- Developer: ION Lands
- Publisher: Merge Games
- Release date: 15th October 2020
- Genre: Action-Adventure
- Platforms: PS4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox, Windows PC (April 2020)
- Reviewed on: PS4 Pro
- Game Supplied by: Publisher
Indie developed games often give you that little slice of gaming heaven that no AAA experience can; Journey, Aragami and State of Mind spring to mind, and now you can add Cloudpunk to that list.
The game is far from perfect, however, being rough around some edges. Where it succeeds where so many of the far more expensively made games don’t, is that from the moment you begin, it captivates you with its world, narrative, and story, to reel you in and keep you playing.
The game starts with very little exposition. There is no setup, just you inside your HOVA vehicle, being instructed by someone called Control to go to a location and collect a package that you then have to deliver.
Before you start to do that, you pause to drink in the world you have been thrown into. Your eyes and ears are assaulted with unfamiliar futuristic sounds, and a vertical, rain-soaked cityscape that explores the clouds above down to the sea below. You may indeed have a waymarker set to where you are supposed to go, but with so many visually enticing distractions of massive electronic billboards and bright city lights piercing the night sky, the thrill of checking out ‘what is over there?’, pulls you far far away from the mission.
When you do tear yourself away for a moment and become focussed on what you are supposed to do, you begin the compelling story of Rania, a one time musician, turned delivery driver for a shady firm called Cloudpunk.
How to get around
The first mission brings into focus how you are to traverse this vertical world. Driving around the city in your HOVA vehicle, when you have found a parking spot, and ONLY a parking spot, can you then get out and explore the buildings and walkways in a more traditional third-person view on foot.
The HOVA vehicle is very simplistic with accelerate, brake, left, right,up and down controls. Driving on the conventional city skyways means your vehicle goes faster, but at any point you can veer off to explore, however when you do, the HOVA then travels much slower.
Despite the city being so large, the only areas you can explore properly are those you reach on foot. Whilst on foot, you then discover the various things you can interact with such as collecting items, buying food, meeting merchants, but most importantly, talking to NPC’s.
There are a number of viewpoint options, including far away and up-close third-person views, and a first-person view. The preference is up to the player, however, I found I could see more detail, and found that more helpful, viewing the world from the first-person perspective.
After collecting the first box you have to deliver, you make your way to the delivery point. This location may be on a different level than the one you are currently on. To get higher or lower, you drive your HOVA to points on the highway that work like lifts, taking you where you need to go. Although the game doesn’t explain it, there is in fact a very easy and clear to view map to show you the direction you need to go to complete the mission.
When on the correct level, you then have to find the nearest parking spot to where the delivery is to be made, park up and make your way on foot to the delivery point. Upon handing over the package, the mission is then finished and Control then pipes up with another request.
Although nothing particularly groundbreaking, the joy of this starts to appear in the back and forth banter between Rania and Control, before, during and after a delivery has been made. During this time not only are instructions given, but Rania starts to question what’s going on, who they are doing these jobs for and why? It also doesn’t take very long for it to appear that something is suspicious about Cloudpunk, which then puts Rania into a moral dilemma. She desperately needs the money after being evicted from her previous home, but should she question the ethics of what’s going on with these deliveries and put her new job in jeopardy?
Thrown into the mix on occasion, Rania does actually have a moral choice to make about the delivery she is making. For example, in one of the early missions you play, Rania is tasked with delivering a “ticking” box, and has a choice to deliver it to the correct delivery point or dump it in the trash. Do you do your job or go with your hunch? Your choices in these situations affect the world around her and the NPCs she talks to.
So as this night goes on, the more Rania uncovers and begins to question the reality of what’s going on in the city she is living in and who can she really trust?
The true star of the show.
So although the actual gameplay of making deliveries and getting from point A to B isn’t at all exciting, what is exciting, and the actual star of the show, is the city of Navalis and its inhabitants. The game simply brings this world to life, as do the incredible atmospherics.
Most of the real exploration is done on foot, as this is where all the interactions are made. Stumbling across an NPC in a dark alley, and listening to their story explodes with information about what life is really like on the ground in Navalis. Some NPCs just enjoy the chat with Rania, but some will unlock side missions and quests to help them.
The more you talk to people, the clearer the picture of the world, and the more interesting it becomes. For example, Rania soon discovers that some people you talk to are in fact cyborgs, or robots with human AI installed into their heads.
The world around you also gives you audio clues as electronic billboards loudly extol how you can get parts of your body augmented, a new workplace face implanted, or how to stop your online rating from plummeting. What makes this so interesting is from the seeds of today, you can see how in years to come this may be the reality of tomorrow. It’s utterly fascinating, and the more you dig the more you want to unearth.
Probably the best aspect of the game, intentionally or not, is the backstory of each NPC that is available to talk to. Rania can find these people scattered all over the world, in marketplaces or the depths of a dark corner of an alleyway. The variety of people to talk to range from gang members who plant real plants on federal property as a sign of defiance, an augmented dominatrix waiting for her client, to homeless robots cast aside seeking shelter. Other characters can also make references to other NPCs, for example a professional online debater wants to challenge if AI-augmented people and robots have any legal rights at all in this world. Simply put, these interactions with NPC’s put the muscle and flesh onto the skeleton of the world and the main story, to fill it out in such a way that the game rewards the player for exploring what is within it.
The last aspect to mention would be that Rania herself can not die but other items around her can be upgraded or used. Her apartment can be customised, alongside her HOVA. Vendors sell food and other items Rania might meet, but saving your hard-earned cash for Rania to fill up her HOVA with fuel is also a good idea to remember, even though the game doesn’t point this out.
Bringing you back to earth.
As excellent as the content is there is one constant drawback, especially for any PS4 users, and that is the chugging, stuttering frame rate. For a world that is nothing more detailed than a glorified Minecraft map, it is especially disappointing that the game engine can’t handle something so basic. The Xbox and Switch versions have had patches to address this, but so far the PS4 version has yet to receive it. A simple thing like a stable frame rate would actually make such a big difference as smooth graphics draw you further into the world, whereas a constant stuttering one breaks the immersion. The stuttering, although not game-breaking, is noticeable, but thankfully only mainly occurs when in the HOVA vehicle and not on foot.
Graphics and audio to win you over.
For a simple block filled world, the artwork is outstanding. So much thought has been put into making this world look believable. Areas, where the players can walk, are not bare or sparse but littered with detail like puddles, shadows, rubbish, electronic workings on the side of a building, stuttering lights, rainfall, and other effects.
The audio is also outstanding, especially when playing with headphones on. When walking around I found myself ducking as a police siren passed overhead, or a Star Wars-sounding vehicle passed close by. On foot, you can hear the splashes of footfalls in puddles, adverts calling out their products, and the bustling white noise of a city at night.
The voice acting of most characters was on point too, especially Control. Rania herself is a little too joyful and willing to please everyone, when she needs to worry about herself first, but with just the audio and nothing more than a still visual of the character talking, you are able to obtain so much emotion from the voice acting. The most convincing are the robots and augmented characters you find. It’s easy to think like a robot, but to make it convincing is another matter.
Cloudpunk is pure gentle escapism that would score higher if the technical presentation of the game worked better than it currently does. There is nothing too taxing or difficult about the gameplay apart from getting from A to B, or indeed finding the actual pickup or delivery point. In the process of doing so, the player soon becomes part of the world and wants to know more: That’s if they haven’t already strayed off the path to go explore and interact with others.
The 9 to 12-hour playthrough felt far too short, but immensely satisfying for this highly recommended game, and if you want to experience something different, this is an enjoyable world to get lost in.