Review: Children of the Sun

9 Apr 2024

Every once in a blue moon, an upcoming game release will immediately grab my attention. Be it a snappy title, a striking visual style, or an intriguing gameplay mechanic, any combination of them are more than enough to drive me to take a closer look at a game. On even rarer occasions, a new release will seemingly boast all three.

This is the reason Children of the Sun, releasing April 9th, 2024 from developer René Rother and publisher Devolver Digital for PC, caught my eye so strongly. Its bold aesthetic and status as a puzzle-shooter warranted a closer look, and it ended up being one I was more than happy to take—even in spite of a few snags.

Follow the Leader

All one really needs to know about Children of the Sun’s narrative prior to jumping in is exactly what’s on the Steam page. You control a character known as The Girl and see her through a quest for bloody revenge against The Cult through the scope (or more specifically the bullet) of her sniper rifle in pursuit of its leader. As she travels from location to location, she takes down encampments of cultists with a single bullet by means of her telekinetic powers.

As you progress, Children of the Sun tends to hold the minutiae of its plot, characters, and order of events rather close to the chest. Between stages, the player is treated to sequences of highly detailed, gritty artwork that express—but never outright exposit—the plot. Instead, it asks the player to take in the visual information and fill in a decent amount of the blanks themselves with the time they’re on display.

It walks a fine line with this approach, though. Even without dialogue, no story development comes out of left field or is overly vague to the point of leaving the player in the dark. It probably won’t startle you or garner as much investment as a more direct storytelling method might have, but it does add to the overall engagement with the game, pulling the player into the experience on a level comparable to the gameplay itself.

Bullet Time

Children of the Sun is, when getting down to brass tacks, a puzzle game largely from the perspective of a single bullet. Each stage starts with you moving The Girl on a two-dimensional path, discovering your enemies, marking them to keep track of where they are, and then loosing a bullet to take them down. Each time a bullet successfully hits a target, the player is once again able to fire the same bullet in a new direction to take out the next until everything is dead. If the bullet misses its target it’s back to square one of the current stage, although your marks will carry over to your subsequent attempts.

It’s a simple concept that’s immediately easy to digest as you start playing, but perhaps Children of the Sun’s greatest success is the pace at which it introduces new wrinkles to the gameplay. What starts out as a simple process of figuring out the best angle to start your takedown spree slowly morphs into a balancing act of not only finding the ideal starting position, but also dealing with problematic stage hazards and layouts, keeping track of the enemies, and saving your powers for the best possible moment to see it through to the end.

Does this stage with nine enemies have a clear path through all of them? How many of them are on patrol? Are there any birds or fish to use as backup if you make the wrong decision in the order of enemies and need to reorient yourself? And how in the world are you going to get to that one enemy when he’s so far removed form everyone else?

Finding the solutions to questions like these through trial and error is a big part of the experience, and Children of the Sun is at its best when its encouraging you to answer them in tandem with managing your powers and overcoming the unique limitations each stage will put on you. With multiple solutions for every level and the ability to correct (some of) your mistakes with smart thinking, it reaches this level of fun pretty consistently. It poses a level of challenge that certainly requires some problem solving and multiple attempts, but it never feels insurmountable.

You cannot, for example, typically bank a bullet at a ninety degree angle around a corner and you’re similarly limited in vertical movement, but there are certain moments from which you can pull off some very narrow saves as long as your positioning is correct. The hitboxes are also very precise; a surefire shot can go south immediately if you forgot to account for the direction that bird was flying or the speed at which that enemy was clapping their hands as you went for their weak point.

One of my first standout moments occurred at a campsite stage with a pickup truck doing donuts while onlookers cheered the driver on. By the time I’d finished with the onlookers, I realized the truck had gotten much further than I’d expected, but I went for it anyway. After shooting the bullet and taking direct control over it at the right time, I was able to slowly correct its course in tandem with the drifting truck to guide it to the driver and clear the stage.

After a certain point, moments like this become pretty common in Children of the Sun and feel very cinematic. On top of the already solid puzzle solving elements, it becomes a very cohesive gameplay loop that’s difficult to put down after a short stint with it. Moreover, replaying each stage is encouraged through every level’s secret objective which is hinted at below its title, but there’s also the traditional method of trying to earn a higher score or complete a stage more quickly for the leaderboards.

Unfortunately, there is something of a sore spot in the fact that you’ll be reaching the credits at around the four-hour mark. Its length ensures that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, but by the same token I couldn’t help but feel as though things ended too soon. The stages waste no time in inserting a new mechanic or complexity with each one, but by the time I really got stuck in? I was already nearing the end. There was a bit more room to expand the gameplay and levels even further here. Enjoyment of the game is also based pretty heavily on how much you enjoy trial and error with your puzzlers. I’m a fan of it myself, but I could absolutely see someone becoming frustrated with needing to start over after each failure just to attempt something new at a later point.

Sights Unseen

Presentation is one of Children of the Sun’s strongest suits. There’s some pretty striking imagery and framing, especially when it comes to the artwork stills that comprise the cutscenes. It extends to the gameplay itself as well, with the 3D-rendered visuals opting for a style somewhere between blocky pixelation and realism. There’s a big emphasis on contrasting colors and darkness, which assists in the game’s overall presentation and helps to establish atmosphere, though it can make it more difficult to track down every enemy than it probably should in select spots.

The modeling and animation work themselves can definitely fall on the rougher side sometimes, as well. It’s particularly easy to see with certain movement animations and a lack of detail with some character models, but the stylistic flourishes mentioned above do a decent amount to offset the areas that are lacking. Conversely, the slow motion while aiming the bullet is always a treat, such as when you eliminate an enemy by striking an explosive and send them flying away.

The soundtrack is as ethereal and contemplative in some spots as it is dissonant and droning in others. During cutscenes, there’s a harshness to the sound design that naturally complements the visuals being displayed, and while you’re trying to figure out your next move during gameplay, things are a bit more subdued to allow the player some room to think.

One At A Time

If you’re fan of snappy, unique puzzle gameplay and short time commitments, Children of the Sun is going to absolutely be your jam. By consistently introducing new gameplay twists and building on its complexity, it creates an addictive gameplay loop where each stage asks the player to do a new kind of problem-solving and utilize the tools they’ve unlocked in a different way. Your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy trial and error, and the game could certainly have kept the ball rolling for longer than it does, but Children of the Sun remains a highly unique experience that’s well worth your time.

~ Final Score: 8/10 ~

Review code provided by Devolver Digital for PC. Screenshots taken by writer. Featured image courtesy of Devolver Digital.