Games like Child Of Eden are rarely the subject of such intense scrutiny. Experimental, idiosyncratic, psychedelic, with only a wisp of a plot to hold the experience together, the latest synaesthetic opus from Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Q Entertainment should be a curate's egg; like Rez and like Lumines, a game that is proselytised more than it is played.
Kinect has changed all that. The early promise of Microsoft's all-seeing eye has failed to yield any truly essential games, but ever since its announcement at E3 2010 Child Of Eden has been the shining beacon of hope for both core gamers and anyone interested in the Kinect's ability to simulate more than just a few frames of bowling. The deluge of shooters at this year's E3 might suggest otherwise, but gamers want new experiences; to see, hear, feel and interact in ways that can't be replicated in any other medium. That is the promise of Kinect, and the mission statement of Child Of Eden.
It is also evident in the split between reviews of the game's different versions. At the time of writing, Metacritic has collected 16 Xbox 360 reviews, but not a single one for PlayStation 3. Microsoft should be thankful; through no particular effort of its own, Ubisoft has published a multi-platform game that looks for all the world like a platform exclusive. The fact that Child Of Eden also seems to be the best Kinect game to date merely gilds the lily.
The Daily Telegraph's Tom Hoggins is full of praise for the way the violence that underpins so many games is turned on its head. "Every hit creates, rather than destroys, piling visual and aural building blocks onto a scene that's part video-game, part music synthesiser... That you bring life, rather than death, to the world is the difference that makes Child of Eden so exhilarating, emotive and empowering."
And that power would be severely diminished without Kinect. Child Of Eden can be played with a control pad, but while Hoggins expresses frustration with the occasional lack of precision, he is unequivocal in his praise for those moments when the combination of gestural input and audio-visual feedback cohere into a fluid experience.
"The shooting isn't a slave to the aesthetic, rather they work together to create something quite beautiful... "Tom Hoggins, The Telegraph
"The shooting isn't a slave to the aesthetic, rather they work together to create something quite beautiful... Many Xbox 360 games have been emblazoned with the slogan "Better with Kinect" on their covers, but Child of Eden is the first game where it rings true."
"It's a glorious feeling as you switch between hands, locking onto a cluster of infected with your right hand, sweeping away enemy fire with your left, before switching back to your right to purify your quarry in a sparkle of intoxicating colour and sound. Using Kinect removes a barrier, empowering you to reach in and affect this world, like the conductor of a synaesthetic symphony. Apparently Child of Eden wasn't conceived as a Kinect game to begin with, but their coupling is a brilliant one."
Game Informer's Annette Gonzalez is somewhat more reserved in her praise. It says a lot about Child Of Eden that its harshest critics are still willing to award 8 out of 10, but Gonzalez posits that the game draws to a close just as it seems to be hitting its stride.
"Players move through Eden's beautiful environments at a...more deliberate pace to give players a chance to absorb the game's gorgeous design, which at times feels a little too slow. The game is at its best in the few high-speed, frantic shooting sequences sprinkled across the archives. It wasn't until the second to last archive, Passion, that I had a true appreciation of Mizuguchi's vision... My excitement grew as I zipped through the final archive that followed, but like Rez, Child of Eden abruptly ends the immersive experience right when it hits its stride."
"Archives" are Child Of Eden's equivalent of levels or missions, and while there is a smattering of extra content designed to add replay value, Gonzalez warns that the Archives are both too brief and too few to fully justify a full-price release. "Each of Child of Eden's five archives takes a mere 10 to 25 minutes to complete, putting game length closer to those of downloadable titles."
Over at Eurogamer, Simon Parkin has a different and decidedly more positive take on the game's brevity. For all its swirling visuals and besieged virtual ladies, at its core Child Of Eden is a defiantly old-school proposition. "Players who value arithmetic over art can rest easy: Child of Eden is an orthodox video game, with criteria for success and failure, ranks to achieve, percentages to claim, leaderboards to climb and prizes to win."
Parkin acknowledges that the game's effect transcends its mechanics with exuberant ease, but it's important to remember that Child Of Eden's Archives are designed to be revisited again and again. "These stages, songs and visuals comfortably bear repeating, revealing their secrets with slow but dependable regularity."
Each of Child of Eden's five archives takes a mere 10 to 25 minutes to complete, putting game length closer to those of downloadable titles.Anita Gonzalez, Game Informer
"Once you've experienced the jaw-dropping sights on offer, the more gritty business of competition and completion begins. Within these parameters, Child of Eden is indisputably best played like Rez: with a controller. The accuracy of the analogue stick combined with the short jabbing motions required to switch between shot types make this a more precise, controlled experience."
And in the bitter struggle to deliver the most stirring précis of the Child Of Eden experience, Parkin wins by a nose. If Child Of Eden manages to find a large audience among the hordes of software-starved Kinect owners, it will be the most willfully strange hit of the year.
"Instead of a soliloquy, we get a space whale. Your lock-on fire turns the hot barnacles on its back to glittering jewels. Coat the creature in a blanket of diamonds and it tears off into the Milky Way, disintegrating into a shower of gems that dissipate into nothingness before reassembling as a swooping phoenix. Shoot this creature's wings and bloom-effect feathers scatter.
"Later, in the industrial world of Passion, where giant cogs clank overhead, a steam train rattles past, morphing into a high-speed bullet train as you evolve it with your transformative bullets. If Rez was an excursion through a series of abstract shape landscapes, Child of Eden is an out-of-body tour through human history, cherry-picking moments in humanity's rise from ocean depths to rocket ships: snapshots that are far from comprehensive, but curiously cohesive all the same."
For sheer enthusiasm, however, nothing trumps Griffin McIlroy's five-star review on Joystiq. "In the game's most frantic moments, you'll swap between weapons with frequency, moving your arms and pushing your hands to the rhythm of the music, trying to find a balance between survival and sound... When you reach this level of connection with each stunning stage of Child of Eden, the walls between player and game come crumbling down. It's more than just synesthesia – it's an indescribable feeling of involvement which no other video game has elicited from me before."
It is wise to be suspicious of such effusive praise, but the singularity of what Child Of Eden asks the player to do and feel makes it far easier to believe. Besides, McIlroy cheerfully acknowledges the game's flaws, and is one of the few reviewers to single out its difficulty spikes, and the "punishing" way that death results in the player being kicked back to the very start of the Archive, even if they were just moments away from the finish. Also, just in case you haven't heard, Child Of Eden is also short.
"That's a somewhat pedestrian complaint to leverage against a game, but it needs to be said right up front to temper your expectations. You can beat it in a single sitting...with the game's five chapters clocking in at a scant 90 minutes. It ends with a swell, and leaves you with a despondent, unanswered wish for more. It is also one of the most remarkable video games I've ever played."