My way or the skyway
It’s late at night in this filthy, beautiful city. Neon rushes by as I make my way through Nivalis to deliver all those packages, legal or not. Rain spatters on my windshield. CorpSec roar by with their warbling sirens. My HOVA gently settles in a parking spot, I leap out, hand over a package, and learn terrible truths about the hard reality of life in the neon-soaked Cloudpunk.
Cloudpunk, from developer Ion Lands, is set in the metropolis of Nivalis. It’s a nice spin on the generic cyberpunk setting that lifts things up into the sky instead of leaving the criminal underbelly lying in the dirt, and it’s beautiful for it. You play as Rania, a recently arrived migrant to Nivalis who manages to get work as a driver for the semi-legal Cloudpunk delivery service. Cloudpunk mostly takes place either in your HOVA car as you drive between deliveries, or on foot to cover the final distance and deliver the package. In the air, you get to see everything. Other cars, towering buildings, even the clouds above and below each district are lovingly rendered. CorpSec, the cops of Cloudpunk, periodically rush by, their lights flaring and sirens blaring. The skyways, where you fly your HOVA between deliveries, are populated with other cars. There’s just enough traffic to make the city feel busy and alive, without becoming terribly cluttered or difficult to navigate. Nivalis feels like stepping into Los Angeles from Blade Runner, grimy and intoxicating.
On the ground, things are just as amazing. It’s perpetually raining in Nivalis, leaving puddles everywhere that are full of reflections. The voxel character models are well-made and unique. Even little details — tiny flares as a character passes in front of a light — are thoughtfully rendered. Cloudpunk’s cleanest successes are in the art, lighting and sound directions. You can get away with cheaper work in a fast-paced FPS, where a player might be too busy shooting to really think about these, but Cloudpunk knows it’s a slower game and subsequently worked until things were just right. I never feel rushed (surprising, given it’s a game about deliveries) and I’m always able to take my time to really see and hear the city. I say hear, because Nivalis sounds alive in a genuinely impressive way. Motors whine as cars float by, my footsteps are gentle, I can always hear the rain. There are futuristic whooshing noises and beeps and boops, all making Cloudpunk’s sound design much more than the sum of its parts. A synth heavy soundtrack fits in just perfectly, too — it’s just the right kind of music to drive to, never too fast or too slow.
Things are light on the gameplay side. The main storyline never feels like it expects you anywhere. It’s slow-paced, relaxing, almost peaceful. You get a call from Control. Control sends you to pick up the package, and you subsequently deliver it. There’s a story behind most packages, and often a message behind those. It’s a simple formula that Cloudpunk largely repeats throughout. There are a handful of side quests, such as collecting old video games or punch cards, but nothing ever makes you feel under pressure to complete them with urgency. It’s ostensibly an RPG, but there’s not much in the way of RPG elements to be found. The closest thing to skill-based gameplay is avoiding the other cars on the skyways, which isn’t difficult. There’s a minor simulation element, too, where you sometimes have to fuel up your HOVA, but I only did so a handful of times. There’s a similar sort of energy to games like Neo Cab or Night Call. Light on gameplay, narratives built around drivers, and a shared futuristic setting in the case of Neo Cab.
Unfortunately, some downsides are present in this otherwise solid game. The voice acting leaves a lot to be desired, especially Rania. Her actress delivers stilted, awkward lines in a near-monotone voice, which is particularly odd given that many other characters are quite the opposite. Early on, I ran into a pair of robot gang members/urban revivalists (they oppose CorpSec by building playgrounds) who were so over the top in their delivery of lines it was almost campy. Later, after watching two cars explode into flames, Rania says “what the hell?” as if she’d been bumped into by a rude passer-by, not witnessed an explosion. That’s not to say all the voice acting is bad. Camus, your AI dog, and a charming old racer called Never-Slow-Joe are both fine examples of decent acting, and the exaggeration sometimes works in the favour of Cloudpunk, but I was always aware that this acting was mediocre at best. There are weird, tiny pauses between lines, a second at most, but they’re always there. It makes things feel unreal, like the actors are reading to each other instead of two people having a real conversation. It’s so critical for a story-based game to have good acting that I can’t rightly explain why Cloudpunk didn’t put more effort in.
Less critically, there are the controls. In the air, things aren’t too bad. Early in the game, your HOVA handles like a tugboat and is about as fast as one, but you can upgrade away from those issues and it eventually becomes quite fun to drift around town. The control scheme is fine, no unusual decisions or confusing layouts, apart from the odd decision to not allow the player to rotate the camera by default. Controls on the ground are marred by an old-school camera design that moves around without player input. I would cross into a new section of town and suddenly the camera would whip to the opposite view, fast enough to be disorienting. I was constantly running back and forth accidentally as the “forward” direction changed with the camera movements. I got used to it after a few hours of play, but it’s worth noting. A disappointing feature that I would have thought a visual-obsessed game like Cloudpunk would have is a screenshot mode. There are so many lovely shots in this, all marred by the ugly (and large) UI and my HOVA sitting in the middle of the screen.
The meat of Cloudpunk lives in the story, and it’s more hit than miss. Usually, I empathized with the downtrodden and underprivileged of Nivalis. Their stories were sad, solemn, and grimly down-to-earth. Old men, struggling in a world leaving them behind, or someone just trying to pay the rent. It’s a refreshing change of pace from other cyberpunk stories, where every character is a master hacker or assassin, to have normal people in the cast. The characters are mostly likeable or sympathetic, sometimes even laugh out loud funny. Now, I did find the writing grating or confusing at times. CORA, the AI that controls the city, seems to be losing its mind, and this plays out as you deliver packages. Or is CORA a god, or the personification of luck? Is CORA real at all?
Rania, meanwhile, seems to be inconsistent in her motivations. One minute she’s determined to keep her head down and make her rent, the next she’s arguing with engineers in the street and giving out money to androids. She researches CORA regularly, risking arrest to keep relevant data saved, but the moment she stumbles upon what looks like a genuine example of CORA, Rania just gets annoyed and asks for her parking ticket. It’s just baffling. The dialogue tends to run on longer than necessary (thanks to Rania constantly asking “What?” and “Do I know you?”) and I was often just standing around, waiting for things to finish, so I could pick up the next delivery. On the bright side, dialogue continues even when you run around or pass through a loading screen, so you can just explore while Rania and Camus talk about ramen. And again, that’s not to say the writing is bad — most of the time, it’s quite good. It’s just that the things I see and hear the most of aren’t as good as the smaller stories that are much easier to miss.
All in all, Cloudpunk is a fine game. It’s got some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve seen in a long time, and deserves huge praise for the sound design and direction that really brings Nivalis to life. Look past the average-to-bad acting and choppy writing and you’ll get an enjoyable, peaceful exploration game, with a fun concept behind it.
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