Platform: PC (£14.99)
Publisher: Rising Star Games
Cloudbuilt was always going to be great. How could it not be? Here we have a cel-shaded Sci-Fi platformer that straps you into a sleek mech suit, points you at sprawling versatile levels and then lights the blue touch paper under massive rocket boosters. Free to defy gravity and pull off insane jet-powered parkour against the clock, we're loosed into a speed running playground. It's effortlessly stylish, overcoming humble roots with achingly beautiful art direction, set within the unrestrained imagination of a mysterious military operative with time on her hands.
And it's fast. So impossibly fast, quick enough to literally take your breath away and put some windburn on your cheeks. First impressions are like being strapped to a Saturn V and holding on for dear life... but once you've learned how to steer it, you'll point yourself straight up at Cloudbuilt's distant skill ceiling and never look back.
After a lot of vicious and uncontrollable swearing, mind, because Cloudbuilt is made of seriously stern stuff.
Cloudbuilt has a story of sorts, introducing our leading lady and explaining why exactly we're romping around inexplicably-floating labyrinths hanging over an infinite abyss, but plot plays second fiddle to gameplay from the off. This is an unapologetic gauntlet: twenty incredibly intricate assemblages of ramps, platforms, walls, lasers, spikes and robotic defenders to crush via a branching multi-path map.
Our abilities are deceptively simple: double jumps, ledge grabs, dismounts, wall-runs and wall-hangs. Simple easily-chained components that suddenly take on a whole new dimension thanks to our slick armoured exoskeleton... equipped with powerful rocket thrusters. We can blast straight up vertical surfaces, reach outrageous speeds along ramps or slopes, nail ludicrous jumps and wall-run ridiculous lateral distances so long as the recharging fuel holds out. Homing lasers also make short work of unshielded robotic foes.
Though much more precise and twitchy than Titanfall's parkour, built on less forgiving physics that require you to maintain momentum or fall to your doom, the mechanics take little time to understand but several hours to really get to grips with. Ledge grabs have been made much more generous since the early access beta, resulting in fewer accidental deaths.
It's a solid framework that lets us pick our own way through the levels, which is the whole point of the proceedings. The clock is ticking and your leaderboard par time will be shown to the world for all to see. Speed is the aim of the game as you blast through the stages like a mad jet-propelled pinball, bouncing and boosting from wall to floor to ramp to insane jump, desperate to shave even a few milliseconds off your record. As your skills increase, so do your options (leading to a refreshingly high skill ceiling and replay value), but a little exploration pays dividends.
Cloudbuilt's level design is its crown jewel. Sure, the art direction is genuinely beautiful -- resembling a hand-drawn dreamscape complete with scratchy individual brushstrokes and awe-inspiring vistas -- but I'm talking about the basic architecture here. Every stage offers multiple routes to completion; some obvious and lengthy, others hidden or unbelievably tough, all completely open to you. Each new run brings fresh possibilities, new ways to abuse and exploit the geometry in ways you previously thought impossible, cutting out vast swathes of level in the process. Completing a stage unlocks extra modes (such as a fantastic infinite boost setting), challenging you to continually replay and refine your strategy.
Every time I find a new shortcut or exploit, I feel like I've beaten Coilworks at their own game, as if I've somehow put one over on the level designers. Before being brought down to Earth with a "B" ranking and the realisation that I've barely scratched the surface.
This temporary triumph is doubly delicious thanks to Cloudbuilt's intense difficulty. Coilworks clearly has a mean streak a mile wide, resulting in some truly sadistic sequences that demand an extraordinary degree of timing, spatial awareness and execution. Thankfully it's the wholesome kind of hard, the good honest self-directed anger that keeps you hitting the checkpoint and crushing each level just to prove that you can - both to fellow players and as a matter of personal pride.
Fun fact: I fall back on an odd subconscious coping mechanism when a game is truly tricky. I sing; randomly setting freestyle lyrics to the background music, and spent the vast majority of my time with Cloudbuilt warbling away like a lunatic. The last time I caught myself doing that was... well, it was Super Meat Boy, which is rather fitting indeed. Often frustrating yet ultimately satisfying, Cloudbuilt is one of the most punishing, versatile and rewarding platformers I've experienced since Team Meat's breakthrough hit. Plus, Coilworks' wonderfully open level design effectively lets us choose our own difficulty on the fly.
There's a reason why Super Meat Boy had such short and punchy levels, though. Cloudbuilt's checkpoint spacing sometimes feels vindictive rather than challenging, forcing you to replay swathes of level after making a single mistake. Especially if said mistake occurred because a robot or turret tipped a particular section from tough to ridiculous. A fine line separates hardcore and unfair, and Cloudbuilt toes it precariously at times. Then jumps straight over the line, kicks you square in the privates, slaps you in the face and dares you to get your own back towards the end - making your eventual victory taste all the sweeter.
I'm not entirely convinced that limited lives are a good fit for the genre (but am open to debate), while the lack of replay functionality feels at odds with its leaderboard-crushing, bragging right-earning speedrun DNA. Coilworks certainly doesn't want players copying each other's techniques and shortcuts at launch, but Cloudbuilt feels perfectly set up for ghosts or ShadowPlay streaming support at the very least (curse you, OpenGL!).
The launch weekend was a bit of a shambles, in all honesty, with numerous reports of graphical glitches and repeatable crashes on several hardware configurations. I didn't personally suffer anything game-breaking, but was somewhat irked to discover the most macabre default keybinds of all time, which defied any and all explanation. Thankfully Coilworks has been patching like crazy and things seem to be relatively shipshape now.
- Blistering rocket-powered parkour meets addictive speed running
- Intricate levels provide countless potential routes, encourage exploration and exploitation
- Tough, uncompromising and incredibly satisfying
- Drop-dead gorgeous with a real sense of speed
- Checkpoint and enemy placement occasionally feels unfair, not just challenging
- Crying out for replay features
- A few rough edges; buggy launch before swift patching
The Short Version: Brilliant and brutal, breathtaking and exacting, Cloudbuilt lights a rocket underneath traditional platformers. Exceptional level design, stunning visuals and a lofty skill ceiling make for an impressive debut, though its ferocious difficulty takes no prisoners.
A speed running powerhouse that rewards skill, patience, perseverance and creativity - and isn't afraid to punish you from time to time.