A neo-noir thriller that’s setup like Bladerunner meets Minecraft after borrowing The Fifth Element’s hover cars? I’m in, sign me up! That’s pretty much all you need to know about Cloudpunk to get the premise. If none of those words mean anything to you then it’s a voxel-art adventure from Ion Lands set in the distant future that explores the subjects of humanity, artificial life and the result of greed on the human race through following a delivery driver over the course of a single night. With huge ambition and just the right level of style, it’s been well received on PC, and now the PS4/Xbox One/Switch port has drifted into view. Are there any compromises to be made in bringing a rich and detailed semi-open world city to consoles? Can they do the vision justice in the run up next gen capabilities? The answers, respectively, are “yes” and “unfortunately not”.
Rania is new to Nivalis having made the move from the Eastern Lands to the metropolis that dominates the landscape. She’s from a farming community and knows little of the ways of the big smoke, so nabs a job driving for Cloudpunk – a semi-reputable courier service. As she sets out on her first shift we follow her as she learns to navigate the sprawling levels of the city in her HOVA and starts to discover that in this shiny world all that glitters is not gold. Encountering everyone from the destitute to corporate high flyers, Rania has to choose which way her moral compass swings, and whether Nivalis will shape her or break her. At least there’s guidance from Control who’ll help her with some of the finer points of the culture, and support from her trusty AI companion Camus. It all should work out fine though as long as she doesn’t miss a delivery and doesn’t ask what’s in the box.
Being more recognisable as an adventure game, Cloudpunk is centred around discovering the city and its denizens, and uncovering what’s happening beneath the surface. It works a little bit like the classic GTA in that it’s driving from point A to point B, then walking around to talk to people. There’s a healthy dose of exploration needed alongside this to find all the little nooks and crannies hidden away, but the core mechanic is take an item to someone and talk to them to further the plot or get some cash. It sounds a bit pedestrian, yet this feels exactly the right type of gameplay for the environment because Nivalis is huge. It’s a city built on cities, stretching up to the clouds – with the poor at the bottom and the rich at the top – and higher the altitude, the better the living. The first moments of experiencing the scale from the safety of a hovercar are fantastic, and immediately brings on the thoughts of Luc Besson’s taxi sequence in The Fifth Element; and with the synth music kicking in, the slow flight across the sprawl from the opening of Bladerunner. It’s proper sci-fi stuff that wears the influences proudly and manages not to get stifled by them. However, the story here is more on the musings of family, equality and inclusion despite (or perhaps because of) the imposing backdrop and the multiple levels stacked on top of each other.
Rania and her HOVA feel small in this massive place and its easy to get lost between the buildings, something Cloudpunk makes easier by forgoing on screen markers. Hit the highways that act as a conveyor grid and they’re easier to follow even if you’re fighting in the bustle of traffic as cars in three dimensions seek to make their way through. Get off the grid and it takes skill and precision to weave between buildings, under bridges and over walkways, but it’s the only way to get to some of the destinations. There’s a freedom of movement in the HOVA that’s easy to control and hard to master, and it’s one of the most satisfying and responsive at speed, whilst being floaty and tricky to manoeuvre slowly into parking spots. Expect to be elated and frustrated for equal amounts of time when driving. Manage to smoothly set it down though and there’s the chance to see things from the plazas and walkways that litter the landscape. It’s here that the world feels like it’s lived in with activity going on all around. People mill around at fast food stalls, music pumps from behind club doors, and police chase racers overhead. Nivalis is bright, colourful and full of interesting characters to chat to.
What Cloudpunk does best is engage you with these mission based, or seemingly random, encounters. All the dialogue is voiced and accompanied by text, and the vast majority are entertaining. They range from the philosophical to the ridiculous and are always worth searching out. There are a few mandatory ones which happen when riding elevators or driving through the city, and the good news here is that if you hit a transition point (like changing map), the dialog picks up immediately after loading. It’s a small thing, but when we’re used to conversations being cut short by loading screens, it’s really nice to hear them wrap around events naturally. Likewise, the objectives are clear and colour coded to make sure it’s obvious where to go next, and will make sure to move you through the right portals for the different layers of Nivalis. That is until they start to repeat and the bugs begin to surface.
For all that it has going for it, and there’s an impressive world built here, there’s a severe lack of QA for certain things, the worst being the objectives. Some characters are met more than once and will repeat their quests again from scratch, even if you’re following the story correctly. This means that it’s possible to end up with markers all over the map for events that can’t be completed. After 8 objectives the game stops giving out the markers and there’s no indication whatsoever about where to go next. It’s like trying to find a neon coloured needle in a neon coloured haystack. I had to resort to an online walkthrough for the last mission because it wouldn’t tell me where to go to trigger it. Linked to the repeating objectives, there’s one in particular that needs collectibles, and is turned in as 3 batches of 20. Having spent a fair amount of time hunting these down I decided after the first 20 to collect 40 and just return them to the quest giver… who started all the dialogue again from scratch meaning I lost all the items in completing sections that had already been done. Not cool, especially as nothing respawns in the world, so it can effectively lock you out of successfully completing some parts. The bugged completions cause other impacts like characters being both alive and dead at the same time in their storyline, and repeat reward items that can’t be removed from the inventory, and it all detracts massively from the experience it’s trying to create.
The visual style is one of the most unique elements to Cloudpunk and it can be breathtaking when it all lines up and you can see the diffused lighting reflecting off the puddles that pool around the walkways, whilst the immense buildings stretch off into the distance… if you’re playing on PC. For some reason the consoles seem to have been given a significant downgrade in that department. Draw distances are short, though you know it could be better because looking left or right uncovers the buildings in the periphery – it’s like Rania has blinkers to what’s directly in front that renders them invisible. Instead of a city that goes up, up, up, and crowds in on the unwary, it feels more like separate islands that you’re hopping between. The framerate stays steady as long as you’re OK with the screen tear, though there are lock ups and pauses every couple of minutes, I’m assuming from the autosave. Then there’s the rain. It’s supposed to be oppressive and the constant patter generates atmosphere, though it’s clearly a repeating pattern put as a screen across your vision, and it’s distracting until your eyes adjust to look straight through it. It’s not unplayable, it’s just disappointing that it doesn’t seem to get close to the PC build.
I started my shift as a Cloudpunk employee absolutely engaged with picking up the packages and delivering them around the city. The more I absorbed about its history and the people, the more I wanted to find out, and the more I wanted to experience of the intricate world. It turned out though that Nivalis is starting to crumble. People are being infected with cybernetic viruses that take over their implants, traffic collisions are being caused by malfunctioning lights, whole sections of the metropolis are falling into the sea, and the city engineers are even giving up. It was like the game quality became an allegory for the story, and where the beginning of the job was a joy, getting to quitting time became a chore. Even the credits for the QA team were broken, the ultimate irony at the very end.
A PS4 review copy of Cloudpunk was provided by Ion Lands PR team, and it’s out now on PC, PS4, Xbox One and Switch for around £20 depending on platform.