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‘Cloudpunk’ Review: A Perfectly Imperfect Delivery

Cloudpunk isn’t perfect in the slightest, but for some audiences, there’s a trip well worth taking here nonetheless.



Cloudpunk Switch Review

Developer: Ion Lands | Publisher: Merge Games | Genre: Adventure | Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows 10, Nintendo Switch | Platform reviewed: Nintendo Switch

Cloudpunk is a difficult game to review. So many things are wrong with it – its characters are aggressively one-note, its writing is full of itself to a breaking point, and its gameplay could best be described as “Busywork: The Game.” That’s not to mention the myriad of technical issues that accompany its trip to Nintendo’s console. At the same time, there’s something undeniably compelling about it – the Zen routine of completing one delivery after another, interacting with increasingly outlandish clients, and exploring a cyberpunk metropolis. Cloudpunk isn’t perfect in the slightest, but there’s a trip well worth taking here nonetheless.

Cloudpunk is best described as an open world delivery simulator. Opening with little fanfare, it puts you behind the wheel of a hovering delivery vehicle in the sprawling supercity of Nivalis. Rania is a brand-new driver for the eponymous Cloudpunk, an illegal delivery company. Taking orders from a distant supervisor known only as Control, Rania will transport packages all across the city for an increasingly enigmatic lineup of clients. While completing jobs, you might converse with Control, your built-in digital dog named Camus (this is the future, after all), and any passengers or other characters you might encounter along the way.

The gameplay is as mundane as the activity it recreates – following delivery routes isn’t the most exciting job out there, after all. This leaves the story as the primary driving force behind most of Cloudpunk, and depending on your preference in game narratives, it might be the game’s best quality or its worse downside.

Describing Cloudpunk’s storytelling as heavy-handed would be an understatement. Each character you meet is a walking stereotype, playing into the same cyberpunk capitalist hellscape that’s been recreated in sci-fi media again and again. You’ll encounter characters like rich executives who pathologically hate poor people, mysterious computer masterminds who secretly pull the strings of society, and racists who deeply loathe minority groups (androids, in this case), among others. As short as these descriptions are, they fully express how much depth you can expect from every character. Everyone you meet is the definition of one note, and they aggressively reinforce their stereotypes with every conversation. Sometimes the game attempts originality through even more outlandish characters, but these typically boil down to even more tired archetypes but with a comical coating (how about a corporation entirely employed by people named Mr. Anderson?) The over-the-top voice acting, as impressive as it may be for an indie game to be fully voiced, doesn’t soften the blow of the writing. If you’re looking for engrossing or even slightly original characterization, the citizens of Nivalis are likely to leave you sorely disappointed.

At the same time, there’s something undeniably engrossing about Cloudpunk’s larger narrative. It’s a prime example of a world that’s more than the sum of its parts. Individual conversations and characters might be so stereotypical as to prove insufferable on their own, but when taking a bird’s eye view of the whole story, a different picture emerges. Across the game, you’ll interact with a hugely varied assortment of characters representing all the highs and lows of Nivalis. You encounter every level of society firsthand – you don’t hear about CEOs being evil or androids being disadvantaged, but rather, you see it for yourself during your job duties. The more characters you meet and the more neighborhoods of the metropolis you discover, the more it becomes a truly living, breathing city. It’s an admirable feat so, if effective worldbuilding is what you most appreciate in game narratives, then Cloudpunk will more than make up for its lackluster characters.

Like its story and worldbuilding, your reaction to Cloudpunk’s gameplay will vary widely depending on what you’re looking for. Its core loop is simple: you’ll pick up a package, hop in your vehicle (called a HOVA), and deliver it to your client. Along the way, you might need to stop at repair shops, fill up on gas, or navigate traffic on futuristic highways. There are occasions where you’ll have to get out and explore the city on foot, either to meet your client, pick up a package or, on occasion, complete different objectives like talking to different characters or flipping switches.

Cloudpunk suffers from a severe lack of gameplay variety. No matter how many embellishments it tries to add to its basic core, most activities boil down to the same thing: drive from Point A to Point B. Although the driving controls are solid and there’s some room for customizing your HOVA, there’s no denying that once you’ve completed one mission, you’ve essentially completed all the rest. The only things that vary from job to job are where you have to go, and what you might have to do along the way. Even when the formula does get shaken up a bit and you get out of your HOVA to venture into one of Nivalis’s many neighborhoods and sectors, you’ll only enjoy a slight reprieve from repetition. Most on-foot areas are relatively barren despite their glitzy appearance, leaving you little to do or discover aside from your main objective. And because of that barrenness, there is little to make one area stand out from any others. Cloudpunk‘s gameplay is pure and simple busywork.

Yet again, however, looking at the overall gameplay experience, rather than the moment-to-moment loop, yields a more positive image of Cloudpunk. The gameplay is mundane enough to help you settle into a routine flow, while the sci-fi setting and compelling worldbuilding add a sense of wonder to even the simplest jobs. As you explore the shining high rises, freeways, and corridors of Nivalis’ many futuristic districts, it’s easy to get drawn into the spectacle. It genuinely feels like you’re a delivery driver in a grand, futuristic metropolis. As simple as your tasks might be, there’s a grandeur to them. Like the story, the gameplay walks a balance between having a compelling overall experience despite a mediocre moment-to-moment loop. If you value the feelings that gameplay can evoke, then Cloudpunk‘s rigorous exploration and well-realized world will turn any monotonous mechanics into opportunities for immersion.

However, it is when the gameplay and the story intersect that Cloudpunk is at its undeniable best. You don’t have to go along with everything you’re told to do; rather, there are many times throughout the game that you’ll have to make major choices. These decisions often tie to moral quandaries: since Cloudpunk as a business operates on the edges of legality, you’ll often find yourself in ethically problematic situations. Do you deliver a package that contains a bomb just so you can receive your payment for the night, or do you destroy the package to protect the city while losing your money? Such choices can have short and long-term consequences on the larger narrative, and they only get more important as you progress through the campaign. Tough and impactful choices are just the element that the game needed to add a sense of urgency to its otherwise barebones experience and, yet again, it makes its world more real and dynamic.

Perhaps it’s only fitting that a game focusing so much on the big picture would have a gorgeous overworld to explore. Cloudpunk is beautiful, adopting a chunky 3D block art style that is largely bolstered by its landscapes of technological society. You’ll fly your HOVA through towering corridors of brightly-colored skyscrapers covered in flashing billboards and advertisements, all while other vehicles and pedestrians navigate platforms beneath them. By default, your camera reverts to an extremely zoomed-out third-person perspective as soon as you exit your HOVA and explore areas on foot, which helps emphasize one of the game’s key messages: you are an ant in a giant, all-encompassing city. However, while this might serve an artistic purpose, it’s not the most natural view for gameplay. That’s why it’s best to switch into a first-person perspective, which allows you to get up close and personal with your surroundings. The aesthetic package is perfectly topped-off with an EDM soundtrack that seamlessly fades in and out of gameplay, intermingling with the ambient noises of bustling crowds and speeding hover vehicles to make Nivalis truly immersive – it’s an excellent game to play with headphones.

All of the above will be true for your experience with Cloudpunk, provided that you have a platform powerful enough to handle it. The Switch unfortunately does not meet that description. While I’m using official publisher screenshots in this review to describe the experience you can expect in general, they’re a far cry from what you’ll find on Switch. With a draw distance of approximately six inches, visuals that look like they’ve been drenched in Vaseline, and a framerate that stutters like a HOVA that’s behind on its maintenance, Cloudpunk is in poor portable shape. That’s not to mention that it crashed many times throughout my ten-hour playthrough, mostly during loading screens and immediately after story scenes. It has been crammed onto Nintendo’s console with little regard for its strongest aspect: its world. Its lovingly rendered environments are crippled on Switch, which is an especially awful shame because it’s perfectly suited for portable play.

For every good thing to say about Cloudpunk, there’s something equally bad. If you want believable characters paired with compelling gameplay variety, then Cloudpunk will show up sorely lacking. However, if you’re in the market for a world that’s truly worth getting lost in with a beautifully realized sense of atmosphere, then you’ll find a lot to love in this futuristic delivering simulator (as long as you play it on anything other than Switch). It’s no exaggeration to say that your mileage may vary, but depending on what you want out of story-driven games, Cloudpunk has a good chance of delivering.

Campbell divides his time between editing Goomba Stomp’s indie games coverage and obsessing over dusty old English literature. Drawn to storytelling from a young age, there are few things he loves as much as interviewing indie developers and sharing their stories.

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