Platformers have been around for a long time, so it is hardly surprising that new entries to the genre often provide novel twists on the basic mechanics in existence since Super Mario Bros. Super Cloudbuilt makes this twist a quite literal one by making most of the platforms in the game vertical. The difficulty is definitely ramped up in what is a very interesting and engaging game, and there may well be occasions where you are being driven up the wall as your character keeps falling off them.
You begin the game as the ghostly form of Demi, waking in a ruined and overgrown office building. A ball of blue light leads you through the wreckage and through the basics of the controls to end up at the hospital where your body lies recovering and which acts as the level hub for the game. There has been an incident and Demi is a soldier currently undergoing some form of recovery process where her mind is kept active with increasingly difficult obstacle courses, inspired by her childhood dreams, as her body heals. The hospital expands as you progress through the levels, spreading along four wings to the left and right of your room and a stairwell directly ahead of your room with a new level on each floor. Levels increase in difficulty from 0 to 10, with each wing having a bonus room with a difficulty level measured in skulls. These are not for the faint of heart. Each wing leads towards a different ending, with Demi gradually unpacking her beliefs and memories until a final door where you ‘Make your choice’ in how Demi will intend to take on the unknown real world on the other side of recovery.
The stairway differs slightly. The levels contain no mechanical enemies, being purely an acrobatic challenge around ruined masonry covered with abundant greenery. Demi’s thoughts reflect on the optimism of new life and an alternative to violence. Instead of an ending choice, the final door leads to an area that leads to a tall building that holds Demi’s resolve to do things in a different way and the Fog Core, an item that will keep the defenses in the levels from attacking you allowing you to focus purely on the more architectural obstacles. Use of the Fog Core allows you a slightly more relaxed run along each level, though doing so prevents you from accessing the ending of any wing in which you used it. This can be reversed by returning the Core, and you then need to complete these levels with all the threats active and out to get you to complete that particular story.
Visually, the game is an absolute treat. The cel-shaded art style looks vibrant, colourful and reassuringly chunky. Somewhere between Bastion and Borderlands. As an alternative, you can switch from the standard art style to a variety of different art mediums. An interesting alternative to the typical graphical options, even if it does lack for practicality at times. Each wing has its own visual theme, reflecting the respective mood of the story progression in each wing. The Willow staircase is a brighter, organic looking set of levels in comparison to the levels in the Ash wing which bear a dark, metallic and oppressive appearance. The surface is incredibly attractive and the surroundings look suitably weighty as you hop from platform to platform.
But, as solid as it may look on the outside, there is the odd hiccup. Demi’s movement seems disconnected to the terrain, and it can look as if she is gliding across the ground. It isn’t so apparent as you take off along a wall, but simple running and hopping along the ground looks floaty and other-worldly. Jumping on the whole can be somewhat erratic. When hanging from a ledge, you need to ensure you are pointing the analogue stick forward before pressing the jump button to climb up else you will send yourself out into open air and quickly firing your jets to get you back. This also affects you when wall running, as gripping a wall to pause and take stock of your surroundings is also done by holding the jump button. Let your attention slip and simply release the button to carry on and you can ruin a run there and then. You soon learn your lesson and these are certainly control issues you can overcome, but they create an unevenness to control that are an extra inconvenience in what is already a difficult game.
The levels are formed from floating platforms, walls and slopes that continue the theme of ruined and overgrown masonry. The gravity-defying gauntlets of Super Cloudbuilt are littered with robotic drones, turrets and spiders, as well as energy barriers in the form of both red spheres and purple columns of electricity. Controlling a more corporeal version of Demi, and armed with a pistol and a jet pack, you need to pick out a route across and along the platforms to the exit at the end of the course. The occasional checkpoint is placed along the route in addition to glowing orange flags you can collect in order to place your own checkpoints along the more challenging sections. Additionally, there are booster packs to fuel your jet pack, health packs that rapidly become scarce in later levels, as well as two collectable objectives - a set of four lettered cards and a Life Key - that will unlock items to help your cause later in the game if you can track them down. You are given a fair bit of room to explore. There will often be alternative routes to choose from and slight diversions which hide one of the five collectables per level. Just as equally, however, you are kept to a single route, a challenging wall run that will test your timing with jumps, your efficiency with the jet pack and your proficiency with a firearm. At times, it will be a test to breaking point.
The game is designed around the fact that you will fail. A lot. You are provided with a lot of extra lives, and each successfully completed level rewards you with an increase to your count. Respawning is instant, preventing the frustration of having to wait between attempts. The respawn button will become your best friend, letting you jump from a lethal stumble on your run to the last checkpoint in the blink of an eye. Super Cloudbuilt works hard to challenge and stretch you. It will throw you into an ambush at one point before pushing you along a twisting wall run where booster packs are placed right at the very edge of how far you can get on a single tank of fuel. There is a similar quality to playing the game that is often found in roguelikes. You find solutions to the things that waylay your run by trial and error. The only slight misstep in keeping the game moving comes when you run out of lives and return to the hospital. You are directed to refill your extra lives at a dispenser in the Willow staircase which is an unusual decision on its own. Coupled with the fact that a certain amount of time needs to pass before you can use it again means that attempting a particularly difficult level can get held up by having to wait for time to pass.
Most of the time, these failures feel fair. You might miss a leap, or get derailed by an obstacle, but you'll see why - you'll know what to do next time. But other times, when you fall short on a long wall run around blind corners and through electrical barriers with very few energy boosters or turn a corner into four turrets and a couple of permanently shielded flying drones that will shock you off a platform as soon as look at you, it feels like the game being spiteful. These spots can often see you sink all your lives into trying to get through them, and after dropping off a wall mere inches away from that much needed energy booster, you'll want to physically pull the game data from the console storage and salt the hard drive. And then go back and try again.
And this is definitely where Super Cloudbuilt makes its mark. The hair-pulling frustration aside, it is an incredibly exciting game. Once you pick up speed and get a handle on the right angles to hit a wall to jump up a platform or tear across a stretch of endless chasm it makes the game incredibly fluid and thrilling. A range of items become available to you as you progress, offering better defence, additional checkpoints or lives, or the ability to slow down time to allow you more time and precision. These are one-time use items, available to you through completing challenges or apparently randomly from a dispenser in the Willow stairwell. The use of an item at the right time is a risk, as you never know when you’ll get another of that type, but use it correctly and it can turn endless frustration into success. Finding and pulling off a clever short cut evokes the same sense of coolness as Mirror’s Edge at its best, but this does make the regular walls of enemies or electrical barriers that litter your path all the more frustrating as they create delays to the fun of flying along each obstacle course.
The frustration is not so much that the enemies exist. It is more the resilience they show. A number of the turrets and drones that plague you take a good number of hits before they go down, and not always permanently. The game is about speed and movement, and the best solution is to simply skip past them. But this is not always possible and gunfights are clearly a key part of Super Cloudbuilt. But some of these enemies feel painfully unfair. Worst among the main offenders are flying drones that will raise an invulnerable shield and fly unceasingly in your direction until striking you with a huge shock that will drastically knock you back and, in the wrong place, off of a platform into nothingness. Once the shields go up, they are nigh on impossible to shoot down. Direct hits do nothing and the shields stay up constantly bar a far too brief a window if you dodge a charge where the orange shield flickers. To get a shot in during this window involves speed and precision of the highest order. And that is assuming you can do enough damage to take them out in that brief moment. The best you can really hope for is to run out of range before they hit. But moments where you need to take stock of where you are and where you need to go happen all too often with a particularly troublesome enemy hanging about in the same place.
Interwoven within the story are a set of challenges in each level. Your floating light friend will turn up to point out when a challenge is active in a particular room and these invite you to take a new approach to the levels. Fragile challenges require you to complete the level without getting hit. Pacifist challenges take away your gun, pushing you to find new ways around certain obstacles. Pathfinder challenges ask you to complete a level using no more than a target amount of energy, testing your unaided wall running and effective use of rocket fuel. Finally, Beacon challenges place a number of beacons around the level to collect and return back to the start of the level, testing your pathfinding in getting to the end of the level and back. These offer a good amount of diversity to the game, as well as providing a good means of improving your skills and unlocking new items to improve your chances of success. These challenges, along with the standard levels, can be taken on in Challenge Mode, where your time gets not only ranked by meeting goals set by the game but ranked alongside the wider world in a leaderboard. A series of Rush Mode levels further expand the challenges, providing a series of grouped levels to be taken on in one long run once again for rankings and online pride.
The difficulty curve for Super Cloudbuilt is about as steep as it gets and this difficulty is not always well-balanced, but the game’s charm and reflective narrative keep you well wrapped up in getting through the challenges. The action feels exciting, the visuals range from peaceful serenity to a pyrotechnic bombardment of weapon fire and electricity. The challenges are just about the right side of fair to make overcoming them feel rewarding and not just a result of dumb luck. For true gluttons of punishment, Super Cloudbuilt could be like the Dark Souls of platform gaming. It is a grinding challenge you just can’t resist.