When you seemingly combine Mirror's Edge, Mega Man and a Gravity Rush aesthetic by way of color pencils, my ears perk up. I did not know what I was getting myself into.
Cloudbuilt is hard. Like, real hard. When this review was more timely and I was clawing my way through levels, I would periodically take breaks to unwind with Dark Souls II when Cloudbuilt got too frustrating. And that's the biggest issue with Cloudbuilt. It's hard and it's frustrating.
The latter isn't so good.
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Released: March 20, 2014
Cloudbuilt takes place in a room. Sitting in a hospital bed with heavy bandages is the robot woman with three ponytails like a sci-fi version of the mom from Rugrats that you'll be playing as. The hospital room acts as a hub for four branching paths of levels, abstracted, antagonistic geometry of the woman's own fractured mind.
The beginning tutorial gives you a once over of everything you need. There are no upgrades. You have all your tools available at the onset and you'll quickly have to learn how to blend boosts and wall runs while nannying energy gauges that deplete faster than a Hummer's gas tank. What gets more complicated are the levels you have to traverse. The amount of things chasing or shooting you, the amount of mine fields or lasers blocking your path.
Your end goal is speed running. Getting better rankings, crawling up leaderboards. Your immediate goal is to just survive. I went from pulling the poorest ranks (Ds) and occasionally scraping Cs to struggling to even complete levels. This is made worse by a per-level life counter that will boot you to the start after a certain number of deaths. The counter goes up, but deaths come easy.
The pattern was clear. Fight tooth and nail to get to a checkpoint, then face more pitfalls that would kick my ass and have me start from the beginning. You start to get better and better at the first part of levels. The game is effectively teaching you speed running by being a ball buster. But it's also a lot of time spent to keep getting back to one checkpoint so you can try and get better at the rest of the course from that point on once you had gotten a handle on the beginning. It feels punitive and antagonistic. The combat does, too.
Every loose cannon cop who had their gun and shield pulled, all those guns and shields ended up in Cloudbuilt. Your canon is a pea shooter and most enemies can't even be completely rid of as they will just throw a shield up if you don't get the drop on them. Then they indestructibly chase you for the entire level. I got to many points where just taking a hit was a strategy because it lowered the shield back down.
Without enemies, Cloudbuilt would be hard enough, and a lot less of a pain in the ass. The frantic, precise platforming will break your left hand as you pound keys. It's a weird blend of loose, sometimes weightless precision. Hazards are everywhere. Falls. Mines. Mines that fall on you unforeseen from above, leaving you, for a second, sitting there like Wile E. Coyote looking up at the anvil suspended above its head. The enemies just feel sadistic. Stationary turrets that can only be destroyed from behind, floating and scuttling bots that throw up constant shields when you try and off them, all constantly taking shots at you while you're trying to manage a bunch of other things.
Maybe I'm slow, but death feels cheap when I bust my ass to get to a checkpoint and the next section of level is a sprawling, all wall running gauntlet of blind corners you literally don't know what's on the other side of (more mines?) or where you're supposed to be going.
So you lose a few lives getting to the last checkpoint. A couple the first time you take that corner, and then maybe a few more at the next corner, and a couple more, and suddenly you're starting from the beginning of the level fighting your way back up for a shot to practice the routine.
If you're feeling truly masochistic, Cloudbuilt offers settings to make levels harder. Less health and whatnot. I think it'd benefit from a no enemy mode where you could just work on getting the careful blend of precise platforming right. It feels damn good for a 3D platformer, but gets plenty disorienting, likely when you're spiraling up hundreds and hundreds of feet while avoiding mines, positioning yourself right, and barely keeping your energy up enough with refill pick ups.
Cloudbuilt also attempts a story. From its hub you can access a computer and sit there and listen to reasonably well acted diary entries that are ill-advised large exposition dumps. It's boring, and they're accompanied by text so you can just read them before the first few lines are acted. At least let the player listen to them while playing the game rather than sit there and be told a story.
If the environment tries to tell this story, it does so too abstractly and too simply. It lacks specificity and covers it with "there's the rainy, moody branch of levels that lead towards a dark ending and here's the sunny, beautiful branch of levels that lead towards a fulfilling end," none of which exactly matter if you're expected and allowed to run through them all anyway.
Cloudbuilt is frustrating. It's frustrating to play and frustrating to recommend. I like the style, I like the parkour mechanics overall, but there's a lot of junk to contend with. The antagonistic design (minefields everywhere) is one thing, but the unforgiving checkpoints and limited lives lead to a lot of repetition. Meanwhile, the combat ends up about as unsatisfying as Mirror's Edge, with worse enemies that either absorb too many bullets or deflect them with shields anyway. If you want something that is going to fight you every step of the way as you shave seconds off of run times (and you have a strong pinky finger), this is for you.