By Phil Schipper / April 28th, 2014
|Publisher||Rising Star Games|
|Release Date||March 20, 2014|
For a long time, I had it in my brain that Electronic Super Joy was the hardest game I would ever review–or certainly, at least, the hardest platformer. A new game, though, has just stolen that distinction with ease: Cloudbuilt.
Our nameless heroine wakes up in a strange ruin. She has no idea what’s going on, and continues to question as you go through the tutorial. At this point, players unused to the mechanics already have a challenge. Doing normal jumps is often not enough to get across gaps, so the heroine will have to run either along walls or straight up them, jumping off at the right time. While the game does try to explain the timing of button presses and the role that the camera angle plays in determining your moves, this text is really no substitute for experience. It took me several minutes to climb to the top of one of the first rooms, and, even after the tutorial area had finished, it took me a couple more levels to get comfortable with the wallrunning mechanics.
Once the tutorial is over, though, you gain access to your full ability set. A jetpack, powered by a limited energy meter that refills when you stand on the ground, allows you to gain distance on jumps and boost your way up walls while you’re running on them. She also gains a blaster, which can be used for quick burst fire or charged up to get an explosive shot. These are mainly used to break damaging barriers, since it has varying degrees of effectiveness on actual enemies. Most turrets, for example, will put up a force field that blocks your shots, though this will temporarily stop their attacks. Drones that attack you directly, meanwhile, have to be taken by surprise if you want any hope of slowing them down, while mines are completely unaffected.
At first, you’ll be pretty happy to finish a level. Not long after that, though, you’ll find yourself just as grateful to reach one of the checkpoints, which are few and far between. Later on, that same feeling of relief can come from just having a patch of ground you can safely stand on. These moments come in the face of seemingly-impossible challenges, like an extended series of walls covered with moving lasers that you have no choice but to run along. With no boss fights, these insane gauntlets are the equivalent you’ll have to face. Many do allow you to take more than one path, with notable exceptions. Still, whereas you may start off with a choice between the safe way and the fast way, later ones might be something like a wall of mines versus a sea of turrets.
You also get to choose your path along the world map. After finishing the first real level, you’ll gain access to two different paths, each of which eventually splits into two more. This is really good news, as you can walk away from your frustration with any particular level and try a different one. Not only that, but you benefit from going back to previous ones and improving. Depending on your time getting through a level (plus penalties for dying) you get a rank, and each rank you earn above D gives you an increase to your Cap–a set number of lives that you start every level with. There is also a Cap-increasing pickup in each level, though you have to bring them to the end to keep them. Overall, this system gives you more of a long-term reward than the typical way of gaining lives.
The level paths serve another purpose, though. After finishing each level, the fully voiced protagonist reflects on her situation. It becomes clear early on that she’s actually an astral body–that is, having an out-of-body experience. She was injured, physically and mentally, in a war, and hasn’t woken up yet. Each path slowly reveals one way of dealing with the trauma, eventually leading up to one of four endings. It’s all psychological, but it greatly affects the world she will wake up to. While there’s really no big push to get to more than one, they are all interesting and vastly different takes on what will happen to her once her recovery is finished.
The distinct areas these create have their own growing atmospheres. These color the broken fragments of walls and floors that make up the world, scattered with very rare patches of grassy land. Everything is cel-shaded with crisscrossing, sketchy lines, a style often likened to Borderlands. The music tends to be a sort of heavy techno, and there are enough tracks based on one theme to make it recognizable by the time you hear the final version in the credits. What I like even better is the protagonist’s voice–she mutters, “Come on,” when she runs out of jetpack energy, and curses when she misses a crucial jump. Most of the time, she’s taking the words right out of my mouth.
Every level has leaderboards, not only on the main time, but also in several challenges, like a limited supply of energy or the inability to use your gun at all. In other words, there is a lot to offer the expert who’s not satisfied just finishing the game (a major achievement by itself). Not only that, but as I write, a new bonus level has just been added to the game. That seems to be part of a trend of continued additions by the developers (controller support, for example, has been there about a week), so I suspect there will be quite a bit more before too long.
It’s hard to estimate how long this game actually is. I can imagine some kind of platforming legend playing through it from beginning to end in just a couple of hours’ time. Ordinary folk like myself, however, take exponentially longer, trying each level dozens of times to master each of the individual challenges and trying to be consistent enough to actually finish. In other words, it all depends on your skill. Of course, those who are good at it will probably still spend time honing their skills, in order to get higher and higher rankings, so who knows? There are only about 20 main levels, and you can get an ending by playing a mere 7 of those, but it can take several hours of attempts just to get through one (whereas the record time to finish is probably less than a minute).
Playing Cloudbuilt is a high-energy experience. It’s exhilarating when you succeed, and ridiculously frustrating when you fail. Whatever the reason, I tended to feel more worn out from this game than any other that I can think of. That’s how intense it is. If you think you can handle that, the game is $19.99 on Steam. Good luck–you’ll need it.
Review copy supplied by the publisher.