Cloudberry Kingdom – Preview
No matter how complex and complicated the industry can get, there’s always something refreshingly simple about the platformer. When there’s nothing but a set of ledges and your own skill between you and the finishing line, there’s something almost Zen-like about the genre, and despite being one of the oldest around, it’s seen a rather big resurgence of late. In recent years the limbless wonder Rayman has been seen jumping back into the fray with Origins and the upcoming Legends, and Nintendo’s iconic plumber has done likewise with the New Super Mario Bros series, but their biggest competitor this year doesn’t come from a big-budget retro throwback. Instead, their greatest threat comes from indie developers Pwnee Studio’s upcoming Cloudberry Kingdom, where every level is randomly generated and no two experiences are ever the same and, after four years of development is preparing to take the platforming world by storm.
Presented to players in a deceptively cutesy cartoon art-style, Cloudberry Kingdom is easily one of the most satisfying and fiendish platformers of the last few years, and despite the litany of AAA fare throughout the expo, this upcoming indie darling proved to be one of the highlights of my entire week. Granted, to just look at it you wouldn’t think that it’s taken four years to finally approach release day, but before you’ve even cleared your first level you can immediately tell that all the hard work has paid off. Most platformers nowadays take a good level or two to get truly accustomed to its mechanics and the physics system, but this is the only time where I’ve picked up a controller and everything instantly clicked into place.
Even from the first jump the controls feel exactly how you want them to, and in no time you’re leaping and bounding like you’re absolutely unstoppable. There are few ways to truly describe Cloudberry Kingdom’s physics as anything other than nigh-perfect; it’s one of the easiest titles to pick up and play that I can reasonably think of, and the fact that every jump and movement responds exactly how you wanted it to proves just how much Pwnee’s hard work has paid off. Despite my many stumbles daring to tackle it, there wasn’t a single point where I felt like death was anything other than my own fault, and even if I did screw up, I was instantly placed back at the beginning of the level until I made it through to the other side. Yet, it’s when you reach the door at the other side that you truly realise how remarkable Cloudberry Kingdom really is.
Those four years didn’t just go into making the physics pixel-perfect, and in fact the first two years of development alone were dedicated solely towards making and mastering the AI, which is in charge of creating every level of Cloudberry Kingdom while you play it. As you’re tackling the stage at hand, the AI is working in the background to create the next level and testing it to make sure that it’s possible to complete and ready to play, all before you step into the door on the other side. What’s even more incredible is that this procedural generation also takes the difficulty curve into account, and so there’ll be no nasty surprises where after completing the first two stages you’re suddenly thrown up against a room full of harsh jumps and fireballs a plenty. If you’re tackling them in order, each level will get incrementally more difficult, but no two levels will ever be the same, either; the amount of possible combinations is utterly staggering, and so there’ll always be new surprises no matter how many times you play.
Players can also get in on the act, and while they can’t physically make the stages themselves, they can dictate to the AI what kind of stages they want to go up against. Before setting out in Free Play mode, the player can control a number of sliders to customise just how the levels will turn out, with the computer then reacting accordingly and designing a number of wholly new stages based on what you wanted. With the creation tools at your fingertips nothing is off-limits, whether you want a stage with nothing but hardcore jumps or a level filled to the brim with buzz-saws and serpents, your choices will be accommodated for to the exact specifications of the sliders. Opting to show off some of the more extreme examples of the levels that can be created in this manner, the devs set every slider to maximum and handed me the controller, whereupon I was completely destroyed in a matter of seconds. With the AI designing at maximum difficulty, the stage at hand looked absolutely impossible, and I was adamant that there was no way that it was physically possible to beat it.
It was here that the creators let me in on another one of Cloudberry Kingdom’s greatest features; if the stage ever feels insurmountable or you have no idea how you could possibly best it, you can pause the action at any time and instruct the AI to do it for you. As the AI’s already had to test it to make sure it’s safe to play, it certainly has no qualms towards embarrassing you and showing you how it’s really done. This is also something I discovered the hard way when, despite my protests that the aforementioned maximum difficulty stage couldn’t be done, the AI proved otherwise, and did so in less than half a minute. What was far more damaging to my ego wasn’t just the speed in which it disproved me, but how easy it made the whole thing look while doing it.
The levels aren’t the only thing that the players can customise, but the heroes themselves can also be tinkered with to adjust their special abilities and their physics, so if you have issue with how your character jumps or you want to give yourself a greater challenge, you can tinker with them until they move and act exactly how you want them to. Not only are you able to customise your character this way to your heart’s content, but the AI will react to these changes and conjure up levels that are more specifically suited to that style of play. It’s truly one of the smartest and most intelligent systems I’ve ever seen at work, and that it has such potential to keep the action feeling fresh no matter how you choose to play is an incredible achievement from such a small studio.
The platforming adventures will also accommodate up to four players, and this is where Cloudberry Kingdom truly ups the ante. With multiple players in tow, the aim evolves from the simple act of reach the door at the end to making sure that you get there first, and this is when the action gets its most frantic, as players start squabbling and treading over each other to get the most points and all the bragging rights. If the stages don’t include a checkpoint, then any fallen players will be out of commission until the next round begins, unless they either die before the half-way mark – whereupon they’ll be instantly re-spawned and ready to get back into action – or everyone else wipes out as well, in which case everyone will start again from the last safe zone.
Multiplayer isn’t just competitive, and with this in mind I was introduced to a play-style where those participating were forced to work together if they wanted to make it to the end, as all playable characters were connected to each other via bungee ropes. No longer just looking out for themselves, players would now have to co-ordinate their moves to see success, as anyone who failed would literally become a dead weight, dragging the rest of the group down and making their lives miserable until they reached the goal, with or without their help. Though not co-operative, another mode saw everyone equipped with jet-packs, tasking the player to utilise their futuristic technology to make some fiendishly tricky jumps.
Initially drawing me in with its cartoony visuals and the promise of something different, that this summer-releasing indie gem managed to sink its claws so firmly into me despite the halls full of blockbusters around me is incredible, and that it provided me with some of the most fun I had all week should speak volumes as to its absolute quality. Cloudberry Kingdom is a must-have for platforming aficionados everywhere; Pwnee Studios have created something truly special here, and that it can stand so proudly against bigger budget affair and give them such a challenge is an incredible testament to all of their hard work over the last four years. With some incredible depth, anarchic multiplayer and an AI that can create procedurally-generated levels with infinite possibilities, Cloudberry Kingdom is pure platforming perfection.
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