Developed By: ION LANDS
Published By: Merge Games
Release Date: 10.15.20
Composers: Harry Critchley
Did you ever watch Blade Runner? Did you ever look at the towering spires and flying cars and think to yourself, “Man, it would be super awesome to explore a city like that?” I know I did, and I think I can say with a great degree of certainty that the fine folks at ION LANDS feel the same. Their first release, Cloudpunk, has finally made its way to the Nintendo Switch, and piloting my hover car around the neon noir city of Nivalis has proven to be every bit as satisfying as I hoped it would.
Just Keep Driving
Cloudpunk doesn’t rely so much on its gameplay to keep players engaged; it’s pretty strictly an adventure and exploration game with an intense focus on narrative. Players are either in their HOVA – hover car – or on foot on one of the game’s many landing platforms. In your HOVA, you can control your altitude, accelerate, and turn with the thumb sticks and triggers. On foot, you can pretty much just walk around, change your camera, and hit a button to interact with people or objects. Since you play as a delivery driver, pretty much every mission is a fetch quest. Gameplay-wise, it’s pretty much just a walking-and-hover-car-driving simulator. That’s not a complaint from me, by the way; I could have spent hours having fun with this game just driving around, marveling at the gorgeous designs of the different areas of Nivalis. No, while the controls are fairly basic, but nonetheless smooth and intuitive, the gameplay isn’t really where Cloudpunk will win its acclaim.
Voxel Populi, Voxel Dei
The appeal of Cloudpunk starts with its mesmerizing visuals and engrossing soundtrack. The game makes excellent use of voxels to render the sprawling city of Nivalis and the many HOVAs darting through its urban canyons. The mixture of drab brown and gray colors with shockingly bright neon highlights paints a dystopian cyberpunk landscape that would bring a proud tear to Syd Mead’s eye. The human models are slightly less impressive, in terms of both detail and animation. The main character’s noodly movements don’t exactly ruin the game’s mood, but they do add an unwanted sense of silliness to the proceedings which lowers the tension the narrative spends so much energy building. The good news is the game’s soundtrack does an excellent job of snapping things right back to the desired atmosphere. The mostly-electronic sounding music is equal parts thoughtful, suspenseful, and adventurous depending on what the situation requires, and the fully voice-acted dialogue adds a gripping sense of emotional depth to an already-engrossing story. Speaking of…
The Night Shift
Where Cloudpunk truly draws players in is through its narrative. Players take on the role of Rania, newly-hired delivery driver for the underground courier service known as Cloudpunk, during her first night on the job. Rania is new to the dystopian metropolis called Nivalis, having been chased from her home in the more pastoral Eastern Peninsula by ever-present debt companies. Over the course of the night, Rania’s story unfolds through a patchwork series of run-ins with obnoxious rich folks, corporate security, organized crime, ancient AIs, and Huxley, the private detective android who narrates his life like it’s a hard-boiled crime pulp. I often wish I had the courage to narrate my own life like a Dashiell Hammett novel in my best Humphrey Bogart voice. No spoilers, but I must make it known that Huxley deserved better than what he got.
Far in the Future, But Close To Home
Certainly, the twists and turns of Rania’s tale are what kept me hooked on the story from start to finish, but the familiar state of society in Nivalis gave the game a grounded, timely, and relatable feel. Rania’s struggle with crushing debt coupled with a lack of economic opportunity in a society obsessed with ignoring the cracks in its foundations – both physical and metaphorical – is sure to strike a chord with everyone who has been squeezed by stagnant wages and growing economic disparities. Like all good science fiction, Cloudpunk uses its setting to hold a mirror up to the real world. Alternating interactions with hopelessly impoverished citizens contrasted against the frivolous social attitudes espoused by ultra-wealthy clients, all as Nivalis literally falls into the ocean block by block, paint a bleak picture of a far-flung future frustratingly similar to our present, where our leaders do nothing while millions lose their jobs, health, homes, and lives.
Get Your Head In The Clouds, Punk
It’s hard for me to remember the last time I played a game that feels as relevant as Cloudpunk. Having temporarily lost my job recently, Rania’s economic uncertainties hit close to home. Having read the news recently, the state of Nivalis is uncomfortably familiar as well. The exceptionally well-crafted graphics and soundtrack framing the narrative give the whole experience a sense of style that is satisfying and captivating while reinforcing the narrative’s thematic impact. Unfortunately, the gameplay is a little bland, but the overall power of the story more than makes up for it. If you have any belief in the power of games as a narrative experience, Cloudpunk needs to be in your library – just do yourself a favor, and don’t let it sit in your backlog.
Digital – $24.99
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The Switch Effect was graciously supplied a code for review purposes.