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Cloudbuilt Review: Head in the Clouds

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Cloudbuilt_logoCloudbuilt
Price: $19.99
System(s): Windows
Release Date: March 20th, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Rising Star Games (Coilworks)
ESRB Rating: “N/A”

Under every action game there is a set of physics that defines the way that you move through space. Simple or complicated, these are the rules that transform the spaces of video games from abstract constructs to vast playgrounds. The engines that drive the machinery. In the landscapes of Cloudbuilt this engine is the jet pack.

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Seven Steps to Heaven

Not much has changed since I’d last seen Cloudbuilt. It’s still sports a lush and stylized artstyle, saturated with deep washes of color. It’s still a blisteringly fast game, and it will still make you work for your reward. For those who missed my thoughts on it the first time, a quick recap: Cloudbuilt is time attack style platformer where you use jetpacks, wallrunning, and charge blasts to navigate abstract and hostile dreamscapes.

It will take a lot to learn how to properly combine these, but doing so will allow you access to some of the more difficult paths and if done intelligently, can shave off time by passing obstacles entirely. It may take an hour or two to acclimatize to the controls themselves, and then afterwards you’ll need to brave some embarrassing deaths to develop enough skill to get to where you need to go.

All of this is tied together by an overarching narrative that tells the story of a young female soldier caught up in a military mission gone wrong. Her body is now undergoing reconstruction as a result. The story is told through brief voice overs, spoken returning to your hospital bedroom incorporeal after each stage. These segments are told non-linearly and are each represented by a certain stage on the map. By accessing the PC in the room you’ll also be able to stitch together the sequence of events that led here.

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Climbing Clouds 1-8

When it all works in concert, it results in a satisfying sense of freedom and mastery of the environment. After the taxing initial curve, Cloudbuilt‘s movement mechanics are a joy to master and use. They’re definitely a bit idiosyncratic, but they definitely give you a degree of control that is missing from the more accessible parkour styled games such as Assassin’s Creed or Mirror’s Edge.

Cloudbuilt unfortunately has some rough edges that sapped the joy out of my experience with it. Levels are built in complex layouts that allow multiple paths of varying difficulty, and reveal more depth to them as you revisit them. Unfortunately, it also results in difficult to read signposting that can loop back upon itself and have you pointed in the direction opposite of the one in which you should be moving. At times, I also found myself in the middle of a dangerous situation unable to trace a safe path to the goal. It resulted in a need to scope out the stage and repeatedly visit it that was at odds with Cloudbuilt’s frantic time attack pace.

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Similarly tedious are Cloudbuilt’s enemy encounters. While you can mitigate some of the frustration of the enemies by firing smartly placed charged shots, enemies and obstacles will still take multiple hits to take down. Additionally, some enemies will create shields upon being hit or simply become stunned. Not only does this distract you from navigating obstacles, but it also makes it difficult to read the state of the enemies from a distance. I found myself either having to memorize the positions and hit points of the enemies or ignore them altogether to progress. Instead of improvising and carving my own path through the environment, I was instead thrown into a continuous loop of deaths and restarts that required muscle memory instead of quick thinking.

This sense of overdesign extends to the storytelling as well. While not overly present, the writing feels melodramatic and overwritten. Lines, such as the main character’s description of description of the stages as “something from her dreams as a child,” ripped me out of my state of suspension of disbelief. These thematic elements also tie into the world map, presenting each stage as a floating constructs in a cloudy sky branching into other levels as you complete them. While it ties back well, it doesn’t read cleanly as a menu and makes each area hard to discern from a distance. I can respect Coilworks’ desire to give a sense of emotional weight and gravitas to the game, but it feels like an afterthought. The level names in particular illustrate the dissonance between the story’s intentions and the game design. Each are named after diary entries and seem to refer to certain thoughts that are on the character’s mind. The levels themselves, however, don’t refer to these themes in any way and make no attempt to represent the story segments the voice overs suggest. The ideas are there, but they are incomplete.

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A Foggy Vision

Cloudbuilt is a game that reached for much more than it could grasp. While the core mechanics hold up a solid, if initially difficult to grasp, movement system, the level design and story aesthetics make it difficult at times to achieve the freedom and joy initially promised. There’s a certain audience dedicated to chasing the best times and finding every path through the stages that will delight in mastering the game. For these players, the need to memorize and constantly revisit stages won’t be an obstacle. For others, this will unfortunately be a game that doesn’t quite have the finesse to direct players through a fluid experience.

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