‘I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Cloud-framed skyscrapers glistening in the pouring rain, HOVAs on fire across the breadth of Nivalis. I watched neon signs glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.’
You don’t have to be Roy Batty to experience all those moments for yourself in Cloudpunk.
Your very first moments with Cloudpunk are undoubtedly it’s best. That’s not to say its downhill from there, it really isn’t, but you can only have that first overwhelming sense of pure geeky cyber wonderment and joy once. You will have a grin from ear to ear as you are dropped immediately into your Fifth Element-style flying HOVA car and work out the aerial controls (I prefer inverted, who knew) and a nerd’s dreamscape unfolds over you. You squeeze the accelerator, your tail-lights glow with that long exposure flare of Akira motorbikes, and your HOVA sets out into Nivalis; intricate neon-lit skyscrapers slide past, clouds drift below you, bright flickering advertisements catch your eye from every angle and the soft mesmerising Vangelis synths stimulate that small part of your nerd brain and says, you know what punk, you’re gonna fit right in here.
Mesmerising is the word for those first ten minutes or so of unfiltered awe – they actually made a flying-car Blade Runner world – but slowly, eventually it subsides and you can function again. You register your HUD and take notice of the guy on the HOVA’s comm who wants you to do some deliveries. Oh yeah, I forgot this was a game, and not just some fever dream after watching the old directors cut on DVD in the early hours.
Cloudpunk is the in-game moniker of an illegal delivery service that operate beneath the all-seeing all-controlling iron fist of CorpSec. And CorpSec run Nivalis, the retro-futuristic rain-drenched Neo-LA in perpetual night that you’ve imagined for the last 40 years. You play as Rania, a tough young delivery driver, who sports the equivalent of a hijab, and is just trying to make her way in this both crime-infested and authoritarian dystopia. The bulk of the game revolves around you parking your HOVA, collecting a package, flying said package to its destination (do not ever open the package) and then collecting payment. It’s a simple but perfectly gamified design choice for what evolves quickly into a sharp and endearing narrative.
You’re joined by your canine pal Camus, but he’s no longer a dog. His dog body is gone, but his personality has been saved and downloaded into you HOVA’s AI; Camus is intelligent and serves as a futuristic Alexa, but his personality is framed as a dog learning and experiencing so much more than a dog ever could/should. He can be a lot of fun, and the conversations between him and Rania are well-written and often funny.
The marketing says you should execute all deliveries on time and never ask what’s in the package, but there’s no real time-limit to any deliveries as far as I have experienced. You are given a lot of freedom to traverse the city in your flying HOVA at any time, mid-delivery or not. Park up and explore on foot; first thing I found while not doing my assigned delivery was a noodle bar. Deckard would have been pleased. There are items to find and collect and the terminal areas that straddle the huge skyscrapers are fun to explore and just to gawk at.
Remember that one bit of real-life you always wanted on GTA, the debilitating hunt for a parking spot? Well Cloudpunk has you covered. Never in any game I’ve ever played have I looked for parking spaces as much as I did in Cloudpunk. I can see why though. The developers want you to experience the city on foot too, and without the designated parking, you could always just park your car directly next to the mission objective and be done. This way you must walk the last bit, buy supplies, talk to NPCs and collect items. Static cams when you are on foot will mess you around when they switch to a more cinematic angle. Remember Devil May Cry 2 and the transitions between shots; Dante would just keep going. Not in this. Best to stop walking and then get your bearings and start moving again in the right direction. As you are so small in the vista afforded by these angles, you are also constantly getting stuck on trees, railings, litter, simply because you can hardly see your avatar.
So, what about the driving – this is where Cloudpunk really shines. HOVA cars (though not Wipeout ships) handle remarkably well and the real beauty of the game is best experienced behind the wheel. Or joystick, or whatever. On a controller setup, the right trigger is accelerate, turning is handled by the left analog stick and altitude is handled by the right. This is initially a little fiddly, but once you get the hang of it, you are soon swooping through tiny gaps in buildings, skimming over people doing their shopping, or careering round skyscrapers like they are racetrack corners on Wipeout.
You won’t want to use them immediately, you’ll be too busy threading your way through the skyscrapers, but there are long blue highways that give you a nice, direct, and speed-boosted route through the aerial city so that you can make the few time-sensitive deliveries. These are where the bulk of traffic fly, keeping out of your way for the most part, while you are flying where you shouldn’t really be, which is most of the city.
You start with a pretty functional runaround that does nothing for your sense of style but a little way in you do eventually get the option to change rides a few times. There are a number of nice options and you will soon look like your flying in a custom Delorean. Each HOVA has a different satisfying sense of weight and drag to it and a change in vehicle will require a small adjustment to your flight style. The speed boost when I got my first upgrade was magic.
But really its all about that city, Nivalis. Technically there is only so far up and down you can go. The story explains this as necessary CorpSec flight restrictions. You are really experiencing the game on one plane of Nivalis’ vast depth. This won’t feel quite like going from the top of a skyscraper to the bottom like Spiderman, and experiencing that change in game world from sky to ground so viscerally. This is clearly for loading and performance – there’s too much going on to have sudden changes like that and have the game manage to load them. But despite this restriction, Cloudpunk manages to have a great sense of verticality, thanks to the design of the cityscape. There’s movement everywhere from the clouds above and below, to the walkways, shopping districts, signs and traffic. It really has to be seen to be believed. On foot you will find hubs split into often two or three levels by ascenders (lifts) that give you a sense of everyone living on top of each other.
It also has this amazing depth of field. As you accelerate, the game gives you a thrust of speed by doing something close to that famous cinematic trick, the dolly zoom, where you zoom in and move back with the camera at the same time. This creates the illusion of moving forward through the space much more so than you actually are. Coupled with the amazing buildings, Cloudpunk has a tangible sense of foreground, middle ground and background all working to be interesting at all times.
Nivalis is also vast and it will take some time to load each of its seven or so district hubs. Some are covered in the remains of accidents and urban decay, sprawl-like spaces with only human detritus living in them. Others are vibrant hives of humanity, swanky dealerships and hotels, high-rise condos and a whole Chinatown-like district of pagoda-towers.
For all its technical beauty, up close you will find Nivalis is not polygon smooth, but instead it’s like its whole game world is made out of Minecraft blocks in a hundred neon colour options, or made of a few billion tiny blocks of Lego. It’s beautiful in a way video gamers understand, but unlikely anyone else really does. I learnt while doing this review that this blocky Minecraft-style is referred to as Voxel, so there’s a nice new word-a-day for you.
To travel between hub districts, you will need to duck into a traffic tube, and let your PC load the next area. The sheer amount of movement, lighting, rain effects and pop-up-less depth that is constantly on display is going to tax any PC, so you can forgive and probably thank the developers for splitting their world up a little. I don’t begrudge the loading, I’m grateful.
Despite this, it’s likely most gamers will experience some stuttering and slow down, but this is mainly down to your gaming rig as much as it is the game. Let’s say it warmed the cockles of my computer, and by that I mean the fans were really whirring.
To run Cloudpunk smoothly, to drive without any framerate drops in the scenery or slowdown, you are going to need a dedicated gaming PC or a real high-end laptop. Without one you are going to see framerate drops and stutter. I did and my rig has some pretty up to date specs. Most PC gamers are not casuals and they have the rigs to cope. They keep increasing the power and capability of their computers and they don’t play on laptops.
For the rest of you, I will throw you a bone. This game is slated for release on PS4 and Xbox One and may well be a little better on consoles. This is not because they are more powerful, far from it, but because rather than just have the game as big and as beautiful as they like, the team at ION LANDS will be forced to optimise it for console. Sure, like Crysis and many others before it, it will have some kind of graphics downgrade (one PC gamers will probably laugh at and say derogatory things about), less of the sweeping rain or something, but most of us won’t notice.
The difference is it will run smoothly, and console gamers will bless it for that, while the PC players are still trying to upgrade their kit enough to play it months down the line. We often talk about what PS5 and Xbox Series X will bring to consoles and if a new console generation is really needed. Well, on the next generation of consoles, even this PC melter may not need any downgrading.
Cloudpunk is one of the best sounding games on the market. A handy tip – get yourself some noise-cancelling headphones going in and fully immerse yourself in it. There’s the constant ambient splattering rain, the chatter of people walking past, the radio adverts, the CorpSec slogans, the police sirens whirring by in the night. When you are in the midst of it, the effect can be intoxicating.
Then, as if that wasn’t enough, everything is elevated by the swell and stab of a lush synthwave soundtrack, dynamically timed with actions you take and the beats of the travel between sections. Harry Critchley has paid homage to all things Vangelis is this soundtrack, but its not a carbon-copy, just the same palette of sounds. It’s a magnificent soundtrack and one I hope appears on Bandcamp or as a beautiful vinyl at some point. I would buy it.
For the most part, Cloudpunk also has some really great voice acting, especially the main cast. Rania, Camus and your delivery controller are all well played and have believable well-delivered dialogue. All text is fully voiced, but some of the shopkeepers and NPCs are not up to the same standard and can be a little laughable.
One thing I found really refreshing about this game is that despite its setting and genre, there are no guns, no weapons. Life is cheap in Nivalis, but Rania has no health bar. Your car can be damaged from erratic driving into buildings, tubes and girders, but you can get it fixed at a garage. Suddenly being unconcerned with my health was actually jarring to begin with. I steered clear of gang members, because I thought I might get injured, only to find they were friendly and wanted to talk.
Every NPC you can speak to has some strange techno issue or quest to deal with, drowning you in this cyber world, from defective augments to android love, from tech gentrification to the minutiae of data storage devices. Some give you deliveries to do, or ask you to collect items for them. It’s a complex jargon-filled storyline that will appeal to fans of point and click adventures and old tech, as well as any of the plethora of sci-fi movies that have influenced the making of Cloudpunk itself.
Many of the early illicit deliveries go as planned, but sooner or later some will result in non-payment or a moral issue to contend with. You shouldn’t open the package, but what about when you do? Once you know the package is morally dubious, a slave android for example, what do you do? The game gives you the option to choose and there are a couple of branching deliveries that have more than one ending. Complete the delivery, or sell the item for yourself? Take the package as payment, or free a sex robot from slavery? However this is the extent of your choices within the game. You have little in the way of agency and for the most part, as you might have guessed, you are going from here to there, delivering packages.
Each person you meet, each delivery you complete, fleshes out a world full of charm and character, grit and technophobia. Subplots about accidents slowly build into an engaging central mystery; just who or what is Cora and what does it have to do with you? The narrative is one of Cloudpunk’s real strengths and that’s impressive when you see the visuals. It just a shame that the individuals you meet along the way are so fleeting and do little to advance the plot, just the lore.
With a few technical restrictions and its demands on your gaming rig, Cloudpunk isn’t perfect. It’s a quite simple in structure and though it promises a lot of freedom, it’s a freedom within certain boundaries and confines of the tech, and within the heavily limited actions available. This is not Grand Theft Auto in a futuristic metropolis.
It does however feature the most wonderfully realised sci-fi city I’ve ever had the pleasure to fly around, and goddamn, it’s the first flying car game I’ve ever played, and I can’t believe the stunning lack of flying car games in the gaming market. I hope this starts an incredible new genre. It’s got a fun cyber storyline, great lore, a few good lead characters that will keep you entertained, and a lush soundtrack to rival the best in the business.
It’s also got a lot of hunting for parking.
Cloudpunk is available now on Steam (reviewed).
Developer: Ion Lands
Publisher: Ion Lands
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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