Version tested: PC
The Earth's axis has stopped turning, and gravity is now something that's less of a given, more of a taken. Things are floating around and keeping anything in orbit, let alone on the surface, is a serious problem. Everything's in limbo: physical objects, time, the seasons. Without the axis spinning, the world's on an indefinite pause.
That's the set-up for Cargo! The Quest for Gravity. It's the new game from Ice Pick Lodge, a Russian developer whose previous games include Pathologic, where you try (and mostly fail) to stop a plague in a very strange Eastern European Town, and The Void, in which you're already dead and you need to bring colour back to purgatory. Both games are extremely bleak, heavy on metaphor and figurative speech, and can be seen as difficult to engage with – partly because, more often than not, the translation from the native Russian has made it difficult to understand what's going on.
So you might think that this game where the world has stopped turning is going to be all about the futility of life, or how 'gravity' can be a metaphor for a grounded nature or a solid idea of person-hood and identity. And it could be those things, but, really, you won't care.
Because Cargo! is a game about FUN. The capitals are important.
The game opens with you playing Flawkes, the pilot of a trading air-ship, delivering goods to some weird island in the middle of nowhere. As you approach, fireworks start to go off all around you. Except the fireworks are actually naked, sexless dwarfs, who seem to be exploding out of sheer excitement at your arrival. One hits the ship, and you crash land, your precious cargo strewn among a small chain of islands and the waters that link them.
I've spent so long filling out the premise of Cargo! because it's very difficult to make sense of much of it, especially out of context. The important thing to note is that FUN provides gravity to objects, and you get FUN by harvesting it from buddies, which would be those little naked dwarfs. Luckily, they've been created purely to have as much FUN as physically possible, and so they have absolutely no problem with you hoofing them into the air with a kick to the backside.
Or, if you're not the sadistic type, you can take them for a ride. But first you'll need a vessel to carry them.
This is where the meat of Cargo! is found. Following in the tradition of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, you're provided with the tools to create pretty much anything you can think of, so long as it's a vehicle. You start off with a cockpit, and then extrapolate from there, using connectors to create a framework, and then shoving propellers, sails, balloons, wheels, pontoons and most other accepted forms of locomotion. It doesn't have to fit a symmetrical design, although if you're going to put too much power on one side, you will end up going around in circles. Luckily, that's also a viable solution in the name of FUN.
There's one other essential component to a vehicle, apart from chassis and engine. Life-savers allow Buddies to grab on, each one latching onto the next in a daisy-chain that streams out behind your vehicle as you pick up speed. And they're having such a whale of a time that your FUN starts to sky-rocket, allowing you to buy more components to make vessels out of or, more importantly, to call down something from the stratosphere.
It's easy to get caught up in creating ever-more-complicated and insane vehicles, but the aim of the game is to get that axis spinning again, and that's going to require you to start throwing weight around. There is all sorts of detritus and debris floating around in orbit – mostly vast buildings and landmarks that have kept some sort of residual weight that's prevented them from floating off to Alpha Centauri – and you can inject them with FUN to have them come crashing down around the islands. Soon enough, you've got a Statue of Liberty here and a Big Ben there, investing in the Macro school of exterior design. If you're stuck here, you might as well irreverently litter the place with famous buildings.
As mental as this all sounds, there is some semblance of a plot. On the main island there's a series of monorails that carry three giant masks, each of them a weird Aztec-steampunk mix of pistons and vivid colours, that claim to be manifestations of the same deity. Except they're clearly robots. Either way, they were the ones to order the parts that you were bringing, and it is they that want you to fix everything – although they don't really, because you're a human, and humans are unpredictable.
The masks are there to provide some sort of order to the chaos and give you some clue as to what you're supposed to be doing next, because otherwise it all gets very unclear. Cargo! is so consistently scattered and surreal that it's often extremely vague what you need to be doing, and, once you've figured that out, why you're doing it. It certainly fits with the atmosphere of the game, but it can become easily frustrating.
Fortunately, your objective is often found in whatever surreal construct you've caused to come crashing down to Earth most recently, and as these take up a good chunk of your horizon, finding your way to them is more a question of how than where. The how usually involves either helicopter blades or more balloons than a birthday clown. It's often only when something as simple as a mini-map is taken away that you realise quite how useful they are; but, at the very least, its absence allows the screen to be taken up by the scenery, and whatever thing you're currently piloting.
It's worth having those extra few bits of screen, because Cargo! often looks stunning. It's equal parts Dali and Gilliam, and easily more vivid and over-saturated than either. The waters surrounding the islands are rippled mirrors, while the islands themselves are covered in alien trees, each a different, completely unnatural colour. Even the airship you arrived in has a patchwork balloon, each strip a different shade. As you call more and more things down from the atmosphere the game world turns from tranquility to complete visual chaos, with the recognisable mixed in with the completely confusing at every turn.
It would be easy to call the gravity-focused premise light – and beyond the vast possibilities found within the vehicle constructor, it's true that there isn't a great deal to do in Cargo!. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, because even though there are a few distractions (finding musical notes that make the buddies congregate and dance; calling down anvils, pianos, and jukeboxes from above; searching for vehicle blueprints), this game isn't intended to be particularly deep or complex.
It's not trying to challenge you and its main focus, if the message wasn't quite clear enough, is FUN. This is Ice Pick Lodge breaking from the tradition they've made for themselves, pulling back from the bleak and challenging, to create something frivolous, vibrant and resolutely silly. From the omnipresent brass band to the constantly bickering robot-gods, this isn't a world we're supposed to take seriously.
Cargo! is not without a few problems: sometimes it takes away your vehicle without warning, leaving you without components or the vast reservoirs of FUN required to buy them back, and some of the tasks you're set are rather esoteric, but these are niggles rather than whopping great issues. Even if you do find yourself alone and without FUN, you can always just kick the nearest Buddy in the arse, netting you a few hundred points to spend on setting up your new vehicle. Or you can make them dance, because everyone likes a party.
Cargo! is a game worth playing. It's a singular experience in a unique world that's pretty much worth the entry fee on its own. In the end, you're going to get out what you put in, because the fun (FUN) is had in creating monstrous, convoluted and quite possibly functionless vehicles. It's about putting a life-saver directly underneath a helicopter blade, and then putting your palm to your face when the buddies get tangled in the rotors. Fundamentally, it's about having FUN – because FUN is important.
8 / 10