Child of Eden has an unfair burden to carry. As an unofficial sequel to Rez, it's getting compared to a game that's had time for opinions to mature and improve as the years flew by. Child of Eden is a wonderfully beautiful experience but lacks the spark that made its prequel a true classic of the rail-shooter genre. Which isn't to say it's not a good game, of course.
A virus has infected Eden, which is what the Internet evolved into over time, and it's threatening the AI Lumi. You need to go in, fire purifying bullets to transform the corrupted programs of Eden back into creatures of light, and rescue Lumi from whatever unspecified fate the virus has in store for her. Enemies pop up in pre-scripted waves, fire back now and then, and generally act as cannon fodder for an intense audiovisual overload. It's a fantastic and challenging ride when everything fits together perfectly, but that doesn't happen as often as it should.
Child of Eden's a fantastic and challenging ride when everything fits together perfectly.
The biggest problem Child of Eden faces is that, in order for what it's trying to do to work, it needs three things to click together perfectly. The audio, video, and gameplay are all equally important to make the experience become what it's trying to be. Unfortunately, the gameplay is the only element consistently up to the task.
There are two types of shot to choose from, lock-on and tracer, and each is useful depending on the situation. Lock-on is the standard shot, where you highlight enemies and then fire a burst of up to eight rays of purifying light. Locking on to eight targets is an octo-lock, and firing it on the beat of the music activates the score multiplier. Each successive octo-lock raises the multiplier, up to x8, and falling out of rhythm drops is back to x2. On the plus side this enhances the importance of the music to the gameplay, but the downside is that it can be a pain when there's a lot going on or the music goes quiet. The tracer is easier to use, being basically a rapid shot good for taking out bullets or purple enemies, but there's no score multiplier associated with it.
While the gameplay is consistently good, barring the somewhat obnoxious multiplier, the audio and video elements don't always hold up their part of the experience. Part of the problem comes from the volume of nature imagery used, which can be incredibly hard to get right. In Level 3 (Beauty), for example, water lilies rise from a river and shoot flowers into the air. Shooting the lilies twice causes them to bloom into spinning flowers of light that then disappear, and they look amazingly pretty doing so. The water the lilies are floating on, on the other hand, doesn't fare anywhere near as well. The water moves in a way that is completely non-watery, and the reflections don't look right at all. The next part of the level has trees growing from the water, and like the tree roots that make up the backdrop of a large section of level 2, they come off as a bit too un-detailed.
There's no question that rendering the natural world isn't easy, but several levels of Child of Eden use the beauty of nature as a theme to mixed results. Flowers come off gorgeous and detailed, water and trees not so much. The mechanical world of Level 4 (Passion) looks amazing from start to finish, Lumi looking like a real person filmed and inserted into the game by FMV is cheesy and wrong. Most of the time the style of enemies and background all pull together to make an amazing whole, but the bits where various elements fail stand out sharply.
The final element of music also has the same issue of variable quality. All the music in the game is from producer Tetsuya Mizuguchi's band Genki Rockets, and it wouldn't be unfair to say Child of Eden is a giant interactive video for the band. While Genki Rockets is very good at what it does, that means it's good at generic J-Pop featuring a clear-voiced but unremarkable lead singer. The songs are mostly forgettable, but nice enough to purify waves of enemies into shining beings of light to. Seriously though, does "Heavenly Star" really need to be featured in yet another video game? There's never a call to inflict a trite, stupid sentiment like "just believe what's in your heart" on someone.
Despite all this, Child of Eden is better than the sum of its parts. The music is mostly instrumental, so Lumi isn't inflicting cliches on you all that often. The mix of art styles sticks mostly to abstract or a stylized vision of nature, with the machinery of Level 4 being a particular favorite. When the beat gets moving, the enemies popping up in waves, and the lock-on generating a steady stream of x8 shots interspersed with using the tracer to take out incoming bullets, Child of Eden is an utterly absorbing, beautiful, uplifting experience. While it would have been nice if these bits comprised the full game, they happen often enough to make Child of Eden a journey worth taking.