After the mystifying grind of Death Stranding, I didn’t expect I’d grow attached to the porter business again. Cloudpunk is a semi-legal delivery company based in the heart of a disparate city of Nivalis, it operates in plain sight, commuting illicit and exotic goods from point-to-point. For the purpose of this story-driven experience from German developer Ion Lands, Cloudpunk is also Rania’s employer, as she dives in feet first for her first turbulent evening on the job.
Left without a home to return to, courtesy of the ruthless debt corps, Rania arrives in Nivalis and, through lack of choice, finds herself driving for Cloudpunk, a questionable organisation that is a frequent point of contraband uplift, despite operating under the authoritarian gaze of CorpSec, the city’s law enforcing agency. On this seemingly endless night at the wheel, Rania will meet a lot of colourful characters that really help paint a picture of the kind of future Nivalis exists in. It’s a place where pineapple is an exotic rarity reserved for the well-to-do and music like Bach is remembered by too few. It’s also a place where moisture farmers exist, living off mould and algae within wintry vents—their idea of living free. It’s outside of time, not necessarily belonging to the 80s, today or even decades from now, though it’s contemporary in its troubles. Cloudpunk feels at times like an extension to Black Mirror as it explores the exciting, terrifying and plausible advancements of A.I. as we march, hubristic, into an uncertain future.
Cloudpunk is very much the pen to Blade Runner’s sword. Of course, where it discards horrible acts of violence, it makes room for the indirect agonies one can cause through trying to do good. There’s a chaos that drives Nivalis, and it’s an uncertainty that Rania openly embraces. When presented with the notion of it taking a lifetime to understand the city she quips that if it takes a lifetime, the sooner she starts, the longer it’ll take. It’s one of those rare worlds that feels lived in and Rania’s first night at Cloudpunk is but a footnote in the city’s storied rebellion. Though it doesn’t offer plentiful choice or dialogue options throughout, the decisions Rania will wrestle with are heartbreaking and difficult to make. She’ll shoulder a few demons as the night reaches its darkest, though the ‘man in the chair’, who goes by the handle Control, acts as a dog-tired foil to Rania’s stony optimism. Their relationship is a real feature of Cloudpunk’s already great neo-noir world.
Nivalis is a clever product of design, though its verticality is where it really manages to shine with maps designed with multiple levels that can be accessed by lifts or alternate parking spaces. Of course, congestion is a killer, the price of gas is still too high and parking spaces are the only place the HOVA can be set down, but the great thing about piloting a hovercar throughout a sheer cityscape is being able to nimbly navigate the upright monoliths of commerce that populate the sky. It’s been a science-fiction fixture for decades and to pilot one is extremely cool, even as a delivery driver and part-time taxi. It’s a pleasure that, despite looking as cool as it does, it’s super easy to handle. In fact, a very large portion of Cloudpunk is playable with just one hand. Outside of the infrequent dialogue choices and sifting through menus, your left hand will be locked in place and doing a lot of the work.
A bulk of your time will be spent as a shoulder to cry on for the aggrieved citizens of Nivalis. The more fascinating conversations you’ll have are with the city’s oppressed, who have long forgotten what the blue sky looks like and dream of ascending an escalator to a place above the clouds, all to taste the clean air and feel the sun on their skin one last time before falling to the ocean below. There’s a lot of fantastical stories that populate the streets of Nivalis and hanging on every word is a large part of what makes Cloudpunk special.
There’s quite a bit of city to explore in Cloudpunk with its districts full of things to collect, people to encounter and beautiful sights to see. It’d be disingenuous to say that all of the game’s roles are well-acted when in fact there are a number of performances that jut out and poison the game’s terrific atmosphere, writing and exhaustive world-building. That said, there are some real standouts like Mike Berlak as Control and Cam Cornelius as the hard-boiled sleuth with a penchant for illeism and narration. Harry Critchley’s driving and oft energetic score captures the warm, cinematic analog quality of Vangelis and drives home the Blade Runner vibe the game is so happy to emulate.
Cloudpunk is a truly stunning game with a strong voxel art direction that buoys itself in a sea of pixel art titles. Nivalis is a breathing hub of hardship, its dreariest sectors plunged into degeneracy while the others prosper, there’s a real socioeconomic divide pulling the city apart. Although gentrification keeps the city’s aesthetic a consistent level of drab soaked in neon, it’s the little touches that create a sense of discord throughout the streets. The destitute sleep among car wrecks while the toffs don’t, it’s a great setting that Ion Lands have realised with great care and thought. The game is smooth as butter and piloting the HOVA, which I’d mentioned is a real highlight, always looks so great. So easily it pitches and yaws with the stylish enthusiasm of Back to the Future’s Delorean, though unlike said future, Nivalis has roads that, despite being overcrowded, cleverly incentivise their use by offering speed boosts to users.
It’s uncomplicated, though sublimely executed. It’s a bleak window into a possible future for people like us, existing under the thumb of digital Gods. Much like Death Stranding before it, this story of a mild-mannered porter of goods pulling the pin on an explosive web of conspiracies is more relaxing than anything. Though this particular slice of life story isn’t particularly uplifting, the conversational nature of its unfolding is a pleasant change-up to the ultra-violent near-future titles that have come before Cloudpunk.
THE PC VERSION OF CLOUDPUNK WAS TESTED FOR REVIEW. A DIGITAL REVIEW CODE WAS PROVIDED BY THE PUBLISHER.
Cloudpunk is a tremendous accomplishment in creating a setting; in the sub-genre of cyberpunk, it knows few rivals. There’s a sense of place that demands your attention and dares you to comb every corner and jaw with every sentient settler. For a game about choice, a simplistic approach to gameplay can, at times, deprive the player of meaningful agency, which feels as though it soars in the face of the message. It’s still an absolute pleasure to drink in this one unforgettable night in Nivalis, Cloudpunk is a frontrunner for indie game of the year.