If you’ve ever looked at the hovering cars of The Fifth Element or the dismal cities (and hovering cars) of Blade Runner, then Cloudpunk should definitely catch your eye. Cast in the role of Rania, a spirited young woman starting her first shift with the eponymous Cloudpunk delivery service, players will get to explore, the sprawling, super-vertical city of Nivalis, both in flying HOVA car and by foot.
A story is, for most video games, little more than a pretense. It’s job is to set the scene, inject a soupçon of flavour, and give the players some sort of reason (however threadbare) as to why they’re fighting monsters from under the ground/trying to solve this dastardly puzzle.
However, once in a while a game comes along which puts story front-and-centre. And when it comes to Cloudpunk, story definitely is king. Or, strictly speaking, that should be stories. Cloudpunk is full of them. Some advance the over-arching story (sorry, no-spoilers, but it should appeal to any sci-fi fan), others simply see you interact with Nivalis’ many kooky inhabitants. What they all have in common, however, is how brilliant they are. The voice acting is thoroughly enjoyable, as is the cast of characters. There are quite a number of them which highlight the games kookie sense of humour. These include the many Mr. Andersons (yes, The Matrix is also referenced) that inhabit Anderson tower, the PI android Huxley who has gotten stuck talking like he’s straight out of a noire detective story, and the person who had an augment installed that makes them hyper confident and wanting to meet new people all the time, but which also means she gets bored of present company really, really quickly. My personal favourite is the video-game historian who hilariously applies post-modernist theory to old 2D beat’em ups (to paraphrase: once you get to the end, the game starts again, showing us how violence is ultimately circular).
Underpinning the story is the vast world of Nivalis, with its towering buildings and glowing sky-roads. A huge, dystopian city falling into decay, it houses everything from lavish apartments and sky-scrapers, to people living in shipping containers and the freezing undercity where people try to eke out an existence away from the city’s corruption. Each of the city’s zones has a different flavour, from the lights and bustle of Little China with its roiling skies (only the executives in the Spire get to see above the clouds), to the grim and harrowing (but surprisingly peaceful) Ventz. Surprisingly, while the overall tone of the city is depressed and grim, it’s not depressing.
Part of this is down to the game’s art style, which uses a curious, but highly effective, mix of high-end lighting technology and beautiful shadows, and low-end voxels (with everything in the game made up out of small boxes). This makes the night-time city of Nivalis surprisingly vibrant and atmospheric, and even occasionally strangely beautiful. Another part of this feeling is down to the mix of characters you get to interact with who, no matter how bad things seem, often seem to muddle along. All in all, Nivalis actually feels like a city, with its mix of glamour and slums, highs and lows. The soundscape is also suitably rich, from the hum of the HOVAs to the city-announcements (including a reminder that to experience or play jazz without a license is punishable by death).
But how does it play? In generally, very solidly, but whether or not you enjoy it will very much depend on how much you like the setting and the stories. The pacing is fairly slow and steady (not one for your adrenaline-fiends) and some missions see you having to traipse too far to get back to your HOVA, so it’s all the more appreciated when, later in the game, you find that you’re automatically returned to your HOVA after completing an objective. Also, whilst on foot, the fixed camera can sometimes make navigation difficult. This happened extremely rarely, but was still jarring when it did. Happily, recent updates have added a first person mode both for when walking around Nivalis, and when driving your HOVA (which also makes piloting the HOVA far easier). Especially since an update which seems to have fixed the HOVAs permanent oversteer and the brainless AI of other HOVAs which would happily drive into you, flying around Nivalis is a joy. On that note, you’ll definitely want a gamepad to get the best experience. Occasional (and seemingly rapidly fixed) missteps or no, just about everything is there to support the stories, and if you like them, you’ll like Cloudpunk.
All in all, if you are looking for a more relaxed style of game, enjoy a well-executed sci-fi setting, a kookie sense of humour, and engaging stories and storytelling, Cloudpunk is well worth your time. ■