Big cities are rubbish, aren’t they? Living in one is an endless meander from one disillusionment to the next, as the novelty value of being able to press a button on your phone to have some underpaid moped driver bring you a sushi platter within 20 minutes gives way to the sheer inhumanity of it all. The grind. The cliff face of disparity between the wretched and the wealthy. Tent villages nestled amongst gleaming glass towers, and other cosmic punchlines.
Cloudpunk, like every rain-slick future with neon skies and hover-cars, is about that. Y’know. How crap everything is. If you’re looking for escapism, look elsewhere. If, however, you’re looking for a gorgeous open-world city to explore, full of stories, characters, and collectables, then stick around.
The city of Nivalis teems with life. Though Cloudpunk is ostensibly about driving a Jetsons car, considerable time is spent on foot, where you roam streets crammed with people doing city things: plying wares, smoking tabs, having coffee, wearing jackets, and so forth.
You play Rania, a recent immigrant to Nivalis, on her first night running jobs for an illicit delivery firm. Your task seems perfectly sound at first, but before long you’ll be sent on errands of increasing dubiosity. There is an element of moral tension here: fuel and upgrades aren’t free, but are they worth becoming a criminal for? It’s a quandary, unless you’re a libertarian, in which case you won’t get to those bits anyway because you’d have uninstalled it in a huff about having to play as a woman.
It’s an oddly structured game. There is an overarching narrative, but it’s nowhere near as compelling as the little vignettes that branch off it. The street seller who’s had an argument with his artificial falcon. The android who has become so involved in detective work that he speaks in external monologue. The society of moisture farmers on the outskirts who cling onto survival by the warmth of thermal vents. There are dozens more. At times the game seems best appreciated as a short story collection with an elaborate interface – which, given the literary origins of its chief inspiration (Blade Runner, rather unsubtly) is a fitting way to enjoy it.
Unfortunately, there are issues. Moving around the city, even with upgrades, fast becomes tedious. For a game principally involving travel, the traversal being dull is quite the oversight. But it’s such a chilled-out game that its quiet stretches are not an unmitigated disaster. Indeed, if this aspect is deliberate, it’s eminently faithful to the experience of metropolitan life. Whether that makes for a good video game is up to the player, but for me, a little too much time is spent holding RT and waiting. To make matters worse, regular patches are being issued to deal with Cloudpunk’s disproportionate performance issues. It’s tricky to get running smoothly, even on a nice PC.
The city of Nivalis and all her inhabitants are gorgeously rendered in voxel art. Building the game out of rudimentary blocks has surely been a huge factor in allowing such an ambitious project to be pulled off by a relatively small studio, and it’s a great example of how compelling works of art can emerge from interesting limitations.
A chilled, combat-free courier-’em-up set in an inviting voxel cityscape with plenty of stories to tell, unfortunately let down by bland mechanics and technical issues.
Genre: Adventure | Format: PC | Developer: ION LANDS | Publisher: Merge Games | Price: £16.99 | Release: Out now