A couple of years ago, Neon White took over the video game world for a hot minute. Obviously its manga-inspired presentation was a big part of the appeal, though I’d argue it was the flashy, fleeting moments of glory that were so frequent in what was ultimately a game about conquering a speedrunning gauntlet.
Children of the Sun, the new joint between Devolver Digital and solo Belgian developer René Rother, very much recaptures this addictive, enormously replayable brand of gameplay and I think it has potential to be the year’s indie gem that critics flock to. In spite of confronting concepts and violence that drive its enigmatic plot forward, it’s such a moreish blend of action and puzzle-solving.
I can’t get enough.
Although it’s hard to gauge just how much of the game the preview build contains, I got to play a good couple of hours of Children of the Sun and, straight away, it hooks you with a clever, yet simple, idea. Not only do you control The Girl, a tortured and ruined soul, in her revenge plot against an exploitative cult and its leader, you’re also in control of a single round fired from her rifle dispensed after scouting the perimeter of each scenario for the best path through the fodder cultists. After an explosive exit from the barrel, you guide the bullet to your first unsuspecting mark, and it’s with every successful kill—both direct and indirect—that you’re able to gain your bearings, re-aim and fire off again with physics-defying precision.
If you miss, however, it’s curtains and you’re forced to try again. Coupled with the grisly task at hand, each level has a challenge that’s generally tied to an element found in the scene. A memorable one tasked The Girl with shooting the fuel tanks on the cars that the cultists are congregating around, resulting in a spectacular explosion of fiery limbs. Not only do these add a unique spin on each stage, they add another thing for score chasers to go for.
Obviously, the puzzle elements come from scouting an area, marking all of the targets within it, and then formulating the quickest and most efficient way to return them to their makers. As far as the game’s scoring goes, and it does appear to be a competitive leaderboard early doors, you’re rewarded for both speed and planning. The closer your journey draws you toward the cult’s leader, you’ll not only meet tougher, shielded enemies that require a shift in strategy but you’ll even gain abilities that border on magic such as curving a round’s trajectory mid-flight. Clearly, the more mechanics that are layered in the more taxing hunting the top-percentile on the leaderboards becomes, but that’s the beauty and fun of the hunt.
While I, at times, got hints of themes surrounding female empowerment in Children of the Sun, purely due to The Girl’s ceaseless crusade that seems to harken back to that famous cold dish of revenge, I also feel as though the implied torture and punishment that has pushed the protagonist to the point of breaking sees these themes land less gracefully than something like Kill Bill. I expect its intent is to challenge, though by untethering The Girl from reality and painting her as mad as a hatter, living off of the land as she stalks the figurehead of this group that promised so much yet delivered so little in terms of spiritual contentment, her payback is left feeling more tragic than anything.
Perhaps it’s that this two-hour slice didn’t reveal enough of The Girl’s history to make her seem like anything other than a forever-wild-eyed instrument of malice who’s incapable of any other emotion except perhaps the arousal that comes from polishing her gun—which, yes, is an actual, interactive scene that slots inexplicably between the carnage.
There’s no denying that Children of the Sun is a fun, albeit bleak, game presented as a checklisted road trip of retribution for the protagonist. It has an irresistible visual flair that calls to mind the digitised-degradation of old video tapes, and it’s drab and cheerless taking place almost exclusively at night or, if you’re lucky, dusk. The shooting gallery and its inherent cruelty is ushered along by a cacophonous industrial soundscape that’s jarring and uncomfortable. I do adore much of the imagery in Children of the Sun, from the cult’s almost luminous uniform that sees them pop like targets against the dark woods to The Girl’s hand-crafted mask, which is nondescript and featureless except for the crude cut out holes that her feral eyes peer through.
If your aim is to be a contender on the leaderboards, keyboard and mouse will clearly be the way to go. That said, I pretty much exclusively played on Steam Deck and found it to still be a comfortable layout for controls, far more so than I found Neon White on a handheld. General performance on the Steam Deck was sturdy, and the game’s replayability feels so suited to hardware you can take with you on the go.
There’s so much odd curiosity that makes up Children of the Sun that it could be mistaken for an arthouse snuff film when it isn’t ruling so damn hard as the year’s lethally replayable response to Neon White.