Cloudbuilt hands-on: a speedrunner's dream
For the tenth time, I watch myself plummet to my death. It was a necessary sacrifice—I shaved off two seconds from my route of jetpack-fueled wallruns and rapid-fire platform hops, but my overconfidence resulted in a fatal collision with a wall of lasers. I click my mouse button and instantly zap back to my last checkpoint. The timer clock, a ticking judge of performance, rewinds to its last saved position. Onwards and upwards, the glowing blue beacon of the exit door silently urges me to reach it just a little faster and a little more efficiently every time.
This is Cloudbuilt, the stylish indie platformer of speed and precision. It's fast, but it turns punishing in a split-second. I’m no masochist, but crashing into failure is a large part of what makes this game fun.
Cloudbuilt's sci-fi design definitely earns plenty of thematic thumbs-up. Swedish developer Coilworks instilled a dreamlike quality immediately evident in the game’s setting, as everything takes place inside the nameless main character’s head as some sort of secret government training regimen for cyborg warriors. Her real body lies comatose in a safe room amid the wreckage of a floating, war-torn city—interesting concept of "safe" there—but the arenas inside her head are all about flitting from platform to platform with well-timed jumps, mantling up towers, or skating across walls using breathtaking jetpack boosts. There's an underlying story somewhere of her body slowly turning more machine than human, but it's really about beating the clock with precision jumping.
Everything gets even more surreal within the playground of the subconscious. Floating ramps and platforms sit atop carpets of clouds or in piercingly blue skies. The game's entire appearance sports a pencil-sketch style straight out of an A-ha music video. I control a triple-pigtailed cyborg with a giant jetpack strapped to her back who wears armor seemingly stolen from Mega Man's closet. The look is a hook, for sure, but Cloudbuilt's more potent draw is just how effective it is at underscoring the drive to improve oneself as a player.
After completing a level, more stages become unlocked through a branching selection menu, and I could revisit earlier areas at any time—which I did constantly. Cloudbuilt had tapped into my perfectionist quirk, and I needed those “A” letter scores. A tighter time increases the likelihood of a higher letter grade which bestows extra lives on good performance. The reward is immediately useful—I constantly chewed through lives every time I sailed off a platform or got zapped to death—and seeing that huge, single-letter verdict splash across the screen was just as impacting as being told "try again, slowpoke."
And that's why Cloudbuilt becomes hard to put down after a while. Jetpack-sprinting across walls and boosting up cliff faces looks cool, but I found greater gratification in pushing the margins to create optimal paths. Simply getting from start to finish didn’t cut it anymore. I craved perfection, and Cloudbuilt loved to dangle that achievement just out of reach. The maps offer no straight path to the top but many branching lanes to try out, and I enjoyed the choice of adding a layer of strategizing to completing a level. I certainly had the option to forego the timer and plan more carefully, but I typically found myself trying to trim a second or two from my personal best.
The challenge increases crazily high after I was shown the ropes. Turrets with homing missiles, laser walls, mines, and other dangers pepper levels nearly everywhere I turned. Keeping a good running groove going while juking around all the firepower thrown at me sometimes turned into a frustrating death-chain, and running out of retries kicked me all the way back to the beginning of a stage. I had a beam cannon for clearing obstacles, but with only five shots before a recharge, it's easy to quickly get overwhelmed if I didn’t take careful aim or overspend my ammo. I often found better success simply dashing past whatever was shooting at me and soaking up the damage on my armor, but some foes are hard to escape from and act as a deterrent to a run’s rhythm. I almost chucked my keyboard out the window because of health-sniping railgun turrets irritatingly placed far out of bounds of a course but close enough to zap my head off.
Still, the beam cannon has potential as a useful tool, and I'd like to see its role expanded beyond a simple pew-pew gun in future updates. Perhaps its charged shot ability can double as a rocket jump effect, or sustained fire against a wall retains momentum much like Quake 3's Plasma Gun. A multipurpose weapon combined with the already powerful jetpack would grant even more flexibility to players as another method for cleverly figuring out trickjumps and fine-tuning a lengthy wallrun.
Otherwise, Cloudbuilt looks and plays stellar so far. Coilworks and its publisher Rising Star Games are planning to release Cloudbuilt on March 20. The early build I played ran smooth and looked nearly complete, so it probably won't be long before we'll see a full release. I’m impressed so far, but I’ll have to see if my well-abused jump key is up for another round.