It's a bit overwhelming at first. Nivalus - the metropolis stretched out for miles beneath the jets of your HOVA vehicle - is vast and unwelcoming, a disorientating complex of highways and highrises blinking neon under the clouds. The flashing lights of the billboards and advertisements - in select shades of blue, yellow, white, orange - bounce off concrete walls without ever softening the city's razor-sharp edges. There's a nagging sense that wherever you are, someone, somewhere, is watching. Maybe it's the constant stream of anonymous vehicles that chunder past you. Maybe it's the unblinking stare of a million windows looking out at you.
It never stops raining here. You'd think that, high up in the clouds, you'd be beyond the mercy of such humdrum inconveniences, but the downpour is endless. You can't help but wonder how different Nivalus' seedy world - this battered, broken cloudscape that's perpetually shrouded in darkness - might look under the harsh, cold light of day. Would the people you meet - the people who seem so at home under cover of the rainswept night - be different then? Would sunlight help soften the claggy apprehension that clings to each uncertain encounter?
Despite the darkness and continual rain, the city is nevertheless very alive, bustling with the type of folk that only venture out at night. Some will want to talk to you; many more will not. Even fewer will have a meaningful impact on your story. These characters won't help pack meat onto the bones of the tale of Rania, our mysterious protagonist, but they will add colour and spice to the world she's found herself in.
It's an adventure at first. Despite the disorientation it gives me, I want to creep over every inch of Nivalus, poke into its secrets and burrow down into its underbelly. But the more time I spend with Rania, whizzing along the neon tubes to pick up and deliver packages that I've been instructed never to ask questions about, the less I feel I know. Despite its impressive backdrop and intriguing premise, Cloudpunk is a game that never gets started.
Its moniker comes from the delivery service you, Rania - or the dishearteningly impersonal "14FC" as your controller calls you - works for. Cloudpunk dances on the line of legality, it seems, happy to deliver whatever and whenever and honour its clients' confidentiality at all costs. Rania, our protagonist, appears at odds with the dubious morality of her employer, but it eventually becomes clear that when indebted, beggars can't be choosers.
I wish we'd gotten to know Rania a little better. I wish we got to know Control, too. I have no idea what I think about her AI companion, Camus - an AI reimagining of her beloved pup (though initially, he's undeniably adorable - naive and curious and achingly supportive - the Doug-from-Up schtick gets old fast). Cloudpunk is forever dangling unusual, interesting characters in our faces, only to yank them away moments later, never to be seen again. Most, sadly, are dull, two-dimensional stereotypes - the preppy android, the smarmy CEO, the dodgy salesman - that lack any real purpose or value. Though fully-voiced, Cloudpunk's performances are uneven, too, wavering from terribly brilliant to brilliantly terrible and everything in between. While you'll learn snippets about Nivalus' people and its places each time you pick up and/or deliver a clandestine package, fragments are all we ever seem to get.
These perplexing vignettes would be forgivable if there was some momentum behind Rania's story, but again, this too feels as though it's never given a chance to breathe. Rania is little more than a futuristic Postman Pat, picking up and dropping off parcels from one anonymous, indistinct area to another. The rhythm of the game is soothing and undemanding, yes, but it lacks bite and passion, too.
Perhaps most frustrating of all is the snippets of agency we're sometimes given. For instance, early game 14FC can decide whether to deliver or dump the suspiciously ticking parcel she's been charged to drop off. It's an intriguing dilemma - does she do as she's told, confident that Control wouldn't put her in harm's way? Or does she decide it's too great a risk? The choice is yours - but there's so little of this, along with a dearth of dialogue choices and decision making, it feels like it's a tease that it appears in the game at all.
You'll spend much of your time in your HOVA, a flying delivery truck that handles as delicately as a shopping trolley. I was forever smashing into things - even in the air, I'm a magnet for other vehicles - and while you'll eventually unlock upgrades that make it easier to manoeuvre, the gentle simulation features - repairs and refuelling - feel like time (and money) wasters added to pad out the shallow gameplay. Eventually, you'll get to unlock better transportation - yay! - but what you do it in rarely deviates, whether you're ten seconds, ten minutes, or ten hours into the experience.
There's a lack of diversity in both mission and backdrop, which means as bright and curiously inviting as Nivalus is, it's difficult to discern one part of the city from the next, especially as there's no full map to help you piece together the different districts. Even worse, sometimes you'll need to bring your HOVA in to land and travel the rest of the way on foot. As floaty and frustrating as flying in Cloudpunk can be, I wasted a lot of time - and fuel - drifting around a waypoint, trying to spot where I was supposed to debark. Parking bays are in short supply in this city and it isn't easy to spot them given how they blend so seamlessly into the neon-soaked backdrops behind them.
Traversing on foot is horrible. There's no other way to say it. With forced perspectives and a wide lens, Rania is often little more than a single stitch on a bustling, dark tapestry, almost indistinguishable in the gloom. Nivalus' plentiful nightlife is a delight from the air, but on the ground, Rania is forever getting caught on environmental obstacles you may not even be able to see, let alone avoid. Thankfully, your infuriating explorations are saved, in part, by the plentiful flavour text and curious collectables strewn about; they taught me more about Nivalus than anything an NPC could tell me.
Cloudpunk is all style with little substance, and perfunctory to the point of dull. While it's refreshing to play a game that unashamedly puts the story first and lets us explore this complex universe without a weapon in our hand, neither the story nor its mechanical gameplay offers enough to keep me suitably engaged and entertained. It feels as though it's pulling in way too many directions at once, uncertain of its own identity. Despite its stunning aesthetic, sublime score, and intriguing premise, Cloudpunk doesn't quite deliver... which is ironic, really, given that's pretty much all Rania can do.