You know, I’ve really missed driving games. I spent a great deal of my youth in seminal titles Gran Turismo and the early Need for Speeds, even playing some of the more esoteric titles like the very first cel shaded game I ever played Auto Modellista. Later on I’d spend countless hours with my mates playing Need for Speed Underground, spending most of the time customising our rides before spending what time we had left together racing or trying to beat each other’s drift scores. The want to go back is definitely still there, heck I was staring down buying a racing wheel for far too long recently, but I just haven’t dived fully back in yet. So dipping my toes back in with something that notionally straddled the “driving” genre with one I’ve gravitated more heavily to over the past few years seems like a good middle ground to start off with. Cloudpunk is that game and there’s certainly a lot to love here, from the unique visuals to the simple pleasure of simply driving around the surprisingly large world, the open world tropes that have made their way into the game really detract from the game’s solid core.
You are Rania, a young woman from the Eastern Peninsula who’s moved to the big floating city of Nivalis to escape the debt corps who chased you out of home. You’ve taken a job with a delivery called Cloudpunk; their business? Simple: they’ll deliver a package from A to B for you without any questions asked and they’ll do it faster than anyone else can. This is your first night on the job and it becomes clear that life in the city is nothing like where you come from and just making it through this first night is going to be a challenge in and of itself. You don’t have much time to think about that however as Control tells you that you have a delivery and it’s time to get to work.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I played a voxel based game (quick search shows it was over 5 years ago, The Deer God) so it was refreshing to see agame go back to this art style. Given that you spend a great deal of the game zoomed out though it’s easy to forget that it’s essentially 3D pixel art that you’re looking at, especially given the incredible amount of detail that the developers have packed into the game. Truly the game’s scale is really impressive, especially with the amount of diversity there is in the various details (like different levels having different styles befitting their status). Of course when you do get to zoom in close the extreme lack of detail in things becomes abundantly clear, like just how few blocks make up the majority of the items on screen. Still though it’s the best looking voxel game I’ve seen to date so hats off to the art team behind this.
As the opening plot summary would indicate this is basically a game of fetch quests, sending you between two points with the usual array of challenges mixed in. It is an open world game though, allowing you pretty much free reign of the entire game right from the get go. Exploration is encouraged and rewarded too as you’ll find tons of items, side quests and other tidbits of plot or worldbuilding scattered around everywhere. Thankfully everything is helpfully displayed on your map too, ensuring that if you want to go item hunting you won’t be spending a lot of time trying to discern one clump of voxels from another. There’s also some market mechanics although they’re never explained, but should you want to make a bucket of lims you could do trade runs once you find some arbitrage to exploit. Finally there’s a whole host of cosmetic upgrades for your character and apartment although they have absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever. All said and done there’s quite a bit to unpack in Cloudpunk and for those who simply love driving around and exploring I’m sure this is a game that’d give you quite good value for your money.
The main campaign ticks over at a steady pace throughout game, which you’re most welcome to ditch at any particular point (save for a few specific missions) to go off and do other things that interest you. All of the side missions are self-contained as well and don’t have any bearing on how the main campaign plays out. Your choices in the main campaign will have an effect on the story and the world however, although in all honesty I don’t think you can really move the needle too much in one way or the other.
After a while though the monotony does start to set in however as you’re often sent from one side of the map to the other only to find out that you’ll have to switch to another level and then traverse that to get to your destination. This wouldn’t be so bad if the driving was a bit tighter, or at the very least had upgrade options that’d make it a lot more enjoyable. To be sure there are upgrades but most of the handling ones didn’t seem to make much of a difference. I can understand that it’s part of the game’s design, hover cars after all probably wouldn’t drive like they’re on rails, but when the main thing you’ll be doing for more than half the game isn’t particularly enjoyable perhaps it’s worth looking at sacrificing authenticity for enjoyment.
It’d also help if the upgrades were somewhat rewarding but they’re honestly not. I was pretty excited to see that there was a retro console upgrade and retro game cartridges as collectible items. Figuring that I’d put 2 and 2 together and get something cool, maybe even an achievement, I bought the upgrade. Trouble is I couldn’t tell you where in my apartment it was nor could I interact with it at all. This goes for basically all the upgrades which are simply just more voxels for your PC to render. The clothing upgrades for your character are worse still, some of them just being basic colour changes. It feels as if the game was built with a reason for you to need a truckload of lims but never got around to implementing it fully. So instead we just have what amounts to cosmetics in a single player game, not particularly worth it if you ask me.
There’s also a few items which could use some fine tuning. The physics engine sometimes gets real confused when you bump into another car and shoots you directly upward as far as you’re allowed to go. This would be an edge case issue if the hitboxes for the cars weren’t quite a bit bigger than the models themselves, making unintended bumps and skyward punts more common than you’d expect. It would also be nice to have a way to upgrade your walk speed (for the record I did try the caffeine drink, whatever it was, and it seemed to make Rania run faster but I couldn’t tell you if she really did) as walking back through the same area for the 5th time does get a bit laborious and it’d be nice to be able to rush through them. Apart from those small issues though the game is basically fault free.
The story is kind of middling although it does have a great cast of characters that are given enough screen time to build them out substantially. In the beginning it is a bit much to have everyone you meet vomit their life story at you but after a while they do start to build together into an expansive world which is quite intriguing. However the story told within that just doesn’t really hit the mark and the emotional highs it tries to put forward feel unearned. The ending is also sub-par, taking the end-o-tron 3000 approach after spending most of its time trying to impress upon you the gravity of the choices you’ve been making. I’d definitely play a sequel if the devs choose to revisit this world, though.
Cloudpunk crams a lot into one place with vast voxel environments for you to explore from the comfort of your trusty hover car. There’s been a lot of care and attention paid to the visual experience and they’ve really managed to capture that dystopian, cyberpunk future feel. However the actual gameplay is very middle of the road, with the repetitive nature of the core game loop, unrewarding progression mechanisms and so-so story making for an experience that’s good, but not great. If all you’re looking for is an excuse to drive through a neon-soaked futuristic dystopia then I don’t think there’s many better alternatives around right now.
Cloudpunk is available on PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch right now for $28.95. Game was played on the PC with 7 hours of total playtime and 63% of the achievements unlocked.