If you’ve seen any advertising or social media for Cloudpunk you likely were drawn to the dark, neon bathed metropolis bustling with pedestrians and drivers. The alluring cyberpunk setting in fact is well worth the visit. But the true appeal of this gem from Ion Lands is when players take a closer look, past the admittedly gorgeous façade, to discover a fascinating cast of characters struggling to survive a dystopian future where all is not as it seems.
It’s worth noting that I spent the first two hours of the game (I’m currently about seven hours in) just moving around the colorful cityscape that is Nivalis. Ion Lands should be lauded for crafting a glorious setting of towering buildings in neon neighborhoods that are nonetheless distinct from each other, such as the claustrophobic jungle of Midtown, curved roofs of Little China, modular units of the Stacks, or casino/clubs of Fulcrum Sector.
Indeed, the developer said that the city is one of the main characters of the game. And it most definitely HAS character. In my time with the game so far, I feel rewarded by the simple act of exploration. The level design consistently impresses with its verticality and depth. Every elevation seems to possess a neighborhood or single location worth a flyby or visit. This is in addition to the well-realized cyberpunk aesthetic that first attracted me.
That aesthetic is the result of designing with voxels, a choice that makes sense when you understand – as the developer did – that the modern architecture of today’s cities is more modular in nature. Using blocks or cubes to build this metropolis therefore fits with the vision of a futuristic skyline. In that context, even voxel characters don’t seem out of place, especially androids or the many humans with cybernetic implants or other artificial accoutrements.
The wisdom of this design is clear when exploring from the air. Flying is a treat whether following established lanes or venturing off the beaten path, snaking one’s way through narrow gaps or emerging above busy urban sprawl, all adorned with blue, red, green and yellow neon. Controls (on Xbox One) are simple and responsive, with the left stick controlling direction and the right ascend/descend, while RT/LT accelerates/brakes, and RB/LB strafes right/left.
Managing ascent/descent while accelerating takes a little getting used to, as does flying fast into a turn where you can easily drift into objects. But practice makes perfect and learning when to do the former is part of the process. Importantly, I haven’t felt like I had to fight the controls. There are times when I feel like movement is blocked, but that’s usually because I’m in cramped quarters even if I can’t see it because of the camera in those tight areas.
Helpfully, there are highways for getting around town more quickly, as well as vehicle upgrades that can be found or purchased. I bought improved bumpers before I realized I’d already found some earlier, and I paid for a kind of turbo feature that can be used by pressing a button. There are also mechanics where you can get repairs made, and gas stations for replenishing fuel (the HUD includes a fuel gauge, while smoke warns of damage).
The HUD, which can be turned off, includes a minimap in the lower right with color icons that correspond to character tasks in the upper right. Helpfully, when in the same general direction, a single icon might display multiple colors. The map actually can be too helpful, even showing locations for pickups. But turning it off is problematic, as players can’t even see objects when dealing with merchants or dealers.
One thing worth pointing out that you never want turned off is the incredible score. It’s a big reason why the simple act of exploration is so thrilling, as the electronic music is perfectly suited to the cyberpunk setting and can range from trance to upbeat dance. Like Daft Punk’s score for Tron: Legacy, it’s hard to imagine Cloudpunk without it. In fact, I’ll sometimes stop until a new music clip plays, as the non-music interludes feel lacking by comparison.
Which is not to say that sound is lacking in the game, as there is plenty to immerse players in that department. The ever-present sound of your own hover car (including as it accelerates or ascends/descends), other vehicles not to mention occasional police sirens, trains, advertisements or government announcements, pedestrians/crowds, robots/machines, moving platforms and nightclubs all combine to effectively convey a bustling metropolis.
Exploring the bustle of Nivalis on foot means first finding a space to park your vehicle (you can’t set down anywhere to disembark). Thankfully exploration on foot is just as simple as flying, and offers various perspectives including first- and third-person and several camera options for the latter. I enjoy first-person exploration, but prefer backtracking in third-person on exterior walkways as it provides a side-scrolling perspective of the immediate area.
The only issues related to the camera when on foot involve a shifting perspective in third-person that sometimes requires a change in controller input, or the inability to see a pickup as you approach it in first person (as some lie flat, and unlike some games there is no pop up icon). But these are minor and controls, as with flight, work well and include the same buttons and commands. It’s also rare to bump into people or some objects, which can be nice or distracting.
On foot navigation is helped with platforms that serve as people movers up or down or across large expanses. There are no accessible stairs I’ve come across yet. The only downside is sometimes having to wait for the platforms, which never appear to have anyone else using them. One preference is that I’d have liked to enter some establishments, especially those with open doors, but you can only enter buildings when the opportunity presents itself.
Aiding pedestrians are portals that effectively teleport you to another area in the neighborhood. Like the platforms, these are marked in the HUD minimap. There are similar portals at the end of highways when in flight, though they take drivers to different districts of Nivalis and involve loading screens that require a momentary wait. On foot, travel through the portals is almost instantaneous. The same is true of some doors, once you’re allowed to pass.
Thus far the only time my travels around the city were restricted is either when I’ve hit the ceiling or low point for flight, or when I’ve encountered a barrier on foot that requires something to pass (like a keycard or a favor for a bouncer). In general I’ve been impressed with how open Nivalis appears to be at least seven hours in, which is probably part of the reason I’ve spent so much time to date just wandering around.
Other reasons for my wanderlust are the collectibles, pickups, upgrades, merchants, dealers, vendors, random characters and other NPCs my character can encounter. Players can obtain objects to sell or upgrade their home or vehicle, plus items that might turn out useful (an NPC happened to be a collector of an artifact in my inventory, which netted me an achievement). But the real allure is the characters you’ll find wandering or during missions.
The story follows your character Rania, a driver for the semi-legal delivery service Cloudpunk, as she picks up packages and passengers throughout Nivalis. Everyone, and everything, has a story though Rania is encouraged at every turn to not ask questions. But it’s the captivating answers that provide the real color in this neon playground, and Rania is almost as eager to listen as others are to divulge their thoughts, feelings or worries about life in the city.
The game starts out promising by introducing players to a forlorn android trying to put the pieces of its life back together, an engineer who marvels at a city that’s so old they don’t even have names for all the building parts, an AI canine companion only too happy to help with digital tasks, a chatty package and Rania’s boss at Control who appears to be trying to protect her from unscrupulous customers not to mention a pretty bad day at the office.
Digging deeper you learn how androids might yearn for acceptance, a home or an occupation; how the city is in such disrepair that malfunctions or collapsing zones claim scores of citizens; how some will trade favors for drugs or obsess over a wrong; how shady characters and collectives operating on the fringes might be more influential than appears; or how an enigmatic AI might fit into the entire scheme of things behind the neon curtain that is Nivalis.
Excellent dialog and voice acting go a long way toward immersing players, as do realistic but creative headshots beside dialog captions that put a face to voxel characters. And while there are no dialog options (which feels like a missed opportunity), players at times are presented with the option to pursue different actions. These choices can emerge from quests, which include collecting punch cards, getting engine parts, buying narcotics, or simply delivering your cargo.
These, in turn, can open doors, figuratively and literally. Sell a valuable engine part to pocket the price and force an older racer into an overdue retirement, or deliver it to him and help him continue racing while paying off his debt to a mechanic. Deliver a ticking package or dump your cargo. It remains to be seen what longer term consequences exist for selecting one option over another, but at least there is some player volition during the game.
The first choice gamers face is whether Cloudpunk is worth the investment in time and money. And for me the answer is a resounding yes. Ion Lands has crafted more than a pretty package. Interactions with citizens of Nivalis deliver the real goods, with discussions ranging from funny to poignant, adding heart at the center of a beautiful urban dystopia. Visit Nivalis for the glorious neon skyline, and you’ll stay for the colorful hover car confessions.
(This post is based on a review key for the Xbox One version of Cloudpunk, which is also available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Steam, and released October 15 on consoles.)
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