Difficult games are equally tough to make. Developers need to find the right balance between frustration and reward, presenting the player with trials and a compelling reason to complete them. When discussing difficult games, people tend to think about titles akin to Dark Souls or Bloodborne where the learning curve is steep but never unfair. Not just action games or role-playing adventures use difficulty to their advantage; Super Meat Boy or the more recent Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy remake are platforming titles that boil blood as often as they provide satisfaction because all the elements come together as a coherent package. With these games, the visuals are designed to keep everything clean, but also to suit the style of each title. Meanwhile, gameplay is snappy and responsive, and levels are designed around the mechanics rather than the other way around. Another game that attempts to worm its way into this difficult-for-all-the-right-reasons format is Super Cloudbuilt, a high-speed action platformer that bites off more than it can chew by attempting to cram too much detail into what should have been a far more streamlined and straightforward endeavor.
Super Cloudbuilt tells the story of Demi, a disembodied spirit who awakens in a ruined hospital where her comatose body remains. Demi must complete various challenges scattered across the hospital as part of a new type of treatment, training her mind and earning back little snippets of her former war-ridden life upon completing each test. The initial phase introduces Demi and her skill set to the player. Movement in Super Cloudbuilt is fast—not just any kind of fast either, but leaning towards Sonic-fast, where momentum is essential for success. Gameplay grows even crazier after a couple of levels when a jetpack and pistols are introduced, allowing Demi to dash, skitter up walls, boost across gaps, or shoot trip mines to name a few possibilities. Getting used to how Super Cloudbuilt feels takes a bit of time. Luckily, the game’s elements are introduced in a natural manner. Action and platforming overlap convincingly, throwing laser-blasting robots or explosive mines into the mix as a means to keep concentration high rather than placing unnecessary threats throughout the levels.
While gameplay is responsive and obstacles are presented with deliberate intent, Super Cloudbuilt’s visual style does not fit the bill. Every material and its corresponding textures is detailed to the point where they distract from the experience on occasion, with the heavily cel-shaded art style making distinguishing surfaces difficult. Every wall and floor in Super Cloudbuilt is flat to avoid hindering the player, meaning textures provide the illusion that these materials are not bland and boring. A set of tiles does not just hover in the air, but crumbles at the edges, and worn individual tiles overlap imperfectly. Detail applied to futuristic metal verges on obsessive, as is the case with ivy that runs up walls. This detailed texture work is admirable at first, but as Super Cloudbuilt becomes faster and more cluttered, the game fails to differentiate between what detail is important and what is superfluous. Since levels are spread across thematic hospital wings, each has a unique vibe and focus: some are more somber and metallic where Demi hops between walls with brief moments for recollection on the infrequent horizontal surfaces, whereas others are brightly colored as the player is left dodging enemy fire and environmental hazards. When Demi is darting across the screen attempting to evade enemy fire and mines with colorful environments clashing extravagantly, Super Cloudbuilt feels nothing short of confusing and exhausting.
The pace is always kept high and the game does a nice job of changing things up whenever the experience grows dull, but in doing so, many of the other elements and aspects of Super Cloudbuilt are neglected. Checkpoints are spread rather generously throughout the levels, even allowing the player to place their own checkpoints wherever they please which does take away some of the frustration. This game is by no means unfair, but by relying so heavily on speed yet plastering the screen with bright colors and far too detailed, overly-crowded environments, the experience can become overwhelming for all the wrong reasons. Pick-ups and collectibles become another hindrance rather than encouraging the player to replay the level, further cluttering the screen and providing an excuse to make the levels larger than they need to be. Orbs of jetpack fuel are placed primarily on the path Demi is required to take as a guide, yet in not-so subtly highlighting the way to the end of the level, little incentive is left to stray and explore the cloud-built structures in search of collectibles. Even if the player should hunt these collectibles down—four in each level, to be precise—mere different color skins are the most noteworthy reward.
Ironically, the end of every level and the brief moments of story come abruptly. Demi’s backstory is one that intrigues at first, but as gameplay grows more layered and levels more complex, the story feels like a forced hindrance. At the end of every level, Demi is transported back to the hospital, providing the player with a bit of history about the character. Completing a level is as simple as standing on the designated platform, and with adrenaline still pumping through the player’s veins, a sudden emotional cutscene about trauma and war feels jarring. These brief story bits do not fit the feel of the gameplay by any stretch of the imagination, nor does having to walk across hospital wings to find where the next level has become available. A quick-select menu with audio logs or cutscenes being unlocked separately would have felt far more natural, allowing the player to choose when to keep the action going or when to take a step back and indulge in the story.
The soundtrack that accompanies Super Cloudbuilt is far more effective at setting the tone compared to the visuals or the story cues. Music during gameplay is always fast, though never chaotic, motivating the player more so than any other aspect to keep going at breakneck speeds. Ambient sounds are largely absent in this artificial world, and environmental sounds are nothing unique. Walking on a metal surface sounds like it does in most games, as do the flames that burst from Demi’s jetpack. Robots clank and lasers zap as expected, though since Super Cloudbuilt already looks so exhausting, the simpler audio is welcome. After one too many failed attempts at a lengthy platforming sequence, the music may even go as far as to encourage just one more attempt.
Super Cloudbuilt is a good game at its very center with gameplay feeling fast and functional—even enjoyable—accompanied by an immersive soundtrack, but everything else simply lacks focus, and thus this title struggles. The more personal story; bright, cel-shaded visuals; and open level design are decent, but have no place in this experience. Super Cloudbuilt is a game that requires the player’s constant attention but jolts it from one aspect to another. In motion, Super Cloudbuilt works, since platforming and action go hand-in-hand, but instead of praising the player’s feat in a meaningful way, rewards come across as a punishment that put an abrupt stop to the gameplay, both at the end of every level and in the middle of them. Collectibles break the flow of the level and the hospital hub serves as an ineffective tool to guide the experience. Super Cloudbuilt comes with tons of extras that are not treated as such, causing the game to stumble and clamber instead of darting full speed ahead in one straight line.
Reviewed on PC