A Sprawling City in Need of Better Infrastructure

Futuristic skylines soaked in neon and dressed in bright lights: the tantalizing looks into what could be the future of our world have been a crowd favorite of gamers for many years. Genres like Neon-Noir and Cyberpunk have visually stimulated this love letter to a fever pitch, with AAA titles like Cyberpunk 2077 bringing novel attention to the masses. But the indie scene has always had its ear to the ground for this style, and developer Ion Lands have taken their previous experience in exploration games and released their own love letter to the bustling colors and dystopian lifestyle into the unknown night sky with Cloudpunk.

The sprawling city of Nivalis, with buildings that climb over the clouds and settle over the ocean, welcomed its newest resident, Rania. Rania left her home area in the Eastern Peninsula on less than appreciable conditions, where she took in a dingy apartment in Nivalis’ lower levels and a job delivering packages for the “semi-legal” delivery company, Cloudpunk. Cloudpunk relished in fast deliveries for whomever paid, be it 3D-Printed Hearts to hospitals or illegal pizzas to rich CEOs. While Nivalis was a sprawling city in terms of height and distance, no task was too small for the drivers. Cloudpunk only provided two rules for its workers: don’t miss a delivery, and don’t ask what’s in the package. Set to work her first shift, Renia drove into the night, unknown to the adventure and adversity she would dig up within the grime of her new home.

When Cloudpunk states that Nivalis is a sprawling city, they aren’t kidding: the city feels huge. Nivalis is packed with sprawling skyscrapers claustrophobically jammed together, the highways that connect each district are crammed with drivers, and the acrophobia-indusing streets are filled with residents and vendor shops. With each district, you can see a distinct overtone of classism that runs rampant in Nivalis: the seedy underbellies are populated with merchants selling cheap food and snacks to try to make a living, while the higher class districts carry expensive dishes with thousand credit dresses and purses to purchase. This civil war is beautifully painted with a voxel art style that gives a simplistic, Minecraft-like look that’s easy on the eyes but still booms with fascinating detail.

In regards to exploration and walking-simulator titles, Cloudpunk stands tall as one of the more impressive worlds to explore, which is largely in part to all the fine details put in its main story, as well as its various side quests. While Rania is dropping off the main packages from Cloudpunk HQ, the inhabitants of Nivalis will also request a helping hand when possible. Quests range from giving rich clientele rides while they demean Rania from their self-imposed standards to delivering a man’s religious possessions back to his chapter because a blood transfusion has changed his blood type, thus becoming tainted and making him one of the “Forbidden.” These stories show Nivalis’ malignant and corrupting path that devastated the city through war and prejudice, where androids seek to become more than the pieces of metal that they were told they would be, and where humans want to know if there’s a place still for them in the ever growing fate of a crippling system.

The time spent on Cloudpunk‘s outstanding world-building does itself a ton of favors, but it is a shame how unbearably boring the progress of the story can feel. While quests will tantalize and intrigue as to how the next chapter will turn, the process of getting there can be mind-numbing. Cloudpunk pushes the prerogative of learning the city onto the player by driving through each district multiple times, but the lack of any checkpoint or fast travel system can make trips in the latter half of the game really slow the tempo once all the shine of the new city starts to fade into normality. It’s especially taxing to face down its 12-hour campaign and realize the only actions Rania can perform are driving and parking. Part of the allure of the walking-simulator genre is the short, yet impactful stories that are done within the confines of a slower pace. Cloudpunk waves this idea of a job that requires a level of expeditiousness to make sure the clientele who are awaiting their package are satisfied with their purchase, but the amount of times it puts Rania on the clock is less than you can count on one hand. Cloudpunk will entice Rania to explore every nook and cranny that Nivalis has to offer, but in doing so it kills the overlaying sentiment that one must be fast in order to survive the night.

The bigger missions that Rania will face split a choice of morality that airs the possibility of story-changing qualities. Unfortunately these ultimately boil down to “which shade of gray do you prefer”. They leave the story going to the same ending where one of two sides can be picked, and the results are aesthetically minimal to Nivalis. The only real differences between choices are a change in Rania’s bank account and some altered lines from secondary characters regarding other people met throughout the night. There was a big opportunity to really push the envelope of what Cloudpunk was trying to portray with the actions chosen by Rania, and some of Ion Lands‘ best writing in this regard shines in the final third, but whether it was due to a lack of time or too high of a bar to scale the illusion of choices and their future repercussions landed a little soft for my hopes.

Which, coincidentally, sums up the experience of Cloudpunk: a visually stunning blend of Training Day meets Blade Runner that became too big for its narrative’s dreams and aspirations. Like Nivalis itself, the city at first glance shows a bustling atmosphere that dazzles and awes, and with its massive scale it pulls you in and envelopes you with its rich lore and bustling attentiveness to detail. But like most residents will tell you, when the sheen of Nivalis will start to wear off you’ll soon see a city that’s not as well made as it may seem. With a city that requires such a fast pace an unhurried demeanor can leave one left behind, and the choices that are made will ultimately lead you to the end of the night, regardless of if you’re a lighter or darker shade of gray. There’s good and bad in this city, but what matters is that you hop in your HOVA-Vehicle and at least try a night on the town.

Just don’t ask what’s in the package. It’s better that way.

Reviewed on Steam.