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Child of Eden review: A momentary masterpiece

So, here's the thing about Child of Eden: It is quite short. That's a somewhat pedestrian complaint to leverage against a game -- and an extraordinarily pedestrian complaint to leverage in the very first sentence of a review -- but it needs to be said right up front to temper your expectations. You can beat it in a single sitting (or, as the case may be, standing), with the game's five chapters clocking in at a scant 90 minutes. It ends with a swell, and leaves you with a despondent, unanswered wish for more.

It is also one of the most remarkable video games I've ever played. Not only does it represent the most complete realization of what the Kinect has to offer, it possesses the (perhaps childish) distinction of being, for lack of a better term, a "crying game." It will almost certainly conjure tears from its hardest players -- not because it is particularly sad or melancholic, but because it is stirring.

Gallery: Child of Eden (9/27/2010) | 12 Photos

Child of Eden tasks you with reviving Lumi, the first human born in space, whose digital imprint has been saved on a newfangled, highly stylized version of the internet. Her memory is under assault from a vast fleet of neon-hued viruses which the player must "purify" by sailing through the five beautifully infected archives which contain her personality. It sounds a tad silly on paper, but each glimpse you catch of the besieged Lumi (as well as the frequent glimpses of the ancient Earth she represents) is surprisingly invigorating.

It is at this point that you realize that you're not playing Child of Eden; you are conducting it.

Players purify each archive using the "Octo-Lock" laser, a returning armament from Q Entertainment's last on-rails rhythm shooter, Rez. Using this primary weapon, players can lock onto and destroy up to eight targets at a time, earning extra points if they activate the beam in sync with the background music. Players also have a Tracer beam that fires a constant stream of bullets which net the player fewer points -- however, certain targets can only be purified using the Tracer, including incoming missiles from enemy viruses.

Though returning Rez players seeking an authentic experience can use a standard controller to adequately romp through the colorful campaign, Child of Eden is made for motion controls. When playing with Kinect, the Octo-Lock is bound to your right hand, requiring you to dramatically thrust your palm forward to launch your targeted salvo. The left is bound to the Tracer, which you'll wield more frequently as the archives increase in difficulty. In the game's most frantic moments, you'll swap between weapons with frequency, moving your arms and pushing your hands to the rhythm of the music, trying to find a balance between survival and sound.

It is at this point that you realize that you're not playing Child of Eden; you are conducting it.

The proud progenitors of the Kinect bolstered its capacity for total immersion during its announcement, but no software for the device has delivered on that promise until now. When you reach this level of connection with each stunning stage of Child of Eden, the walls between player and game come crumbling down. It's more than just synesthesia -- it's an indescribable feeling of involvement which no other video game has elicited from me before.

Each of the five archives is designed to ensure that connection with a slowly peaking musical and visual arc. The prelude of each stage establishes its pacing and theme before tossing you into an increasingly panicked tunnel of viruses. As the level reaches a crescendo, you face off against the archive's boss -- an encounter which usually ends with a few blissful moments free from enemies, when the player can repeatedly Octo-Lock and fire on one of Lumi's virtual prisons as the music grows to a swell.

Each stanza brings tougher, trigger-happier foes for you to rebuff, instilling a sense of panic which only serves to heighten your sensory encapsulation. If the wall of enemies ever becomes too much, players can activate "Euphoria" by lifting both arms in the air (a gesture usually and appropriately reserved for abject hopelessness), purifying all the enemies and bullets on-screen.

Unfortunately, the game's vaulting difficulty is joined by a punishing outcome in the case of player failure. If hit too many times, the archive pulls to a dead stop, kicking you to the main menu. As each of the five archives lasts around 10 to 15 minutes, death during the crescendo means you'll have to play through the whole sequence again, starting from the prelude.

There are a few less hostile measures Child of Eden takes to artificially lengthen its brief campaign: Players can collect environmental objects to populate the game's main menu, unlock art galleries and music videos from Q Entertainment's in-house band Genki Rockets, and can discover different visual and audio filters which can be applied to the core game. There's also an extremely difficult 30-minute survival mode which offers a more competitive, score-centric stage -- though it lacks much of the core game's emotional punch.

These time-stretching bonuses simply aren't necessary. Q Entertainment's decision to create a game shorter than most feature-length films and then charge fifty bucks for it is an astonishingly bold one. This decision might have engendered ill will towards the company, if it weren't for this one conceit: Child of Eden is absolutely essential.

Some players may be hung up by its brevity, but if its extension would have depreciated how breathtaking the rest of the game is, I don't think I'd have it any other way.
This review is based on a debug review copy of Child of Eden for Xbox 360 provided by Ubisoft.

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