Cloudpunk Review | Like Frames in Rain

The best feeling a game can evoke in a player is the want to inhabit the game's world. The urge to walk through its fictional streets, abide by its fictional laws, and interact with its fictional characters. For the player to feel that way is perhaps the biggest form of flattery a game can receive. So it shouldn't be taken lightly when I say that I want to live in the city of Nivalis. I understand that this cyberpunk dystopian New York is not supposed to be an idyllic destination but this is the closest I've gotten to living in the 2019 Los Angeles of Blade Runner that I am an absolute sucker for. So I suppose the question going into this review is what is it about Cloudpunk that makes me like it so much?

In Cloudpunk you play as Rania, a woman who's come under hard times and picks up a driver job at the mysterious delivery service that shares the game's name. There are two rules that a delivery driver must follow: don't miss a delivery and don't ask what's in the package. However as the night goes on and as Rania gets more situated with her new home and job, her employer's veil of innocence wears off and she starts to question their intentions. The roughly nine-hour campaign does a good job of keeping you engaged and that's mostly thanks to great world-building and solid performances. I'm a big fan of how Cloudpunk builds its world with the use of dialogue queues that drop bits of information about Nivalis in passing and scripted moments that let you experience first hand the wonders of the city. If you've ever watched a cyberpunk movie or read a cyberpunk book, Nivalis should feel familiar, but its realization of genre tropes is so commendable that it's hard not to stop for a bit and admire it. No, really, when I first visited Rania's futuristic apartment, I went out onto the balcony and just watched the cars zooming by. I'd liken the experience to those 10-hour long song mixes on YouTube that show some girl in a sci-fi suit staring out her apartment window at some futuristic city, but in this case, you are that sci-fi suit-wearing girl and you can move around that apartment at will. This isn't to say that the game's writing is altogether perfect because there are some hit or miss characters, like Camus the AI companion who I just did not connect with, and a few story beats feel forced. But overall, Cloudpunk's presentation does a whole lot of things right allowing for its few missteps to be easily forgiven.

Cloudpunk's commitments to its cyberpunk genre carry over to its visuals as well. The pixelated aesthetic doesn't keep Nivalis from being any more real or any less fun to explore. The city is constantly being buffeted by rain and vibrant lights give off a glow from every window and every sign. The visuals are accompanied by an electronic soundtrack that pulses in the background as you float around the city. The constant pitter-patter of rain and the fading sirens of police cars occasionally speeding by are also prevalent throughout the soundscape. Both elements combine to make the setting immersive and entrancing despite the layer of grime that the city is covered in. Earlier I said, in passing, that the voice acting is solid and this is absolutely true. Since there are no cutscenes to distract the player visually, there is a lot of emphasis put on the audio during dialogue sequences to push the narrative forward. My only gripe with the audio is that occasionally some characters, most notably Camus, will sound different from dialogue to dialogue. Almost as if one line was the end of one recording session and the next was at the start of another. This is more noticeable because when it happens it's usually mid-conversation and it makes you wonder why an AI dog sounds like he just sat up straight in his chair and moved closer to the microphone.

Gameplay in Cloudpunk is a straightforward and simple affair. Most of your time in the game is spent driving around the sizeable map from Point A to Point B as you deliver packages. When not in the car you have the option of either playing in first person or with a locked camera in third person. First person does a great job of putting you in Rania's shoes and gives you a grounded view of Nivalis in all its towering skyscraper-filled glory, which is why I played through most of the game from that perspective. The car controls took me a while to get used to and even hours into the game, whenever I returned to it after a day or so away, I still had to get readjusted to the controls. I chalk this up to the game's use of the right analog stick as the car altitude control instead of the usual camera control of regular third-person games. You can toggle the function of the right analog stick by pressing X but since the altitude controller is more functional I ended up using it most of the time. This is a very minor complaint though and it didn't take away from the game as a whole. I still thoroughly enjoyed gliding through the city, narrowly missing oncoming traffic, and nearly colliding with buildings. The game also gives you the freedom to go off the beaten path and at any time, assuming you can find a parking spot, you can get out of the car and explore. Not every NPC is interactable but you come across merchants and drug dealers frequently as you roam around the seedier parts of the city. I didn't always take advantage of that freedom to roam but I appreciated its presence and, for the few moments I did wander on my own, it worked in the game's favor.

With all that said, even with my prior excitement for the game in mind, it's pretty evident that Cloudpunk has managed to scratch a lot of my itches. However, and this is a big however, the game suffers from one main problem that holds me back from recommending it outright. Cloudpunk, on consoles, is poorly optimized and suffers from constant performance drops. While I am no Digital Foundry, I have played enough games to know that the framerate in Cloudpunk can dip well below 20 in high traffic areas. While I can't blame the developers for the low draw distance, which often shows buildings loading into view in the distance when driving through the city, object pop-ins are frequent with cars usually popping into existence as you approach a parking station. And traveling from one part of the city to another can cause the game to just freeze for a few seconds as the world gets loaded in. These performance issues were even more noticeable when you go to Rania's apartment because the enclosed living space, which probably requires less power to load and run due to being such a small contained area, runs buttery smooth in comparison to the rest of the game. I tried my absolute best to just look past these problems, and for the most part, they didn't stop me from enjoying the game, but they reared their head so often that I simply couldn't ignore them for the review.

Another issue I have with the game, but one I want to keep separate from the rest as it's more of a personal preference, is the rain. I know from previous conversations with indie game developers that adding any particle related effects, be it rain or snow, takes a hit on performance. And as I already said, the scope of Cloudpunk is already impressively large, so I can understand why the developers decided to not have the rain effects be actively generated to fall on the city. But their alternative, of adding a video layer of rainfall on top of the screen just did not work for me. This wasn't really a problem when driving, and I'm sure some players wouldn't even be bothered by this when walking around, but for me, as I played in first person, and moved the camera left to right, seeing the drops of rain not change position and continue falling in the same manner, no matter what movement I was doing, was disorienting.

Some of the issues I just listed could be fixed and changed on a player by player basis if the game had more settings in the options menu. But unfortunately, the options tab only lets you change sound levels. There are no controls for any visual or gameplay aspects of any kind. If I could change the movement sensitivity, to negate the slow camera speed in first person, and turn off the rain filter, so it didn't distract as much from the gameplay, my list of issues with Cloudpunk would be significantly shorter.  But those features seem to be a luxury reserved for PC players and unless significant updates are pushed through, I don't see how the console experience could be much better moving forward. 

In the end, there's clearly a lot of things to love about Cloudpunk. The setting of Nivalis is a beautiful one and its bustling world feels alive. The game is unapologetically embedded in its cyberpunk influences, from its score to its aesthetic. However, none of that really matters if poor performance drives players away before they can really experience all those pros. Of course, it is important to remember that this review is on the Xbox One S and is indicative of how the game is on consoles. So the game could be (and probably is) better on a PC that offers more power. And perhaps the game will be even better on the next-gen consoles which release next month. In fact, if given the time, I would love to return to Cloudpunk once I get my Xbox Series S and do an updated review. But as it is right now, I would only recommend Cloudpunk to big fans of the cyberpunk genre that aren't easily discouraged by low framerates and occasional freezes. Cloudpunk is available now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC. A review code on the Xbox One was provided by the publisher.

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