Child of Light (Ubisoft, for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC, $14.99) doesn't look like any other video game.
With its seemingly hand-drawn characters and watercolor backgrounds, it more closely resembles a children's picture book, the kind your mom would read to you before bedtime.
It's a fitting look, since Child of Light, which was created at Ubisoft's Montreal studio, is an interactive fairy tale. It's the story of Aurora, a princess who is transported to a strange world called Lemuria where the sun, moon and stars have vanished. She's armed with an oversized sword and the ability to use light as a weapon. She can also fly, in slow and smooth motions that add to the game's dreamlike mood.
During her journey, Aurora meets a motley assortment of pilgrims, each of whom has lost something. A jester named Rubella is trying to find her brother; a dwarf named Finn has seen all his friends turned into crows; a prison guard named Oengus is trying to restore his lost honor.
Aurora's most dependable companion, though, is Igniculus, a firefly who floats by her side. The light emitted by Igniculus can unlock doors and treasure chests. It can heal Aurora and her friends. And it can distract enemies long enough for Aurora and company to get in a few licks before being attacked.
Cleverly designed battles
That last skill comes in handy during the cleverly designed battles, which emphasize strategy over reflexes. Each character, friendly or hostile, is represented by an icon on a timeline; when the icon gets about 80 per cent across, time stops and you're asked to choose an action. Some actions happen almost immediately, but if you want to cast a powerful spell, time slows to a crawl. Move too slowly and an opponent can sneak in and knock you off your game.
The turn-based battles will feel familiar to fans of role-playing games, but other elements are more RPG-lite. After almost every battle, Aurora or one of her friends levels up, slightly raising both offensive and defensive abilities. Each character gets points to spend on a skill tree, where you can upgrade stats or gain more powerful spells. I found the constant upgrades distracting, given that the differences between levels are too small to make much of a difference.
RPG fans who enjoy trying new weapons and armour won't get that satisfaction here; each character is pretty much stuck with the equipment he or she begins with. And there's just one type of loot to collect: gems that, depending on their color, add fire, water or lightning to your attacks or defend against the same elements. There's a rudimentary crafting tool that lets you turn cheap jewelry into brilliant gems, but it gets old quick.
Your appreciation of Child of Light will depend on how much you enjoy its story, which leans heavily on fairy-tale cliches like the wicked stepmother. I also lost patience with the writers' insistence on telling the story in verse, leading to doggerel like "Now be strong, get ready for battle/I will free you from your shackle." It's cute at first, but soon becomes cloying.
Still, Child of Light gets much right, from its charmingly pugnacious heroine to its distinctive images and music. It's an encouraging experiment from a big publisher like Ubisoft, and Lemuria is a world I'd be delighted to return to. Three stars out of four.