When we were younger, my friends and I had competitions while playing Super Mario Bros. in my parents’ family room. We had blown through the game so many times that the only real challenge for us was to see how quickly we could get through certain areas. We had never heard of speedrunning, but in our heads there was no better way to show our complete dominance over the game than being able to finish it faster than our buddies. Now, speedrunning has become commonplace, but few games actively cater to the concept. Cloudbuilt may pose as a challenging 3D platformer, but make no mistake, this game was designed to be a speedrunner’s paradise.
While all of the levels are definitely challenging, if you’re willing to search out the shorter paths and spend some time memorizing the stages, you can absolutely fly through them. One of the early stages stands out, in that it had taken me quite some time to simply complete it. A lot of stupid deaths were suffered while trying to learn my way around the level. At the time of writing, my fastest time on this level — which initially took me somewhere in the neighborhood of three to four minutes — is now 21 seconds. I concede that I may be horrible at Cloudbuilt, but just knowing that people out there are already able to completely destroy the times I’m able to post proves that there will always be a place in the industry for speedrunners.
As you would probably expect with a game designed as a speedrunning challenge, Cloudbuilt doesn’t really offer a narrative experience that will stick with you. You’ll play as Demi, a soldier who has been horribly injured in the war. Her entire story is told via voiceover in-between levels, as her spirit overlooks her body in a hospital room, attempting to make sense of the dreams she’s having. It’s an interesting mechanic, as there are a few places where the map branches out into different areas, and each one of these paths represents a unique story arc. There’s nothing incredibly compelling about it, but it offers just enough to keep casual players pushing through each level.
On each of these levels, Demi will be racing through a new landscape in an effort to set a new fastest time. You can count on countless bottomless pits, mines, traps and turrets to be in your way. The level design is really well done, and it leads to some great moments where you’ll be jumping from wall to wall, while attempting to blast mines out of your way before finally using your jetpack to soar over a seemingly impossible drop.
In what will certainly make fans of speedrunners squeal with joy, there are a myriad of ways you can complete each stage. Different paths are just waiting to be discovered, and you’re encouraged to take risks and decide if you want to shoot your way past a turret or simply attempt to avoid the threat altogether.
The problem is that Cloudbuilt requires twitch reflexes as well as very precise controls, and frankly those aren’t really available. The controls can feel muddy at times, and in certain areas they tend to rely very heavily on the camera being pointed the correct way, which can leave you blind to upcoming hazards. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve died as a result of simply hitting a wall at the wrong angle, resulting in me plummeting to my death as opposed to scaling it with my jetpack as I had intended.
I know some PC gamers will claim “heresy,” but Cloudbuilt essentially begs to be played with a controller as opposed to the traditional mouse and keyboard. There’s simply too much being asked of one of your hands, as you’ll pretty much be doing everything outside of aiming and shooting with your left hand. In a slower paced game this wouldn’t really be an issue since you’d have time to make minor adjustments, but in a game like Cloudbuilt where a split second pause is the difference between a successful run and another lost life, it’s really asking just a bit too much.
There’s also an issue with the fundamentally flawed checkpoint system. The checkpoints in certain tricky areas are simply too few and far between. As opposed to being able to keep challenging yourself on a particularly difficult segment, you’ll often have to trek through a third of the level just to get back to that problematic area. I’ll go one step further and state that having lives in a game such as Cloudbuilt just isn’t necessary. The player is already being punished for death by having time added onto their final score; being able to fail a level seems out of place. Of course, as you get more in tune with the game’s mechanics this becomes a non-issue.
All that being said, Cloudbuilt isn’t impossible, it’s just brutally difficult at times. Eventually, after repeated trial and error, you’ll make it past even the most devious of levels, but it’ll never quite feel natural. It’s hard to accurately phrase, but it felt like I had “beaten” the game as opposed to completing it. In the end, though, I was able to overcome the somewhat clunky controls and the borderline broken checkpoint system to steal victory away from the game. I know how negative this sounds, but it’s honestly a very rewarding system, albeit an unintentional one.
Once you complete a level, you’ll be able to go back and tackle it again with some additional challenges, such as not having any ammo, having to search for beacons hidden across the map, and playing with an extremely fragile Demi who dies after a single hit. All of these modes come with their own leaderboards, so it’ll be interesting to see if the same players dominate them all or if some end up specializing in certain modes and hone their skills there.
Visually, I can’t stop raving about how great Cloudbuilt looks. Its world is presented with a mix of the traditional cel-shaded graphics and an almost crosshatch pattern, which combines to create a gorgeous comic book-esque visual style. The world also blurs just a bit when you boost, providing an incredibly satisfying experience. Going further, the bright colors that make up Demi are in stark contrast with the pseudo-industrial level design, and it all just comes together brilliantly.
Despite its flaws, Cloudbuilt can be an absolute blast to play. The moments where everything works perfectly are absolutely fantastic, and there are few experiences as rewarding as finally mastering a level and absolutely destroying your best time. However, unless you’re the type to really challenge yourself with speedruns, and happen to be willing to ignore the control issues, there’s not really much to see here. I doubt I’ll be investing the time needed to truly master the game and climb to the top of the leaderboards, but I’m positive that this is a title I’ll be going back to when I have the need for speed.
This review is based on a PC copy of the game, which was given to us for review purposes
Cloudbuilt is a fantastic platforming game that's simply held back by substandard controls.