Although the list of video game auteurs is short, few would deny Tetsuya Mizuguchi a spot. Focused as few designers are on engaging the player's senses, his M.O. has been to create games that mesh psychedelic visuals with ambient musical soundscapes. In a Mizuguchi game, the gameplay, as we usually think of it, is rudimentary. The focus is on synthesizing light, sound, and even touch to create a meditative sensation that is more about experiencing the moment than about pursuing goals.
Mizuguchi's first game in five years, Child of Eden, is an on-rails shooter in which the player controls little more than an aiming crosshair. Numerous targets appear onscreen, and, in classic shoot-'em-up fashion, the player must blast them all away while deflecting incoming fire. Standard stuff so far. But it all takes place in an ethereal outer-space setting against a pulsating electronic score.
The abstract visuals and trip-hop sounds aren't window dressing. The sounds are the visuals. Your rapid-fire weapon pulses with the precision of a snare roll. Your missiles lock onto targets with escalating musical tones. As the screen begins to fill with glittering, amorphous targets, disintegrating into arpeggios and exploding into chords, the whole thing starts to feel less like you're controlling it and more like it's sweeping you along an interdimensional current. That's when it works, anyway.
Mizuguchi is also interested in the tactile possibilities of games, which is why Child of Eden is designed to take advantage of the motion-controlled Kinect for Xbox 360. (A PlayStation 3 version, with Move support, will be released in September.) With your right hand, you sweep the cursor around to lock onto targets, and then drop your hand to fire. If you want to switch to rapid fire, raise your left hand instead. Simple, and reasonably effective.
But here's where we need to get pragmatic. The box says "Better with Kinect," but if the FTC were to investigate, no one could legally claim that Child of Eden is better so much as different with Kinect. Occasionally, hands-free control does seem to break down the barrier between player and game. Always, though, there is noticeable lag between your movements and the onscreen response. The gamepad provides a level of precision that the Kinect can't match. I started playing on Kinect, and found the challenge level to be decent, but when I switched to the gamepad I felt like I was playing basketball with an eight-foot hoop instead of the standard 10. The difference is that dramatic.
Either way, it's not too hard to blast through each of the game's five levels in just a few hours. I won't knock Child of Eden for being short. Frankly, although it's fun in bursts, it's just so damned earnest and twee. It could be hard to take in large servings, like eating a whole quart of ice cream. By the time my beams of righteous energy had resurrected the spirit of a long-dead girl whose DNA had been digitally archived, finally freeing her to sing a J-pop song in outer space, I felt like I had been the recipient of enough good vibes to last me the year. Still, given that last month's best-selling video game featured a crude-talking dudebro who willingly pulled a turd from the toilet, Tetsuya Mizuguchi's optimism and creativity are a breath of fresh air.