground a player — “Oh, I’m in a forest level” — there are little flourishes here and there that feel unique, as if they came from an innocent and unfamiliar place. I’ve never seen a game that looks quite like this one.
The action is and isn’t traditional by the standards of the genre. Once you encounter an enemy, the action switches to a combat screen in which you fight one or more enemies, choosing whether to have Aurora and other members of her party fight, defend, or so on. A meter at the bottom of the screen indicates which party member or enemy gets to make its next move.
The cool twist is Igniculus, the aforementioned firefly. You control him with your mouse, and you can use him to slow down enemies or heal allies. There’s a brief span between when an enemy selects its action and when it actually carries it through, and if you hit the enemy during that span you can interrupt the attack (picture, for lack of a better analogy, slapping someone in the face as they are rearing back to throw a punch — their punch is never going to land). All this timing and countering and interrupting adds a nice level of depth to the combat. I rarely found myself choosing “attack
. . . attack . . . (sigh) attack . . .” during fights, which is the sign of a poorly (or boringly) designed combat system. There was always enough strategy to keep me engaged.
There is a hard-to-pin-down aspect to how the game feels that I find most satisfying of all. Some combination of the lush visuals and dynamic music took me into the world to a surprising extent, even if, story-wise, I was simply following the endless suggestions to go to Place A to find Person/Thing B. This is a game that was lovingly crafted by devoted fans of role-playing, and it shows.