by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
When I told a friend of mine that the next game I’d be reviewing was Coilworks’ Cloudbuilt, his reaction was disappointing. “A runner?” he said, “Those are all the same.” It was disappointing because it’s just not true. Despite a similar goal of getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible, there are plenty of games that have shaken up the formula to make something original and memorable. Unfortunately, after spending some time with the game I came to find that my friend was right, at least in this case. Cloudbuilt is a game that does some things well, but is hindered by a few important flaws and a lack of any real innovation.
Runners aren’t normally games known for deep or memorable narratives, but Cloudbuilt attempts to add some meaning and purpose into the crazy courses you’re sprinting through. In the game players take control of Demi, a soldier who’s been injured quite badly. While her body is in a hospital facility recovering, the game actually takes place in her mind, as she races through industrial-esque courses high up in the sky. If you try really hard to make connections, the game can become an interesting metaphor of overcoming obstacles and of discovering one’s true self and capabilities. As Demi’s body lies broken and unable to function, her mind races, literally and metaphorically, to make progress. She relies on technology, both her weapon and her jetpack, to survive, just as her body does to come back from the brink of oblivion. Every second is a challenge and even the most impossible challenges can be overcome with a shift in mental strategy or path. Sometimes the connections work. There are a few shots of Demi that really do resonate and add an aura of melancholy to the levels, but for the most part it just didn’t land for me. For me it seemed too much like a tale of two different halves, on one side the gameplay, on the other the story spliced in between levels, instead of one cohesive experience. At least the story isn’t intrusive or time consuming so it was easy enough for me to just get through it and get back to the game.
Speed is everything
Far more vital to the success of a speed runner like Cloudbuilt than the story is the actual running, which, thankfully, is pretty solid. The core concept is simple. Demi can run, jump, cling to walls, shoot her gun, and boost herself with her jetpack while running forward to get from point a to point b as quickly as possible. There’s a little more to it, but that’s really what almost all of it boils down to. The difficulty comes from a few different things: speed and options- or, more specifically, when those two things happen at the same time. It’s probably not surprising that a game like this has you moving really quickly, but the more open-ended nature of the level design makes the split second decisions even more interesting. Say you're sprinting down a platform and you’re met by a few turrets. Do you slow down a little bit and dodge? Maybe, but speed is everything. Do you take your focus away from the running controls for a few seconds to blast it with your gun? Possible, but missing a jump means death. Just keep running forward and hope you can eat the damage? Try to find an alternate route altogether to avoid the obstacle? These are all options, none being a true “right” answer, and it makes for some very tense situations. These options, specifically the branching paths, combined with the game’s aesthetically appealing colored-pencil-like environments, make the visuals one of the best parts about the game.
For the most part, the difficulty of Cloudbuilt was pretty spot on. This isn’t a casual game you’ll be able to pick up and breeze through in a sitting. It’s pretty darned difficult, and you’re going to die a lot. The game does an excellent job of making the levels progressively harder as you work through them; whenever I would get confident things would shift just far enough to pull me out of my comfort zone. Yet, at the same time, I never felt like any of the jumps were too steep or sudden. The element of difficulty that didn’t sit so well with me, however, was the control system, which seemed hit or miss for me. The button mapping itself was a little weird (though remapping can alleviate some of this), but after some playtime things became more natural. They never reached the “I don’t have to think about it” level of comfort. Wall-running/hanging in particular can be very touchy, and I found myself too often running or jumping somewhere I didn’t want to go.
Cloudbuilt is a fine game. It’s not a great game. It’s not a really good game. It’s fine. On one hand it looks really nice, and its semi-open courses encourage experimentation and replay. It’s a pretty fun game to watch someone else play; because when everything is clicking right the fluidity and speed do provide some nice shots of adrenaline, but even a modest amount of play reveals controls that leave something to be desired.
Nice visual style, branching gameplay paths, multiple ways to deal with obstacles.
Finicky controls, lacklustre story, doesn’t really do anything very original.