“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” begins Roy Batty’s dying monologue in Blade Runner. In the nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott’s film established a visual aesthetic for what would become known as cyberpunk, we’ve seen these things many times now. Cloudpunk is a complex and uneven narrative-heavy adventure game that trades heavily in cyberpunk cliche. Familiar tropes are rejuvenated with mostly smart writing and consistently striking art direction, but there are also opportunities missed thanks to undernourished, by-the-numbers design.
Nivalis is the last city, or at least that’s what people say. Towering neon spires thrust out of the climate-ravaged ocean and, eventually, emerge through the clouds; at the top live the privileged few, the self-dubbed CEOs secluded in their stratified penthouses, while underneath everybody else ekes out a living in the dense urban sprawl where every city block has a noodle stand, night is permanent and it’s almost always raining. You’ve seen it all before, of course, yet this well-worn set dressing is rendered in such singular fashion it remains striking throughout.
Simply put, Cloudpunk is a stunningly gorgeous game. Nivalis is constructed out of voxels, big chunky bricks of solid colour that give the urban landscape the feel of an enormous, elaborate Lego diorama. Terrific use is made of contrast and lighting. Skyscrapers almost recede into negative space, their facades composed of hundreds of tiny boxes of light, alternating in lurid pinks, yellows and blues. When you’re flying through the city in your hover car, each turn delivers a spectacular view, each ascension over a row of high-rises greeted with a dazzling neon-drenched vista. To be honest, this review took longer than it should have because I had to pause every few seconds to snap off another screenshot.
Yet it’s even better when you get out of your hover car and traverse the city on foot. Here, the camera is locked to a certain view, typically showing a side-on vantage that takes in the street you’re running along, with your character often rendered with no more than a tiny handful of voxels in the middle. At first the lack of camera control feels restrictive, but soon the intended purpose becomes clear. Relying on a predefined camera perspective means every shot is designed to best showcase the frequently jaw-dropping environment, with the scale working hand in hand to make you feel even more in awe of it all looming over you. Occasionally the camera zooms in, usually when you venture down a narrow alley, thus replicating the claustrophobic press of the surrounding structures. Other times it’ll drop to ground level and tilt up to cinematically frame an event happening in the distance or maybe just to point out–once again–how amazing the city looks. Cloudpunk is constantly tapping you on the shoulder to say, hey, check this out, and at least in terms of postcard material it never fails to disappoint.
Inevitably, the reason why you’re exploring Nivalis and able to enjoy such breathtaking scenery must suffer from the comparison, so perhaps it’s sensible that the character you play is given a prosaic profession. Rania is a courier for Cloudpunk, an illicit delivery company that takes the jobs others refuse. A recent arrival in Nivalis, Rania is working the gig economy in an attempt to shake the Debt Corps. It sounds like a terrible idea to my 2020 ears, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to expose the precarity of all labor–especially freelancers–in a capitalist world, but Cloudpunk (the company) seems enlightened to an implausible degree. Rania might have to pay for her hovercar’s own gas, but she doesn’t have to rely on tips, and if her vehicle is stolen Cloudpunk will replace it at no cost. Not to mention she can somehow afford a spacious studio apartment before she’s even worked a day in the job.
That job consists of getting a call from Control, the Cloudpunk handler, being assigned a waypoint, and piloting to the required destination. As a cloud city, Nivalis has some worryingly lax “road” rules. Rania is free to fly her hover car almost anywhere, weaving through residential complexes and swooping over business parks before touching down on the designated parking zones in each district. Narrow highways get you to her destination faster, but I preferred to take the scenic route.
The primary story is told through these jobs, as Rania stumbles into a mystery concerning who or what controls Nivalis, and why it is so clearly falling apart at the seams–literally, in some instances, as another skyscraper collapses, tumbling into the ocean to a collective shrug from a downtrodden population resigned to its fate. As Rania interacts with her handler and Camus, her AI companion (who once embodied a robot dog but now resides in her car, yet still behaves like a dog), and speaks to clients and eventually passengers, you don’t get to choose her dialogue options. Conversations are set in stone. Early on, Rania would prefer to keep her head down and not get involved. She just wants to do the job and pay off her debts. Her compassion comes to the fore, though, her wariness subsides, and she develops into a strong voice over the course of the game. I didn’t always agree with what she had to say, but it’s a credit to the overall calibre of the dialogue that I wanted to keep hearing it and add to my understanding of her take on the world.
Even if there aren’t choices to be made in dialogue, Rania is presented with a number of binary decisions during certain jobs. These tend to arise from Rania discussing events with Camus and realising there’s an alternative to the task she’s been given; however, they’re not all executed to the same standard. Some feel logical and you totally get why she might think this is a better solution, and some feel suitably urgent as they burden you with newfound dramatic weight. Yet others come across as contrived, as if they’re choices for the sake of choices. Regardless, the consequences of all these decisions never match the setup, their underwhelming conclusions usually predictable, though sometimes maddeningly vague, and occasionally downright silly.
Indeed, the quality of writing varies wildly across the board. As you’d expect, the central mystery receives most of the attention, though some of the minor characters you can run into throughout the city open up side stories worth investigating. Given Rania’s outsider status, issues of cultural memory and appropriation are handled with a deft touch while the core examination of how technology both diminishes and enhances our humanity thankfully goes beyond the basic question of whether robot is human. The writing is at its best when it’s focused on people whose situations connect with the wider themes at play in its critique of capitalism. Story threads about corporations automating their labour to endlessly replicate capital to the sole benefit of shareholders, or the drug company releasing a new strain of virus so it can sell the cure it’s manufactured, are delivered with a grim wit that transcends cliche.
Cloudpunk is at its weakest when inserting knowing references to contemporary culture–Rania’s encounter with a “Debate Me” dude has its heart in the right place, but it’s simply too on-the-nose and fails to find anything relevant or interesting to say beyond the fact that “Debate Me” dudes suck. The best-written side character is unfortunately also the one whose questline progress is locked behind the baffling inclusion of collectibles. On balance, though, the good outweighs the bad here, and the real disappointment is that it’s such a close call.
If the inconsistent writing hints that Cloudpunk isn’t entirely sure what type of narrative experience it wants to be, then the addition of a light economic layer betrays a lack of confidence. Money earned from successful jobs must be spent on the odd trip to the gas station to refuel, and can also be put towards a couple of non-essential handling upgrades and cosmetic tweaks to the hover car. Food and drink can be purchased and consumed to give Rania a slight speed boost while a handful of drugs can be bought to make the screen go blurry and little else. There’s even a thin trading game where you can buy low and sell high between vendors to maximise profits. But it’s all so unnecessary, the impact of any part of this economy so trivial that you’re left confused as to why it’s there at all. It doesn’t actively harm the experience, but it’s a distraction you’re much better off ignoring completely.
Cloudpunk is a game with a single core strength so powerful it alone is sufficient to make it an easy game to recommend. Thanks to the rare beauty and rich atmosphere of its voxel-driven cityscape, Cloudpunk is a constant joy to explore. Whether soaring through the neon-plastered clouds or darting across vertiginous walkways dangling a hundred storeys in the air, the desire remains to keep pushing forward because the next view might be even better. And it usually is. It’s not a straightforward case of style over substance, because in Rania and in much of the story there’s no lack of substance, but it can feel that way when the style is so disproportionately stellar.