Cloudbuilt Review31 Mar 2014  by
Cloudbuilt is one of the most difficult games I’ve ever played. It won’t be that way for everyone, but the tight combination of precision, reflexes, aiming and forward planning was enough to overwhelm my brain time after time. Like a water droplet rolling down the outside of a window pane, my runs through Cloudbuilt’s parkour levels were haphazard and stop-start in nature. Sometimes I’d fluke a streaky triumph, but more often than not only sheer determination (and a fair bit of trial and error) got me through.
For a select few, this will be a Game of the Year contender. They’re the talented fellows on the leaderboards (usually four or five of them right now) who are S-ranking levels that I can barely scrape a C-grade on. My overall level report card doesn’t make for great reading. The Cloudbuilt parents’ evening will be one to avoid.
Coilworks’ title follows the metaphysical activities of Demi, an injured soldier who spends a fair amount of time looking at her own bed-ridden body and reflecting through monologue on the nature of her wounds and the healing process. The floating, cuboid levels in which Cloudbuilt takes place are some kind of metaphysical manifestation of this recovery. It’s not the most subtle metaphor ever penned, and Demi’s monologues are on the overly-chatty side, but it’s a clever way to drape a little plot over this speed-runner.
Outside of the clear links between your efforts to overcome levels and Demi’s own piecing together of events, the mechanics of movement and agility take precedence to any kind of plot. Getting through the confounding levels is your quest, and getting through them quickly is desirable if you hope to compete on the leaderboards. Demi has a selection of abilities to help her through the environment, including a double-jump, rechargeable boost and a penchant for Prince of Persia style wall-running. For the more demanding segments, you’ll need to combine and refine these talents, perhaps hopping between multiple walls as you boost over obstacles.
Precision is vital for such maneuvers. The difference between vertical and horizontal wall-running can be as subtle as the position of your third-person camera as you approach the surface, and advanced (but sometimes crucial) moves like hanging on a wall for a brief spell can be tricky to pull off at the right moment. It can be easy to accidentally hang when you were intending to leap. Too easy, really. Consideration of your surroundings is also important, as at any given moment Demi is likely to be under attack from two, maybe three or four, directions at once.
The first handful of areas give you a gradual introduction to Cloudbuilt’s philosophy. One of the great strengths of its level design is the viability of multiple pathways through to your point of exit. If you’re struggling to make a jump or deal with foes on one path, there’s a reasonable chance that you’ll have another option. There tends to be a risk-reward trade-off between a quicker (but more dangerous) path and the slower, safer one; but at times both options seem equally dangerous, just different in style (harder jumping vs more enemies, for example.)
Once the game has made you comfortable with this, it ramps up the environmental and mobile enemies. Cloudbuilt has opted for a certain number of projectile foes, and given Demi a gun too. I suspect this might be a stumbling block for anybody wanting a ‘pure’ parkour platforming experience because it came as slight disappointment to me too. It is entirely possible to make it through a stage without firing your weapon (there’s even a special mode for attempting this,) but that’s going to take an awful lot of practice and maybe a little luck. I wish “no enemies please, just the parkour” was on offer as an alternative mode of play.
The intent of having a surfeit of enemy types (turrets, homing drones, electrified beetle things) is presumably to add another risk-reward layer to the game. It’s an admirable intent, and in theory means you can either risk having enough skill to pelt past everything, or take things slower and use your weaponry to take out the (often rather bullet-spongy) opponents. This isn’t quite as refined a choice as the branching level paths though, as while you can indeed go slower and pick off enemies one by one, it turns Cloudbuilt into a pretty mundane third-person shooter.
The game is made for rapid parkour, so naturally you want to be parkouring all over the place. But to build up and maintain enough speed (without being shot off a ledge,) you have to either enter the game as some kind of platforming savant or get to work memorising the positions of enemies. It doesn’t take long for Cloudbuilt to get downright sadistic with its vast collection of turrets and electric mines, so it’s not as if you have a particularly gentle difficulty curve to get used to.
When you do hit that combined stride of speed and movement, it feels fantastic. So the incentive is definitely there for you to improve, strive and get better. It’s just that reaching that level of competence feels like a huge investment of time and course memorisation, during which you may not exactly be enjoying yourself. The ability to access some kind of Ghost Runs for those who have managed to S-rank a given level may have helped a little with this, but the game currently lacks such a feature. You’ll have to make do with hunting down YouTube videos instead.
Still, watching someone who knows what they’re doing tackle Cloudbuilt can be impressive enough in itself. It’s a terrific looking game, with an art style that manages to be visually arresting without getting in the way of the player’s ability to see what’s going on. Each ‘branch’ of stages from the mission hub has its own atmosphere, from brighter levels speckled with greenery to far more overcast affairs. The game’s music sets a solid pace for your progress through stages and harkens back to the 16-bit Amiga days. In fact, my only complaint about the audio is that there’s no separate toggle or slider for Demi’s rather piercing (and, if you’re me, frequent) death screams as she tumbles off a ledge. Turning it off means losing the general game audio with it too.
At the time or writing there’s no controller support, though Coilworks is said to be working on that in a forthcoming patch. The game’s precision is actually suited to the keyboard and mouse set-up (which you can redefine and tweak the sensitivity,) but I would have liked the chance to test out how a controller felt. My suspicion is that it would make some of the wall-running/boosting/zig-zagging combos a bit more intuitive, offsetting the lost precision. Other included options are generally quite PC-friendly and count a wide ranging FOV slider amongst them. Always appreciated.
Cloudbuilt is constructed with repetition and challenges in mind. Whether that’s the challenge of shaving a second or two off your time on the leaderboards, or tackling one of the post level-completion modifiers like “finish the stage without taking a hit.” It’s a title where just muddling through to the finish line of its twenty-some levels isn’t really the point. I admire that about the game, and the amount of commitment it demands from players is something I respect. Again, I’ll reiterate that this is likely to be somebody’s game of the year. Somebody’s, but not mine. While Cloudbuilt brought me fleeting moments of fluid, parkour joy, I’d be writing in bad faith if I said there were many extended periods of play where I was enjoying myself to quite that extent.