It's unavoidable; talking about Child of Eden with any kind of enthusiasm makes you sound like a pretentious twat. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's sensory spectacular is an ambassador for the age-old 'games as art' debate, an experience that panders to the highbrow with an interactive kaleidoscope of colour, shape and sound. And yet at its core, it's little more than a (very well disguised) on-rails shooter. Through rhythm, thought-provoking imagery and the lucid melodies of Genki Rockets, however, it manages to transcend the perception of what a game actually is.
See? One paragraph in and I'm already spouting a load of bombastic drivel.
It does highlight what a whimsical experience Child of Eden is, though. Let's not gloss over the importance of Kinect here. For eight months the tech has served as little more than a gimmick for sports compendiums and dance games. With Mizuguchi's passion to spur the medium on to 'sense-o-rama'behind it, however, waving your arms about in front of the TV becomes something much more interesting.
As you float through the abstract cosmos of Eden - a tangible cyberspace you've been sent to purge a virus from, thus saving the first space-born human, Lumi, who has had her consciousness digitally stored there - your arms become fleshy laser weapons. Waving your right hand in front of the screen can lock-on to up to eight enemies, then thrusting your palm forward will send a flurry of rocket-like projectiles their way. Your left hand compliments this with a stream of purple machine-gun bullets - the tracer, it's called. At its core, the game is about knowing which hand to use and when.
Whilst you might feel like one, a five-point health bar in the corner of the screen emphasises the fact that you are not an omnipotent floating space wizard. You will get shot at. You'll quickly develop an eye for the colour purple, which denotes enemy projectiles hurtling towards the camera. Killing the source of these malicious missiles is usually a good way to go about surviving.
If you buy into the game's narrative, you're not actually killing enemies at all; you're purifying Eden of digital anomalies, the parasites of Lumi's conscious. With each enemy you 'delete', a melodic cry rings through Eden. Different enemies produce different sounds: beeps and bops, plips and plops. Even the act of locking onto an enemy comes with its own musical motif, each note adding to the soundtrack as a whole. Contributing to the sound and rhythm with a few majestic manoeuvres of your limbs is more satisfying than you might imagine.
If you want the full experience, try popping the 360 pad down your trousers (or just in your pocket), as tactile feedback manages to add a lot to the game. It's pleasantly forward thinking from Mizuguchi - hopefully a trick that other developers will implement with Kinect hence forth. Kinect is very much optional, of course. I gravitated towards the pad after a few hours - the reticule might be slightly smaller, but anybody lusting after high scores will welcome the increased accuracy.
Also, playing for any longer than half an hour is pretty tough-going on the old arms. I'm pathetic, I know.
The game is split across the five layers of Lumi's consciousness, or 'archives' as they're known. These move through several themes, each punctuated with its own memorable set-pieces and boss fights, if you can call them that. Where 'Beauty' is constructed from rivers, butterflies and floral enemies, 'Passion' offers a contrast of gears and intricate mechanisms, with trains, rockets and a network of satellites as targets.
Music knits each stage together, complimenting the difficulty of each section, giving it peaks and troughs. It's hard to imagine anything but the soothing electronic beats of Genki Rockets supplying the music for the game. In a very meta-sense, it's a perfect fit for the narrative, too. Lumi is the very face of Genki Rockets - the hybrid band in which Mizuguchi has some involvement - and as each level builds towards its thunderous crescendo, images of the young star-child intertwine with the abstract geometry. It's clear at these points you're doing a good job. The digital disease is being successfully vanquished.
Child of Eden might be a fantastical journey through an otherworldly ether, beautiful and hypnotic, but it's still a game. Your performance is graded at the end of each level, with up to three stars reflecting your score.
Completing one archive does not necessarily unlock the next. You'll need to amass a set number of stars to open the next level. While often it's nice to be gently pushed into replaying a level with the incentive of high scores and rewards, it's never nice to be forced. In Child of Eden, there's no progression without repetition. I completed Evolution (the shortest archive, as far as I can tell), no less than five times in order to amass enough stars to finish the game.
A lack of checkpoints also frustrated me somewhat. Dying at the very end of a 15 minute level - which happens a fair amount until you're familiar with the exact pattern of harder sections - boots you right back to the menu screen, where you're simply forced to try the whole thing again. In some ways, I appreciated the strictness of it all, the slightly retro nature of the game. At the same time, I just resented having to repeat large chunks over and over again.
It's probably a good thing though, thinking about it. I completed the game in a paltry three hours, which would have been less if I hadn't had to replay so much. On top of this, though, there is a sixth archive to unlock, which has levels within itself, presenting a more score-focused way to play. There are other reasons to keep playing, too. Completing an archive offers one of four organic lifeforms to furnish Lumi's Garden - the interactive menu that precedes the game. Filling the garden with each and every one of these collectibles takes some time - but it's worth it. As I've spoken about before, Lumi's garden is a fascinating little time-waster in it's own right.
Mizuguchi believes that games can change the world, and that the medium is to become more and more of a sensory experience. Child of Eden is a great example of this vision. It combines visuals and audio in a way that only Rez has managed to do before it. It's a welcome palette cleanser in a particularly heavy year of violent shooters.
Close your eyes after playing, and a carnival of neon sea-creatures and fluorescent shapes will pulsate under your eye-lids. Child of Eden will linger in your conscious long after playing. While it's a fleeting and - on rare occasions - frustrating experience, it'll leave its mark on 2011 in just the same way.