Child of Eden is the sort of game that brings out the worst in reviewers. It's a stunning game - innovative, smart and genuinely beautiful, with dazzling abstract graphics and screen-filling blooms of neon light and colour. Both the visuals and the gameplay are ingeniously tied to a fabulous electronic soundtrack, and there's a wonder to the way each level unfolds, combining audio, video and motion control into a powerful experience of music, light and colour. This is all too much for us.
Suddenly, people who spend most of their working lives comparing games in which you shoot people in the face start waxing lyrical as if they actually spend their evenings hanging out in galleries and reading poetry before wandering down to their local repertory for an evening of early Russian non-narrative film.
Now, when someone starts waffling on about “synaesthesia” before describing Child of Eden as a life-changing work of art, we'd take it with a pinch of salt. That doesn't mean, however, that it is not an extraordinary game (or a fascinating work of art). More importantly for some of us, it is the best reason in a good 6 months to own an Xbox 360 with Kinect.
We won't go too far into the premise or the plot, for the simple reason that the game doesn't really need it. All you need to know is that, at some point in the dim and distant future, whatever's left of humanity has recreated a girl inside some super future version of the Internet - Eden - with the intention of restoring the lost memories of the human race. All looks good, as evinced by video clips of the aforementioned lovely wandering around a garden in diaphanous gown, but then some viruses pop up and spoil the party. It's up to you to destroy the viruses by means of flying on-rails through the different parts of Eden, blasting away at the abusive chunks of code. Some of you may find this inspirational and deeply moving, while others will chuckle and make sarcastic comments about haircare adverts. What matters is how it all plays out.
To be brutally honest, playing Child of Eden involves standing in front of the screen, waving your right hand to move a targeting cursor. When the cursor passes over viruses it selects them for targeting, at which point thrusting your palm forwards will release energy beams to blow them up. Of course, the viruses won't take this lying down. Some of them will even fire back. Luckily, by thrusting your left hand forwards you can stream out rapid-fire shots, destroying missiles and any orange-coloured critters in your sights. Shoot blue spheres and you regain some energy. Shoot orange spheres and you can build up euphoria - a screen-clearing smart bomb you can fire by waving both arms aloft (increasing the sense that you're out at an early-90s rave). That's pretty much it.
Well, maybe not. Like its spiritual ancestor, Rez, Child of Eden is as much a rhythm action game as a shooter. Sure, you can get through the levels just by blasting everything that moves, but the real trick is in timing your waves of target and release so that the sounds you make blasting tie in with the pulse of the soundtrack. Get it right and the big scores beckon and your star ratings improve. As stars are the only way to unlock the next level, this is a fairly big deal.
Now, all of this might sound simple and maybe a bit pretentious, but play Child of Eden on a decent-sized screen with the sound whacked up and the lights turned down, and it really can be amazing. The Kinect controls are - with some caveats - responsive, and there's something about your direct physical interaction with the game that takes the experience to a whole new level. Not wishing to labour a point, the graphics and music are astonishing. Beyond the first levels geometric forms and neon glows you'll find weird worlds of organic, plant-like shapes, hulking whales and swimming manta-rays, butterflies, flowers and soaring birds. Strange, mechanical cityscapes emerge and collapse, and rockets blast through tunnels on their way to some unknown destination. As the music surges, chills, pumps and soothes, each level reaches a climax of furious sound and colour. It's the kind of sensory overload that leaves you feeling good.
As a game, though, Child of Eden isn't quite perfect. Despite having only five worlds and an unlockable challenge mode, length isn't actually a deal-breaker. We'd hate to see the power of the game diluted by stretching out the running time, and there's plenty of replay value, with multiple rewards, visual effects, difficulty levels and achievements to unlock as you come back. However, there are moments where the Kinect controls struggle to keep up with the pace, particularly when you need to switch between normal attacks and rapid fire to stave off missiles. A secondary control system where you clap to switch modes can help, but limits your efficiency in later levels. What's more, there are sections with sudden changes of view, or where you need to change the view yourself by dragging the cursor to the edge of the screen. At these points the action feels a little stiff and out of control, leading to frustration.
The answer, of course, is to try harder difficulty levels with the conventional Xbox 360 controller, and effectively play Child of Eden like a score attack arcade game. This works extremely well, with the beat of the music replicated in the rumble of the controller, and will give Rez fans the trip they've been looking for for the last decade.
Child of Eden might not have the staying power of some triple A blockbusters, but it is an extraordinary game that anyone with Kinect ought to play. We'd take some of the adulation with a pinch of salt, but when the spectacular visuals, powerful soundtrack and immersive, motion-controlled gameplay all kick in at once, it's a dazzling, trippy experience you really need to sample for yourself.