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Cloudbuilt (PC) artwork

Cloudbuilt (PC) review

"I'm easily frustrated, but I honestly, truly did not give up on Cloudbuilt out of anger. I gave up on it because it is beyond my abilities as a gamer."

Cloudbuilt (PC) image

As a video game critic, one of my least favorite things in the world is having to mark a game down for being too difficult, because it means having to second-guess either my skills or my patience. Is the game really being unreasonable, or am I just terrible at it, or allowing my frustration to take hold of me, or some combination of the two?

I had to call it quits on Cloudbuilt. The game's level map branches in four separate directions, each leading to a different ending, or so I would assume. I've only seen one ending. Completing the other three paths involves pulling feats that I am literally incapable of performing. I'm easily frustrated, but I honestly, truly did not give up on Cloudbuilt out of anger. I gave up on it because it is beyond my abilities as a gamer. It's possible to finish these levels; I've seen YouTube videos proving that it is. It's also possible to swim across the English Channel, but I'm in no rush to commit to that, either.

Here is a game designed specifically for speedrunners. It demands absolute perfection, more so than literally any other game I've ever played. Completing its later levels requires full memorization of routes, full mastery of the game's fair but complicated movement system, and flawless execution of tricky maneuvers at a blistering speeds. There are checkpoints, but there's also a lives system, meaning that any players hoping to canary themselves through Cloudbuilt's countless instant death traps will hit a wall. Perseverance, eventually, gets you nowhere. Finishing the game takes skill, and it takes the kind of skill that, I believe, no ordinary human possesses.

It is, quite simply, a high-speed parkour platformer. From what I understand, it's about a female soldier bounding through some sort of mental simulation while in bed recovering from a battle, and each of the levels seems to represent a step toward recovering her memories and coming to terms with who she is. There's room for interpretation there, but mine is that developer Coilworks simply wanted an excuse to build sprawling acrobatic jungle gyms in the sky and were only passingly interested in context. And there's nothing wrong with that – Cloudbuild's dreamlike levels are vivid and presented with a distinctive hand-drawn visual style that needs no introduction. For an indie game supposedly put together by only a handful of people, this thing looks stunning. It's a good first impression.

Now, I love parkour platforming, and the idea of what is essentially a feature-length gauntlet of this material is appealing to me. The controls are pretty outstanding, too. For a game that demands precision, Cloudbuilt plays surprisingly well on a keyboard and mouse, and aside from the odd collision quirk here and there, it never breaks its own "rules" once you've dumped enough time into the game to understand them, after many profanities and pounded fists. It took me forever to realize, for example, that the main character can only transition from a jump to a vertical wall run if she's on an upward arc; otherwise, she'll just slam into the wall and slide down while you scream at your monitor.

The levels themselves are pure and (more or less) context-free exercises in precise reactionary movement, and the catch is that your character can boost about, gain momentum and ultimately move at lightning speed when your chains go uninterrupted. Quick footing is mandatory; the platforming bits themselves are littered with deathtraps that will send you sailing into the abyss for missing key button presses by a fraction of a second, and even the "safe spots" tend to house enemies that force you to keep moving even when you're not ready. As I said, it's a game for speedrunners; approaching Cloudbuilt at anything but the fastest pace possible will get you killed.

And for a while, it's good fun. I actually made it impressively far into Cloudbuilt without getting overly frustrated due to the breakneck pace at which the game unfolds. Dying is infuriating in, say, Dark Souls, when regaining progress takes ages. Here, though, if you die, you're back to where you were almost instantaneously. For such a gruelingly difficult game, it's surprisingly forgiving.

Until it isn't. As I said, the final stages of Cloudbuilt, in my mind, demand too much of the player. Understanding the controls is one thing; using them with laser precision to perform acrobatic tricks that involve dozens of uninterrupted steps while outmaneuvering insta-death security traps is something else, and on top of that, you've got to conserve energy, too. Your character can only jet-boost so many times before having to recharge, and so the great physical and mental strain in juggling your parkour abilities is compounded by the headache of stamina management. There is nothing more infuriating than finally getting a series of tricky wall-runs down perfectly only to fall short at the last second because you didn't have enough fuel to make that one final boost to your landing spot.

It is ultimately too much, and there are two design choices in particular that drove me over the edge. The first is the enemies. I understand why combat was inserted into Cloudbuilt, but it's often far more than just one more thing to worry about. Later levels absolutely bombard you with hoards of robots, all coming at you from different directions and attacking in different ways, and they're weirdly difficult to dispose of, too. Your gun is underpowered, and while you can destroy enemies, most of them tend to generate impenetrable force fields before you do, which can elevate them, at times, to inescapable annoyances. The worst are the flying drones, which not only can't be killed if they spot you but seemingly can't be shaken, either. Cloudbuilt is more than difficult enough as a platformer; to frequently be overwhelmed and die for reasons unrelated to platforming on top of that is a needless frustration.

The killer, though, is the lives system. Had players been granted infinite opportunities to steadily chip away at the challenges presented to them, it'd have been grueling but still accessible. As is, you're under the constant pressure that if you screw up too many times, all of your progress for that level is lost. Each stage that you complete increases your maximum number of lives by one, but it gets to the point that some of Cloudbuilt's challenges take dozens of attempts, at the absolute minimum, to nail down. And if a stage has two or more particularly punishing segments, mastering one only to be forced to master it all over again is a step too far.

Does this mean that Cloudbuilt is too difficult for its own good, or does this mean that it's simply not my scene? Honestly, I don't know. Barring a few technical issues caused by the in-house engine, it's certainly a solid game by any measurable standard, and Cloudbuilt has plenty of merits even beyond the raw thrill of its jet-fueled platforming (particularly Jacob Lincke's extraordinary soundtrack, which I actually bought and have been listening to as I write this). My stance on the game's difficulty is that just because a few speedrun crazies on YouTube can do it doesn't mean that most people can, but if Cloudbuilt's pieces slide together smoothly for you, it'll likely be heaven. It's not the game for me, but maybe it'll be the game for you.


Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (March 30, 2014)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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EmP posted March 31, 2014:

I was going to fix this, but I wasn't sure if it had a different meaning than the one I'm assuming:

approaching Cloudbuilt at anything but the fasting pace possible will get you killed

This is killer work that works all the better when paired with Joe's. You both come away with many of the same thoughts but have clearly processed them slightly differently, which was interesting to read.
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Suskie posted April 01, 2014:

Thanks for the catch there. Yeah, great timing that Joe and I posted reviews at the exact same time -- I actually have enough admiration for this game that I'm glad someone is praising it to a degree that I just can't. Thanks for reading!

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