I’ve played a whole lot of puzzle games in my life, but I can safely say that I’ve never played one as pitch-black as Children of the Sun.
Published by Devolver Digital, the newly announced Children of the Sun is an unholy hybrid between a shooter and a spatial reasoning game. It follows a lone wolf with a sniper rifle on a bloody quest for revenge against an evil religious cult. He has to take out swaths of zealots one bullet at a time. It’s as dark as video game premises get, but one that’s steeped in a clever genre fusion. After trying its challenging and bloody first levels, you can consider my curiosity morbidly piqued.
Children of the Sun wears its tone on its sleeve. Cutscenes between levels tease out a bloody cultist story in a wordless motion comic complete with raw illustrations. At first glance, it comes off as a little overly edgy. “Evil religious cult” has become one of gaming’s most overused clichés at this point — three of the last four games I’ve played this year use the trope. Fortunately, developer René Rother seems to be going for more of a tone piece than a deep story here. It nails that aspect, using dark visuals and oppressive electronic music that give the world a creeping sense of dread.
More successful is the core gameplay loop, which is an ingenious blend of genres. The core concept is easy enough:snipe every enemy in a small level. That’s handled in a way that’s unlike any shooter I’ve ever seen, though. When I load into a level, I can move my character left and right in third-person. They can circle around an arena and scout out enemies. By looking through my scope, I can mark foes and tools like gas tanks that could be helpful during my run. Once I’ve cased the joint and am ready to pull the trigger, the grotesque fun really starts.
The twist is that I have to kill everyone with one single, metaphysical bullet. When I hit a target, time slows down and I can redirect the bullet somewhere else. The goal is to bounce between enemies and environmental hazards in one go. If I miss or hit the ground, I have to start again.
That idea starts simply enough. See four guys out in the open? I bounce between them with ease. The puzzle hook comes in when Children of the Sun starts peppering in spatial logic problems. I need to figure out the correct path I can take in some levels so I can hit every target. In one stage, that means strategically shooting through windows to hit a target and bouncing out the front door to hit someone else in view. Another level has zealots milling around a trainyard, and I need to aim through moving trains to thread the needle.
In the first 15 levels I played, it was clear that Children of the Sun knows how to keep that twist fresh. Sometimes I’ll see birds flying over head, which are a perfect way to get an aerial view of the level without breaking my chain. An even tougher one has me trying to hit moving targets in cars, which requires some precision timing.
That might sound a little difficult, but it’s made much easier than it sounds thanks to some assists. When I fire the bullet, I’m able to slow it down in midair and tweak its direction within a certain range. Later, I gain the ability to more fully redirect a shot if I hit enough enemy weak points and build up a yellow meter. With that worry out of the way, I can focus my attention on clever routing instead of exact precision.
There’s really nothing like it, but the best comparison I can draw at present is Superhot by way of the Sniper Elite series — and perhaps with a dash of Killer7 thrown in for good measure. It’s the same kind of shooter deconstruction that trades in fast-paced action for critical thought and planning. The jury’s out on whether or not its overwhelmingly grim story will hold my interest in the long-run, but I’ll be ready to pick up the scope again and inspect it closer when the full game launches.
Children of the Sun will launch on PC in 2024.
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