I came into this review really wanting to root for Super Cloudbuilt. Seeing the rapid 3D platforming parkour with a hand-drawn art style for the first time immediately made me pine for the much underappreciated 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. Throw in a bit of gunplay and a rocket booster jetpack and the potential is sky high. What begins as an intriguing story set in an interesting locale soon frustrated with iffy checkpointing, and an inconsistent control scheme. Which side will emerge the victor?
The story of Super Cloudbuilt sees you play as Demi, a young soldier who wakes up in the empty shell of a ruined building. She soon discovers she’s not exactly in reality, but a world representing her subconscious, and must fight her way to reclaim both her old life and physical body. Between missions Demi’s spirit (a blue wireframe version of herself) roams the hospital her physical self is laid up in, and she must pass the trials behind each of its doors to uncover the true reason behind her hospital stay, and maybe even why she is currently having this odd out of body experience. It’s a smart concept that goes to interesting places without handling it in a cack handed manner. The storytelling may not be entirely rich in narrative exposition, but there’s a nice, steady drip-feed of hi ya and clues about the story’s direction throughout. When the game struggles, the hook of Super Cloudbuilt’s setting and story can be enough to see you persevere with it.
After an initial tutorial that teaches you the basics of wall-running and jumping in a gentle manner, you finally get to see a proper level, and the sketch-styled art design is instantly striking. The mysterious half-finished nature of each world is certainly in sync with that design as well. There’s an appropriate dream-like quality to every locale in Super Cloudbuilt. If only it was always as dreamy to play as it is to look at.
After that opening you’re quickly introduced to the rest of your skillset. You’re handed a gun that has a rapid fire and charge shot initially, good for dispatching the small turrets and spider-like creatures that call these towering collections of blocks and walkways home, and also effective for shutting off defensive barriers. Soon after that you gain access to your thruster pack, which can send you zipping up inclines and vertical surfaces at speed. The thruster pack is fun to use, but its implementation isn’t the best. The fuel for the pack depletes at an alarming rate, which, at least initially, makes for some frustrating trial and error. Even when you do get to grips with its limitations, the tougher levels stretch its implementation to breaking point.
Super Cloudbuilt moves at a swift pace, and the controls are suitably twitchy to correspond with that. The third person camera gives you a decent understanding of what’s in your local area, but blocks your view from certain angles, making for a fair few infuriating moments of needless failure. The floaty nature of Demi’s jumping might be forgiving, but it sits at odds with a lot of the more precise movement you’ll require as things heat up.
This isn’t helped by the checkpoint system, which gives you a smattering of attempts on each before game over. Experiencing the layout of a new stage for the first time is usually a treat. You look to the horizon and wonder how you’re going to traverse it. It’s when you can’t get past a section and end up restarting a stage that dilutes that sense of wonder with an unhealthy dose of ambivalence. It’s great that in addition to set checkpoints, you can place your own, yet the limited amount of do-overs you get do little to alleviate the frustration thrust upon you by certain sections of the game. If anything, it just amplifies a problem that isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.
Despite this, there’s no denying Super Cloudbuilt has challenge. It may occasionally devolve into cheap and frustrating failures, but that’s only noticeable because the game at its best is fair, but firm with you. There’s a clear push to coax the the player into mastery, with the addition of a speedrun mode especially telling. That focus provides much of the initial struggle as much of your playtime feels slow-paced and clunky rather than swift and graceful. When you do get to grips with it though, it’s quite the sight, almost balletic in the way Demi transitions from platform to platform, spinning to switch direction and dispatching a couple of robo-bugs before hopping higher in one effortless maneuver.