Nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott’s film made a visual aesthetic for what become known as cyberpunk, we’ve seen such things many times now. Cloudpunk is a complex and uneven story-heavy adventure game that deals heavily in the cyberpunk cliché. Familiar tropes are reunited with mostly smart writing and consistently striking art direction, but opportunities are also missed thanks to the malnourished, numerical design. This is our Cloudpunk Review.
Cloudpunk Review: About
- Platform: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows
- Developer: ION LANDS
- Publisher: ION LANDS, Merge Games, Maple Whispering Co., Ltd.
- Genres: Adventure game
- Release Date: April 23, 2020
Cloudpunk Review: Official Trailer Video
Cloudpunk Review: Gameplay
Nivalis is the last city, or so people say. Towering neon Spiers protrude from the climate-ridden ocean and eventually emerge through the clouds; at the top, the privileged few, the self-proclaimed CEOs, live secluded in their tiered penthouses. While everyone else makes a living in the dense urban sprawl where every city block has a noodle stand, the night is permanent, and it almost always rains. You’ve seen it all before, of course, yet this worn-out set dressing is so uniquely displayed that it stays eye-catching everywhere.
Put merely, Cloudpunk is a stunningly beautiful game. Nivalis is made of voxels, large thick bricks of solid color that give the urban landscape the feeling of a huge, elaborate Lego diorama. Great use is made of contrast and lighting. Skyscrapers almost disappear into the negative space, their facades consist of hundreds of small lightboxes, interspersed with lurid pink, yellow and blue tones. When you fly through the city with your hovercar, every corner provides a spectacular view, every climb over a row of tall buildings is greeted with a dazzling neon-drenched view.
But it is even better if you get out of your glider and cross the city on foot. Here, the camera is locked to a specific view, usually, with a sideways view of the street you’re walking past, often showing your character with just a small handful of voxels in the middle. Initially, the lack of camera control feels limiting, but soon the intended goal becomes clear. Relying on a predefined camera perspective means each shot is designed to best represent the often stunning environment, with the scale working hand in hand to make you even more impressed with everything coming your way.
Occasionally, the camera zooms in, usually as you move through a narrow alley, replicating the claustrophobic press of the surrounding structures. Other times, it drops to ground level and tilts to film a distant event or perhaps to show – once again – just how amazing the city looks. Cloudpunk is continually tapping you on the shoulder to say, hey, look at this, and at least in terms of postcard material, it always disappoints.
That task consists of getting a call from Control, the Cloudpunk Handler, reaching a waypoint assigned, and flying to the desired destination. As a cloud city, Nivalis has some worryingly lax ‘road’ rules. Rania is free to fly her glider almost anywhere, weave through residential complexes, and fly over business parks before hitting designated parking zones in each neighborhood. Narrow highways take you to its destination faster, but I preferred to take the scenic route.
The main story is told through these jobs, as Rania stumbles into a mystery about who or what controls Nivalis. Why it falls apart so clearly at the seams – literally, in some cases, when another skyscraper collapses and tumbles into the ocean to a collective shrug of an oppressed population resigned to its fate. While Rania interacts with her handler and Camus, her AI companion, speaking to customers and ultimately passengers, you may like her do not choose dialog options.
Conversations are set in stone. Early on, Rania would like to keep her head down and not get involved. She wants to do her job and pay off her debts. However, her compassion emerges, her cautiousness diminishes, and she develops into a loud voice throughout the game. I didn’t always agree with what she had to say, but it pays tribute to the overall caliber of the dialogue that I wanted to keep hearing it and broaden my understanding of her view of the world.
Even if no choices can be made in the dialogue, Rania will see some binary decisions during specific tasks. These often stem from Rania discussing events with Camus and realizing that there is an alternative to the job assigned to her; however, not all of them are executed to the same standard. Some feel logical, and you fully understand why she thinks this is a better solution, and some feel appropriately urgent because they’re loading you with a new dramatic weight.
Writing is at its best when it focuses on people whose situations fit the broader themes at play in its criticism of capitalism. Story threads about companies automating their labor to replicate endless capital for the benefit of shareholders, or the drug company releasing a new strain of virus so it can sell the remedy it produces comes with grim humor that transcends the cliché.
Cloudpunk is weakest in inserting known references to contemporary culture – Rania’s meeting with a ‘Debate Me’ guy has his heart in the right place. Still, it’s just too on the nose and doesn’t find anything relevant or interesting to say beyond the fact that “Debate Me” suck dudes. The best-written side character is, unfortunately, also the one whose progress in the quest is stuck behind the mind-boggling collection of collectibles.
If the inconsistent writing suggests that Cloudpunk isn’t quite sure what kind of narrative experience it wants to be, the addition of a light-economic layer betrays a lack of confidence. Money earned from successful jobs should be spent on the one-way trip to the gas station to refuel, and can also be spent on a few non-essential handling upgrades and cosmetic modifications to the glider. Food and drink can be bought and consumed to give Rania a light speed boost, while a handful of medicines can be purchased to blur the screen and little else.
Cloudpunk is a single core strength game so powerful that it is enough to make it an easy game to recommend. Thanks to the rare beauty and rich atmosphere of the voxel-powered cityscape, Cloudpunk review is a constant joy to explore. Whether you’re floating through the neon-plastered clouds or shooting dizzying walkways dangling a hundred stories in the air, the desire remains to keep moving forward because the next view might be even better.
Cloudpunk is a complex and uneven story-heavy adventure game that deals heavily in the cyberpunk cliché.