Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 10/24/20
"I love a good maggot pizza."
It's Rania's first day in the sprawling city of Nivalis, and she takes a job as a delivery driver for the irreputable Cloudpunk courier company. Over the course of one night, she delivers questionable packages, gives rides to shady clients, talks to strangers, gets messed up in government corruption and religious cults, rescues a young girl, enables an android uprising, and overthrows a city infected by a mad AI. Not bad for someone's very first shift.
"Cloudpunk" takes place in a dystopian future that borrows heavily from "Blade Runner." Nivalis is a dark place that's perpetually overcast and raining, lit by colorful neon signs, and connected with floating roadways and vertical ascenders. Flying cars fill the sky and floating buildings bustle with life as humans, androids, and cyborgs struggle to co-exist in harmony. Street vendors and drug dealers can hook you up with food, drink, clothing, and medicine, although none of these items are useful or have any affect on gameplay. You also run into several sex workers in town, and while you can't employ their services, your talking dog companion is extremely curious about their job functions.
The best aspect of the game is the neon-saturated environment, which is rendered in voxel art. The city looks great, but the voxelized people look awful. The game would have benefited greatly if they were more stylized. The character portraits also introduce a major continuity flaw, as they don't resemble the voxel characters at all. Even Rania, who wears a red hoodie throughout the entire game, is rendered wearing a green cloak. The music is quite good and worth pointing out. It features a rich collection of atmospheric synthwave that helps sell the futuristic sci-fi setting.
Flying through Nivalis in your hovercar is immensely satisfying, although the vertical controls are a bit sloppy and collisions are often unavoidable. You will almost always get rammed by other cars when transitioning to different parts of the city, just as you're bound to get hit as soon as you repair your damages at one of the many garages that are scattered about. While keeping your vehicle fueled up and in good shape seems important, there's no way to actually destroy yourself or fall out of the sky when you run out of fuel. In fact, there's no way to fail in the game at all, even though the dialog is full of threats, urgency, and danger. No harm ever comes to Rania, and there are no repercussions for missing timed challenges. There's also no way to attempt those challenges again, because the game doesn't have a save feature. This is a frustrating omission, which forces you to play through the entire game multiple times in order to experience different outcomes. However, while the moral choices Rania faces feel crippling, the consequences are minimal and carry little to no narrative weight, other than changing some characters' dialog. In this regard, the game feels a bit like a glorified visual novel.
While flying around is certainly a lot of fun, most of the action takes place on the ground. This is when the illusion of freedom starts to break down. Not surprisingly, your hovercar's altitude is limited to a couple hundred feet at most, and there are only a few dozen places where you can actually land and explore on foot. Unfortunately, the character controls are awkward, and even though you're given three different control schemes, none of them feel right. The menu controls are also awkward and force you to use the analog stick for making choices, which is cumbersome and non-standard. The D-pad is used for opening the map and hiding the HUD, which is also an awkward layout and a constant source of confusion.
Unfortunately, the more you interact with the people in Nivalis, the more the game starts to fall apart. Nearly everyone you encounter is unpleasant and rude, which makes you not want to talk to anyone (just like in real life). It's also awkward that while you're responsible for initiating conversations, most of them play out as if Rania is the one being approached. And if a character asks you for something, there's no way to back out. Rania also gets hit on by creepy guys throughout the game, which is another reason to shy away from conversations with strangers. But I suppose that just reinforces the fact that Rania is an attractive young woman of Middle Eastern descent, alone and out of place in the big city. It's an odd detail to dwell on, and the game is constantly calling out her ethnicity, even though it has no bearing on the story.
Overall, the writing is disappointing and unsophisticated. The character stereotypes and cyberpunk themes are tired and cliché, which isn't necessarily bad, but they fail to be interesting or engaging. It might be cool if you're a teenager who has never been exposed to science fiction before, but as an adult, the narrative lacks subtlety and finesse. It's also thematically all across the board and deals with philosophy, sociology, anthropology, theology, racism, sexism, misogyny, terrorism, authoritarianism, oppression, economic inequality, class warfare, homophobia, xenophobia, and technophobia. Pretty heady stuff, but it's handled in a crude and overbearing way. While conversations and decisions seem to be designed to make you think, they go on WAY too long after making their point. This goes hand-in-hand with the next problem: the voice acting.
By far, the biggest letdown in the game is the voice acting, which is unfortunate because that's how the story is told. It's not on the same level of awful as something like "House Of The Dead 2", but I can't pinpoint what's actually wrong with it. The overall combination of cringe-worthy dialog, uninspired performance, poor direction, inconsistent delivery, and sub-par recording quality creates a disconnect with the player and ruins the sense of immersion in the game world. It's not so much that the actors themselves are bad (although Rania's delivery is particularly wooden), but it sounds like they're just reading lines rather than interacting with other characters. The various cultural accents sound forced and corny, and the stereotypes are often offensive sounding. And since the game continually points out Rania's Middle Eastern background, why does she speak with a pitch-perfect American Midwest accent? The pronunciation is also all over the place, which gives the impression that there was little to no voice direction, and that the actors were just given a script and told to read it in a particular voice. Nowhere is this more annoying than Rania's name itself, which is pronounced RAN-ee-uh, RAIN-ee-uh, and RAHN-ee-uh interchangeably. You would think they'd at least get the main character's name right. On the plus side, Rania is a likable and relatable character, and she gets a handful of satisfying comebacks and one-liners when dealing with aggressively sexist and racist assholes.
After seeing the chilling and compelling game trailer, I really wanted to love this game, but apart from the hovercar, I found it to be a disappointing and occasionally buggy experience. It's supposed to take about ten hours to play, which is about the length of Rania's shift. However, I ended up playing the game out of order, so my first ten hours were spent exploring the city on side quests, before even delivering my third package! That resulted in a lot of strange continuity issues and also made the game twice as long as it should have been. The thrill of discovery had also worn off by the time I had to revisit every location on the main quest line. As an indie game, I certainly can't fault it for its budget limitations, but it seems that with a little polish and a better fleshed out story, "Cloudpunk" could have achieved true greatness as a compelling and thought-provoking neo-noir cyberpunk adventure.