Version tested: Xbox 360
The language of video games is long established. Mario verbs such as 'jump' and 'pound' joined Pong's 'deflect', Space Invaders' 'shoot' and Zelda's 'explore' in the medium's formative years to build a basic vocabulary that few deviate from even now, thirty-odd years down the line. Child of Eden, pseudo-sequel to Tetsuya Mizuguchi's seminal trance shooter Rez, is notable then for adding two new words to gaming's lexicon: 'grasp' and 'splay'.
These actions occur on our side of the screen where, 99 per cent of the time, video game players merely twitch thumbs to exert their will. But here, you stand in front of the television, watched by the unblinking eye of the Kinect camera, painting on-screen targets - up to eight at a time - with sweeps of your grasping hand.
Then, when you are ready, you splay your fingers outward, as if throwing a fistful of sand away from yourself. In one motion a clutch of tracer bullets tears off into the screen toward the highlighted targets. 'Grasp' and 'splay': Mizuguchi's lingiustic gift to motion-control gaming.
Child of Eden - which can be played either with Kinect or using a standard controller - is an on-rails shoot-'em-up. This is important to state from the outset, because the lights and music and idiosyncratic ambiance can disguise what's going on at a mechanical level. You must shoot them before they shoot you. If your health bar - represented sometimes as petals on a flower, other times as dials on an art deco clock - is emptied, then it's game over and you must try again.
There are two types of fire: lock-on rockets (fired with the right hand) and a machine-gun volley of purple dots (fired with the left). Enemies are susceptible to one or the other. There are end-of-level bosses with attack patterns and weak spots and, at the climax of each of the five core stages, you are awarded a rating and score based on your performance.
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.
But to reduce the game to its structural components is to miss the wood for the trees. As with Rez, Mizuguchi appears to have a higher purpose than score attack, despite his own Sega Rally arcade heritage. Child of Eden is an audio-visual journey in every sense of the word. It takes you from one place and one state to another; it hopes to leave you a different person to the one who embarked upon it.
Your bullets, such as they are, have a rhythmic quality, each target struck sounding out a quantized note that adds seasoning to the music that rolls steadily underneath. That music, composed by Mizuguchi's band Genki Rockets and friends, builds to a series of postponed then protracted climaxes; the game draws you in and carries you along their sound waves, part spectator, part conductor.
In contrast to Rez's digital, angular enemies, Child of Eden's targets are organic. You often shoot not to destroy, but to build; your bullets can be catalysts for creation, causing flowers to blossom when you shoot a plant, or triggering deep-sea creature shapes to evolve from one form to the next. There's a feeling that, while this world is filled with peril, it's also filled with creative opportunity. Your role in it is not merely to tear down, as in so many shooters, but to build up.
This theme is threaded into the simplest of narratives. Lumi, the first human child born on a space station, is being digitally reconstructed by a future generation who wish to view her memories. But she's under threat of attack by a virus, which must be expunged to allow her memories to fully reveal themselves. It's a whisper of a story (originally penned in a poem Mizuguchi wrote after Rez) and it's told not through cut-scene or dialogue but through colour, shape and glimpses of the filmed actress who plays the role of the girl you are sent to save.
So 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. Aim at the red sphere beating at its centre and Lumi herself flashes up onto the screen, crying out in pain and euphoria as her memory is, shot by shot, realised, redeemed.
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.
If you want the full-body physical experience - feeling part of the music, sweeping your arms like a conductor in wide arcs that call the timpani section to action at your signal - then Kinect is the way to play Child of Eden. With the lights down low and the right ambiance and mind-set, it's a dance-like experience - but not in the orthodox video game understanding of Simon-says rhythm-action routines.
Rather, you move with the light and music and as the chords rise wave after heightening wave; it's close to a transcendent experience, the kind you might have alone in a 2am club, or atop a mountain at sunrise with your headphones on. Play the game for a while and you'll unlock 'Feel Eden', a non-difficulty level in which you are free to motion your way through its soundscapes, impervious to attack. Perhaps this is the peril-free Eden Mizuguchi always envisaged.
But 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.
In particular, the Euphoria special move, which clears all enemy bullets from the screen, is practically unusable with Kinect as it's triggered by holding both hands aloft - a motion that also hauls the camera upwards and away from the action with a nauseating lunge. With a standard controller, however, Euphoria works like a standard smart bomb.
The five basic worlds are challenging, and unlocking the next in sequence isn't merely a case of completing the previous journey but of amassing enough performance stars. As such, you'll need to play and replay each stage in order to win progress, a demand that some may find harsh and off-putting. But these stages, songs and visuals comfortably bear repeating, revealing their secrets with slow but dependable regularity. The kinetic and musically eclectic sixth world Hope, unlocked when you complete the others, is a worthy pay-off.
As with all of Mizuguchi's work, Child of Eden offers a memorable journey and a strong sense of development. But where Rez was concerned with the evolution of the player character, which transformed from amoebic blob to running man, the auteur's latest is about the evolution of the world around the player.
It leaves you with a peculiar sense of power: it feels as though you have the influence of a redemptive god, restoring a fallen world back to its Eden state after a corrupting virus. A splay of the fingers and what is broken is repaired, what is begun is finished. Alpha and Omega. Grasp and splay.
9 / 10