Review: Cloudpunk

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I love narrative-driven games, but they might be one of the hardest kinds of games to get right. If you’re relying on the story to carry players through your title, that story needs to be one of the most compelling and well-written tales in gaming, and everything that supports the story has to be on point. I’m sure that’s what Cloudpunk is aiming for, but between the writing and the voice acting, it absolutely does not hit the mark. And what gameplay there is could almost carry the experience in lieu of the story, except for how sparse and lacking that side is as well.

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Rania is a newcomer to the towering city of Nivalis, a nigh-infinite sprawl of super-skyscrapers, suspended walkways, and searing neon. It’s her first night working for Cloudpunk, a courier service that requires her to personally ferry packages across the massive metropolis. But in a city built on secrets, forgotten technology, and crushed dreams, even a single night can be a life-changing experience. Rania will meet a bewildering number of the city’s inhabitants and face some tough choices in how she approaches them and her job. She’ll also find some cracks in the foundations of Nivalis that could reveal much about the origins and nature of the grim place she now calls home.

I have no doubt you found this game the same way I did, led here by the incredible screenshots and promises of a rain-slicked dystopia of misty towers. And it does feel pretty incredible to putter around the city in your floating HOVA, weaving between traffic and spires to locate the nestled neighborhoods where your deliveries take place. The voxel art helps all the characters and locales pop with its chunky charm, though the mix of voxel sizes you start noticing close up does detract a bit from the aesthetics. Nevertheless, atmosphere is probably the thing Cloudpunk does best, because it’s about as close as you get to piloting a spinner in Blade Runner.

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That appeal starts to wear a bit thin once you get a better idea of how the game is structured, though. Nivalis is a series of large connected regions of towers and highways, and tucked between them are areas where you can park and walk around on foot. These are clearly marked on your map, along with any shops, NPCs, and collectibles you can find there. It turns out the wonderfully atmospheric driving of the game just exists to ferry you between these nests of catwalks and footpaths, where you’ll actually spend most of your time walking around and talking to NPCs. There seem to be no real secrets to find in Nivalis, as all parking locations and items are right there on your map. Two of the regions you’ll head to are pretty unique and especially atmospheric to travel through, but the rest of the city loses its charm as you travel back and forth and back and forth and back past the same beautiful but purely cosmetic buildings.

So that very much leaves the story to carry the game, which might be the weakest part of the whole package. Rania’s tale is of an outsider coming to a city of miserable insiders, of discovering the pitfalls and excesses of decaying capitalist society, and of plumbing the secrets of a fallen future. This is all fertile ground for narratives to sprout from, and a delivery driver touching so many lives in a single night is a great way to explore that. The problem is that the writing does not keep up with those lofty goals at all, mucking around in surface-level metaphors and political commentary more suited for Twitter takes than an engaging narrative. Characters in Nivalis are parodies of cyberpunk tropes, like the guy who sold his body for a chance to live in finery as a service robot, or the elevator with megalomaniacal airs. All of the themes and takeaways are the most obvious suspects of the cyberpunk genre, offering nothing new to dig into or ponder as you tool about the static city. And the poison icing on this cake is the voice acting, which is so dire that it saps any sympathy or interest you might have in any of the characters, especially with their hilariously mismatched dialects and mispronunciations of common terms.

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Games like Cloudpunk are the biggest tragedies, the games with the ideal looks and feels that you want so very much to be good. But then you get into them, explore their stories and systems past that honeymoon period, and find nothing left to grab you. Nivalis is absolutely a city I would love to explore in detail, to climb the decaying towers, question the motivations of its residents, and call my dystopian hell home away from home. But I can’t do any of that here. I can cruise around the city, scoop up collectibles in designated walking spaces, and suffer through painfully sophomoric writing and dialogue. I don’t want to do any of those things, and so I leave this towering, shimmering city of such possibilities to fade into memory. Perhaps someday there will be a more thoughtful exploration of its mysteries, but until then, I’m content to wait.

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