A Superlatively Worthy Successor to Rez
If anybody was going to be disappointed by Child of Eden, it would probably be me. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the game’s director, previously created the game Rez (another musical shooter), which revolutionized my view of games as a teenager. Rez made me realize--just as 2001: A Space Odyssey did for me with film--that the medium could be used for something more emotionally resonant than the commercial works that are most popular and best publicized. Since then, I’ve decided to pursue a career in game development, specifically on the artistic/independent side of the fence. I’m starting graduate school in a program that will allow me to critically study and create games that attempt to push the medium out of the toybox and into the art gallery (so to speak), and it is in no small part due to the courage of existing game designers like Mizuguchi who want to do more with games than create first person shooters that feature color palettes of little more than browns and greys, interrupted occasionally only by dark red blood.
So, yeah, Rez means a lot to me and I had high expectations for a game billed as its successor. So high, in fact, that I knew to temper them. Before the game’s release, I began my examination of my expectations at the soundtrack.
I knew going in that the game featured music from Mizuguchi’s band, Genki Rockets. I’d heard Genki Rockets tracks before and it’s generally a little too poppy for my tastes. I anticipated not enjoying the music of Child of Eden as much as I enjoyed the hard-edged electronica of Rez.
Turns out the music is fantastic. I honestly like the music so much that I’d love to listen to a Gamer’s Guide to Child of Eden. It’s definitely got much poppier and lighter moments than most--if not all--of the music from Rez, but it still gets dark and edgy for a good portion of the game. There are driving bass lines (especially towards the end of the final stage--ooh boy) and plenty of hard synth sounds. This makes the softer moments that much more exhilarating, and each stage really progresses in a beautifully dynamic way. I dare anybody who has played Child of Eden to argue that games aren’t art, because this game was designed to elicit an emotional response from its audience and it is successful beyond measure.
At this point, I’ve certainly revealed my hand in terms of my impressions of Child of Eden. I’ve been excited for it since its announcement and my enthusiasm for the game has only increased since actually playing it. I’ve spent a little under four hours with the game, which has been enough to complete each of the five stages (named ‘archives’ in the game) on the normal difficulty.
Now, this is where I’m sure some people will tune out. “Sixty dollars for a 4-hour game?!” Such a response is inappropriate for two reasons. First, the game retails for fifty. Second, if you can manage to only have Child of Eden running for four hours total after buying it, then--yes--this is not the game for you. The game has a plethora of unlockables, which range from collectibles which populate the visually striking (even when bare) main menu to options which really change the game. Some of these options include the ability to change the color palette of the entire game, much like one could in Beyond Mode in Rez. This may sound like a fairly trivial feature, but it really makes for an entirely fresh experience. There are other audio-visual unlocks (such as real-time audio filters), as well as a higher difficulty level (which, from what I’ve experienced, is really quite difficult indeed). The game really has a lot more replay value than it may appear to on the surface. There are also online leaderboards, if you’re into that sort of thing.
So far, I’ve made a lot of references to Rez and--frankly--such comparisons are inevitable. If you read this review and still aren’t sure if Child of Eden is for you, go buy Rez. It’s available on many platforms for a reasonable price (unless you go looking for the special edition PS2 release or something) and will definitely inform your decision to buy the game better than I can. Rez and Child of Eden are both extraordinary games and are very unique, but they are very similar to one another.
So, how are they different? The easiest answer to that question is graphical fidelity. Rez is a very minimalistic game and its visual design is largely informed by the processing power of the console it was originally designed for, the Sega Dreamcast. Console hardware has come a long way since then, and the visuals of Child of Eden have kept up with the times. While it is very colorful, abstract, and--in places--minimalistic like Rez was (it’s amazing how much mileage you can get out of cubes), the modern hardware of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 allows Child of Eden to escape the hard angles and wireframe models that defined the look of Rez. Everything is much more fluid and organic-looking in Child of Eden, and the result is a game that is almost as much fun to watch as it is to play. My girlfriend--who enjoys games, but mostly sticks to Nintendo properties--sat with me and was genuinely engaged by the look of the game. As I struggled to finish the final level of the game, she reminded me to come get her from the other room when I got past the point I kept dying at, which brings us to the next difference.
Child of Eden, while it is still an on-rails shooter, plays fairly differently than Rez. The actual game mechanics are only different in fairly subtle ways, but I would argue that they make for a much better game. Rez was basically a game that could be controlled entirely by two buttons and a joystick. This isn’t to say it was a dull experience, but Child of Eden deepens the gameplay by adding...another button! It may sound like a joke, but it really makes for a much more compelling game. In Rez, you had a button to lock-on to targets with your cursor, and these targets would be fired upon when you released the button. You also had a screen-clearing weapon, and both of these features return in Child of Eden. The addition is another weapon, which they call the tracer. The tracer is a fully automatic weapon that is used to clear away 1.) enemy projectiles and 2.) basically anything that is purple. In Rez, the objective was basically to shoot anything that appears on the screen with your lock-on targeting. By mixing up the gameplay--even if it seems like a very small change--Child of Eden feels much fresher and simply much more fun. Another change to the gameplay is a rhythm-based score modifier. If you max out your lock-on shots and then release them on the beat of the music, you get a scoring bonus. Rez was often miscategorized as a rhythm game because of its lack of any material benefit to acting in time with the music, but Child of Eden could very well be called a rhythm game because of this new mechanic.
I could be imagining it, but Child of Eden also seems like a considerably more difficult game than Rez. It’s more difficult in a rewarding way, however. In Rez, if you died it was probably because you simply weren’t shooting things fast enough. The gameplay in Child of Eden feels more cerebral than that. Sure, you may fail because you were too slow to shoot down an enemy projectile, but it’s just as likely that you weren’t using the right weapon. It sounds like a simple thing to do on paper, but in real-time it’s easy to use your lock-on weapon when you should be using your tracer. I have the benefit of logging dozens of hours of play in Rez, but I could see a newcomer to the franchise (a term I use loosely) having a pretty tough time with the game. The interaction is so much fun, though, that it hardly seems like a chore to repeat the same part of the game (which is to speak to its replay value). Being rewarded by beautiful music in Child of Eden is much more satisfying than the output of pretty much any other game.
I don’t want to sound like Ubisoft or Q Entertainment paid me to write this review, so I will include the following critical point. There is one difference between Child of Eden and Rez that I don’t really like. In Rez, you had a clear visual indicator on your cursor saying how many shots you’d locked on to targets. A number would appear in your targeting reticule reporting the number of targets you’d locked on to. In Child of Eden, however, a border incrementally fills around your reticule and then brightens slightly when you’ve reached the maximum number of lock-ons. I find that I have to look really closely at my screen (which is a typical living room-sized HDTV) to tell if I’ve reached the maximum and, though it’s a small issue, it’s something that makes playing the game less comfortable than it could be.
I’ve compared the two so often that Rez and Child of Eden must have some important things in common. They absolutely do. I’ve already mentioned the controls and general game mechanics, but there are definitely some other aspects of the game that are very similar.
The easiest comparison to make is in the games’ structures and stories. The story of Child of Eden isn’t the same as the one in Rez, but it definitely has a lot of the same qualities. Both games are also relatively short (objectively speaking) and feature just five main levels. There’s so much replayability, though, that this is not meant to be a complaint at all.
The most striking similarity between the two games is definitely in the level design, though. The final level is--in its structure and presentation--remarkably similar to the final level of Rez. Also, certain enemies and obstacles throughout all of the game’s levels made me have very specific flashbacks to Rez.
Is this a bad thing? I really can’t say that it is. Child of Eden seems like Rez 2.0, not Rez II, if that makes any sense. This is, in many ways, an updated and remixed version of Rez and that in itself is more than welcome in my game library. Hearing the same hand clap sample that I heard in Rez when I dry-fired my lock-on weapon is comforting and familiar, not disappointing and tired. Furthermore, I wouldn’t criticize Frank Zappa for using tuplets so often in his later music just because he had done it before. Tetsuya Mizuguchi used some of the same tools (figuratively speaking) for Child of Eden as he did for Rez, and it’s only natural for an artist not to throw away his or her entire toolbox when creating something new.
Child of Eden takes the foundation that was Rez and improves it in every way (except that darn reticule). If you liked Rez, then I have to recommend Child of Eden, because it dethrones the former as my new favorite game. Thank you, Tetsuya Mizuguchi.
P.S. I don’t own a Kinect. This game made me want one, though.
P.P.S. Ubisoft is sponsoring a game development contest over at Kongregate. The contest is promoting Child of Eden and will ultimately be judged by Tetsuya Mizuguchi himself. Naturally, I have an entry in it. If you enjoyed reading this review, be a pal and help me get my game in front of him by giving it a good rating. As I’ve indicated, he’s sort of an idol of mine.