‘Cloudbuilt’: The Devil Is in the Design

[18 April 2014]

By Aaron Bachmann

Cloudbuilt is a high-speed, self-described parkour-platformer. While it evokes many games and genres that came before it, most notably Mirror’s Edge, it is definitely in a class all its own. One part Samus, one part Sonic the Hedgehog, this action-adventure hero, Demi, aims high as she runs over and through complex obstacle courses set in a city high above the clouds.

While many platformers are bound by a set path of platforms and a fixed number of ways to navigate them determined by the game’s physics, Cloudbuilt prides itself on throwing those rules out the window. Cloudbuilt plays with typical platformer physics, allowing the player to experiment and challenge what they have learned from a lifetime of platform playing. Demi is given all the power that she will receive at the beginning of the game, a jetpack and a pistol. The numerous ways to traverse the various levels is bound only by the player’s imagination and mastery of Demi’s skillset.

Cloudbuilt is a difficult game. As the game’s materials state: “A minute to learn, a lifetime to master.” And so, Cloudbuilt is reminiscent of recent rogue-likes. Death is inevitable, but it’s also a learning process. Each death leads to a new realization, a new resolution to a problem that you didn’t even think was possible. Scaling up walls at high speed might reveal a hidden corner to jump off of or another route through the sky. Load times are fast, which keeps the momentum going. However, unlike other brutally challenging games that use death as a teaching mechanism, Cloudbuilt implements a continue system. Where other games allow you to decide when to throw in the towel, a fixed number of lives will leave you having to start an entire level over, which can be discouraging.

Cloudbuilt rewards the creative thinker. Puzzle-solving, in the form of choosing the fasted way to make it through each level, is achieved by using your wits, not by overpowering opposition with your gun. Those that can think outside the box will find the most satisfying results. That is not to say that dexterity isn’t important. The player will have to think quickly, creatively, and be good on their feet. High speed is encouraged and works well in the intricately designed levels. With such sensitive camera and keyboard controls and every death being the responsibility of the player, controller support would have been a godsend.

Where Cloudbuilt really shines is at the intersection of art and level design. Art and science operate in a delicate dance, blurring the lines between the two. Cell-shaded graphics in a watercolor palette add a dreamy surrealistic feel to the anime-inspired cyber punk aesthetic. This is not by accident. The story alludes to the fact that each level Demi progresses through is another dream that she is interpreting and consequently another demon that she is exorcising. The menacing architecture and platform placement contrasts the watercolor exterior. Buildings are defined by sharp lines, as is Demi’s suit. The suit is aerodynamic and built for speed just like the game’s protagonist. However, with the watercolor scheme and crosshatch shading, it can become difficult to differentiate one surface from another when traveling at high velocity.

Unfortunately, Cloudbuilt’s narrative is obtuse and intermittent. The player is given a brief glimpse of Demi’s back story after successfully completing a level. Demi is in a futuristic hospital, where it seems she is being put back together. The platforming elements represent her subconscious mind attempting to make sense of her internal struggle. The war inside her mind reflects the war that she has fought and barely survived. It’s an admirable metaphor but it never quite feels authentic. It becomes too transparent that the story segments are a reward for completing each level. The stop and go nature of story and gameplay is a problem many games struggle with, but it is only because Cloudbuilt does other things so well that this becomes disappointing. A more cryptic story, silent storytelling, or omitting the story altogether might have served the game better.

However, a less than stellar narrative is forgivable in a game that is so kinetically focused. The real story comes into play in how the player decides to interact with the environment. Each path that the player chooses to take is a new narrative and how the player builds on their play style weaves them together. The anguish of training yourself to expand beyond thinking about taking the most conventional path—or that linearity will bring the fastest time—is part of the training process. Demi’s skill grows along with your own. The more confident that you become in your abilities as a player, the flashier the presentation will be and therein lies your reward. With so much free choice, any playthrough can be different. This along with leader boards and multiple endings extends Cloudbuilt’s replay value.

Cloudbuilt takes inspiration from many styles of gameplay. From platformers, to endless runners, to action-puzzle games. Yet, it spins these elements creatively enough to make them work within its own game design, creating a unique experience.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/180854-cloudbuilt-the-devil-is-in-the-design/