Platforms: PC | PSN (PS3 & Vita) | Wii U | XBLA (reviewed)
Developer: Pwnee Studios
Cloudberry Kingdom is a sidescrolling platformer, but the fact that this is somehow a monumental understatement stands testament to Pwnee Studios' clarity of vision. Cloudberry Kingdom exists solely to be a platformer, a procedurally-generated infinity of jumping, jumping, falling and jumping forever. Its adorable name and disarmingly colourful trappings mask a palace of platforming pain and pleasure, a game that will test you to the absolute limits with randomised gauntlets of lasers and swinging spikes, bereft of much in the way of storyline, context or excuses.
It's an platformer without end, for the sake of platforming for all eternity.
Originally funded via a Kickstarter campaign before Ubisoft jumped on board, Cloudberry Kingdom promised us infinitely-randomised levels, a plethora of tricky obstacles and a stern challenge that makes Super Meat Boy look like a casual relaxing jaunt. It's certainly intense and taxing, causing beads of sweat to run down your rictus grin as hardcore elecronica blasts out over a screen covered with more evil neon death than free space.
Whether it's fun, however, depends entirely on how much you love the genre - and the very act of platforming - itself.
The premise, such as it is, ends up explained by a handful of cutscenes in a staggeringly long curated story mode. Bob, a washed-up superhero, has to rescue a princess from an evil something because something and then something goes horribly wrong, or something. It's immaterial and irrelevant, suitably sidelined in favour of putting the all-important platforming front and centre.
Effectively, Cloudberry Kingdom offers an infinite number of short randomised levels (or technically an impossibly large number, since it's derived mathematically) based around the age-old platforming formula. You'll start on the left, and have to find your way to the door on the right while collecting a few gems along the way. That is, quite literally, it. What matters, then, is what stands between Bob and the exit.
Early story mode levels (there are quite literally hundreds) start slow and easy, offering a small selection of easy pits and platforms to navigate. Bob is equipped with a single jump, which gradually eases players into the swing of things. A few spiked pendulums force you to time your runs, while occasional gadgets such as a double jump or jetpack shake up the action. As you complete stage after stage, the crisp, colourful and cutesy visuals lull you into a false sense of security, safe in the knowledge that you're good at platformers and nothing can possibly go wrong.
And then, suddenly, Bob's strapped to a momentum-defying wheel of death and catapulted into what can only be described as all the lasers, ever. "You suck at platformers, dear boy," Cloudberry Kingdom leaned in and whispered into my ear. "Now prepare for pain." Hours later I emerged a broken man, but a better player.
Fans of self-betterment will be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying training tool than this, a game that actively demands precision and perfection above and beyond the call of duty. Later levels are thronged with interweaving lattices of pendulums, lasers, pitfalls, spikes and collapsing platformers, if not spiked walls that remorselessly pursue your every step, many of which can only be completed by timing each and every jump to the millisecond. Numerous new gameplay styles constantly force you out of your comfort zone, like VVVVVV-style gravity manipulation or a turbo pogo stick that constantly propels you forward. You can feel yourself improving, getting faster and more twitchy, with hours of extended play gradually melting into a bizarre mix of brainwashing and zen mediation. Should you find a level too difficult, gems can be spent on some useful if humiliating cheats, such as a bot showing you how to complete a level or slowing the action down to a more approachable pace.
Perfectionists will be in their element here, perhaps even taking their newly-honed skills back into other games, but those who simply want to have fun in a less stressful setting may balk at the frequently inordinate levels of dedication and ability required here. Indeed, many levels are seemingly impossible, almost entirely stuffed with hazards akin to a bullet hell/'danmaku' shooter. For those who love to prevail against the odds and prove themselves to themselves, a little pain soon turns into pleasure.
The phenomenally lengthy story mode isn't really the main attraction. Instead, Cloudberry Kingdom boasts an embarrassment of arcade modes, from traditional lives-hoarding level attacks to tense and technical time attacks with different equipment. Arcade mode stages are fully randomly generated, making each run totally unpredictable, while you can even tinker with the obstacles and powers in a sandbox mode. More sociable players will be pleased to know that four-player drop-in multiplayer makes a welcome appearance, complete with silly costumes and hats to wear, though having friends along can become rather distracting to say the least. Effectively, Cloudberry Kingdom could last you forever... but for most people, it absolutely won't.
Cloudberry Kingdom ostensibly features adaptaive difficulty that changes the ferociousness of the level design depending on your performance. Breeze through levels and the challenge ramps up, Pwnee claimed, while numerous deaths or failures would result in an easier ride. However, in practice, it's almost impossible to know whether this is actually happening. Arcade mode difficulty seems to be fairly arbitrary, sometimes punishingly tough or relatively straightforward ("relative" is, of course, relative), with seemingly little feedback as to how the level design was actually curated to match my skill level. It's a shame that Pwnee didn't show their working, perhaps by displaying a skill vs difficulty ratio between stages or working their algorithm into the front end. Like the abysmal Truth Or Lies, it's impossible to know whether the much-vaunted gimmick actually exists, or if it's just down to random chance.
Procedural generation also comes with its own set of problems, the main offender being an old chestnut in randomised games. There may be an infinite number of levels on offer, but since they're generated out of a limited set of backgrounds and objects, there's arguably only one level and variations thereof. What's more, every stage lacks the hand-tooled quality of a careful level designer, often seeming haphazard or simply unpleasant. Repetition can set in fast and hard, not helped by the admittedly excellent soundtrack perhaps needing a couple more songs and the ability to change between them mid-level. It depends, ultimately, on what kind of player you are.
That's the key, really. Cloudberry Kingdom's biggest sticking point stems from one simple question: "is it fun?"
There's no easy answer to that, and I fully expect Cloudberry Kingdom to be one of the most divisive games to have released in recent months. If you're all about emerging victorious over tough challenges, bettering yourself and constantly testing your mettle, Cloudberry Kingdom will be absolute heaven. But if you play games to have fun on your own terms, or to destress, or immerse yourself in a believable world and compelling storylines, there's nothing for you here.
Only platforming. Forever.
- Procedural level generation presents stonkingly tough randomised challenges
- An abundance (an eternity?) of satisfying content
- Crisp, colourful and gorgeous visuals; suitable electronica soundtrack
- Little evidence of dynamic difficulty
- How hard is too hard... and when does it stop being fun?
- Profoundly repetitious despite procedural generation, and not always enjoyable in the traditional sense
The Short Version: Cloudberry Kingdom is a procedurally generated eternal platformer, but only diehard genre fans will be able to get maximum value out of its razor-sharp focus and difficulty. It's pleasure and pain, heaven and purgatory - and the difference depends on how much you enjoy platforming for the sheer unadulterated sake of it.
Or, to stop being hyperbolic for a second, just go download the demo. You'll quickly discover if Cloudberry Kingdom is right for you.