If you want to be a games journalist, I’d caution you about one thing. Well, actually, I’d caution you about lots of things – like “do literally anything else instead; you’ll make more money, have more free time, and be less stressed” – but nobody ever listens to me about that. So instead, I’ll caution you about this: be very, very careful about what sort of games you let people think are okay for you to review. I am unfortunately known for enjoying both ludicrously difficult games and ludicrously difficult platformers, like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy, which is presumably why Cloudberry Kingdom wound up on my desk.
I am now a broken man. This isn’t because Cloudberry Kingdom is bad (because it’s actually rather good) but because it is a total bastard.
Cloudberry Kingdom sounds cutesy, doesn’t it? It sounds like a platform game where a cartoony hero leaps about a lush, green landscape, grabbing gems and merrily proceeding towards a brightly lit exit, possibly bopping some colourful and cheery monsters on the head along the way. This is actually a reasonable description of parts of the game, with one caveat: Cloudberry Kingdom‘s levels have been designed by Satan.
Well, sort of. Cloudberry Kingdom has one particularly clever trick up its sleeve, which is that the levels are actually procedurally generated rather than hand-designed, so I suppose the design algorithm is actually Satan.
I think the easiest way to illustrate exactly the sort of complete and total bullshit that Cloudberry Kingdom will put you through is to show you a screenshot:
Ignoring the pits, I count… 17 things trying to kill me on that level. Sorry; I mean 17 things trying to kill me on that screen, as the level’s longer than that. What makes it even funnier is that looking at that screenshot now and comparing it to the pure, unrelenting evil of the later levels makes me wonder how I ever had trouble with something so simple.
So yeah, Cloudberry Kingdom is a platformer from the Super Meat Boy school of design, and thankfully it’s a very good student. Levels are long enough that they present more than one challenge, but short enough that you know you can do them if you just focus for long enough, and – most importantly – restarts are instantaneous. If you screw up, a tap of the spacebar instantly puts you back to the start of the level (or the most recent checkpoint if you’re on a level magnanimous enough to give you them). I cannot impress upon you how unbelievably important it is for any game that prides itself on being fast but difficult to do something like this. If you have to wait through death animations, frustration follows.
The other thing that all platformers need, sadistic and otherwise, is a set of tight controls. Cloudberry Kingdom has an… interesting approach to this. Quite honestly, I found them a bit floaty and uncomfortable at first. Then everything changed.
First, I actually got used to them. Secondly, the game regularly changes your hero’s abilities and thus your controls. You might do a level in which you’re strapped to a giant wheel, so inertia suddenly plays a far bigger role. Five levels later and you might have a jetpack instead, so vertical inertia, gravity, and bigger jumps now matter. A few levels later, you’re tiny but with huge jumps. Then you inexplicably turn into a jet.
So to go along with the completely randomised levels, said levels are also built for a particular set of abilities. Quick summary: variety!
Cloudberry Kingdom isn’t much of a slouch when it comes to variety in anything, actually. Not only can you customise your character however you like, but there are three different main game modes to traverse through. The first – and most obvious – is Story: a set of levels divided up by setting, which gradually increase in difficulty. I’m not entirely sure whether these are randomised or not, if I’m honest.
There’s Free Mode, which lets you completely customise both your hero (I opted for a moustachioed, behatted gentleman with a purple suit, but later changed to a Bob Ross lookalike) and the type of level you want to tackle – and in case you were wondering, the difficulty scales from Training through Unpleasant and Abusive to Hardcore. Want to be a tiny hero strapped to a wheel with the gravity inverting powers of VVVVVV‘s protagonist rather than a jump, on a level with lots of bouncy platforms and lasers? Done! And you can even adjust all of your hero’s properties, from jump length to acceleration.
Finally, there’s Arcade mode, which offers four other ways of playing. Escalation has you pick a hero, gives you 15 lives, and gradually increases in difficulty. Time Crisis has you pick a hero, gives you a time limit, gradually increases in difficulty, and gives you extra time for each blue crystal you pick up. Hero Rush gives you a time limit, difficulty increase, blue crystals blah blah blah with your hero’s abilities randomising every stage. Finally, Hybrid Rush does exactly what you’d expect but your hero can have multiple properties at once. So yeah, lots of ways to play.
It’s perhaps time we addressed the giant bugbear in the room: Satan’s own level designs. Is the game simply too sodding hard for its own good? Nnnnnot exactly, thanks to a couple of possibly-clever twists.
The first – and this is a function I really like – is that the game has an in-built cheat function. At any time you can press Enter to bring up a shop which lets you spend those blue crystals you’ve been collecting, in order to get help for one level. You can watch the computer do a runthrough of the level. You can have a guide, showing you the line you need follow to survive the level, appear while you play. You can have the game run in slow motion. You can do all three. I haven’t resorted to this too much (and the crystal costs prohibit overuse anyway) but it’s remarkably handy when you simply can’t see how the hell you’re meant to complete a given stage, and are convinced the computer is a cheating bastard that’s thrown something impossible at you.
The second thing is that… well, when Cloudberry Kingdom gets hard, it sorta stops being a platformer. I know that sound weird, but its insanely difficult levels are more reminiscent of an endless runner than anything.
The trick to it is this: if you keep moving, you’re probably doing it right. For whatever reason, whether by intention or simply as a way to make the computer generate levels that aren’t nigh-impossible to figure out, the levels are designed in such a way that if you keep moving then you’ll likely avoid most of the traps. This doesn’t make things easy – you still need pixel-perfect precision and timing to get past a lot of them – but once you figure this out, you suddenly realise that if you don’t stop to consider a jump then you’ll sail over those sawblades, and that fire wheel will have rotated down by the time you reach it, and that laser will turn off just as you’re about to hit it…
You’ll still go completely mad trying to beat some levels, but this realisation means that you know that every level is possible, and is probably simpler than it looks. You don’t need to consider how to do it quite so much – this would make the game nigh-impossible – you just need to do it. If you get hit by a laser when making a jump, it’s probably a case of needing to move a little bit slower or a little bit faster. If you’re hit by a sawblade, you might just need to jump a little bit later or a little bit higher. Etc.
All of which is really clever. This is a platform game that is genuinely endless, and you can tailor it however you like.
But there’s an obvious downside, which is that none of the levels are hand-crafted and thus don’t feel as carefully designed or as clever as in any truly great platformer, be it Super Meat Boy or Mario or Rayman Origins. No computer algorithm can match a hand-crafted design, nor does it every feel like you’re either working against a devious designer to beat his level, or working together with one to enjoy a beautiful, free-flowing experience. Which means that, for all that it does right, Cloudberry Kingdom never quite matches the highs that those games can deliver on their best levels.
But then, I suppose it offers a rather different experience. Cloudberry Kingdom is still absolutely worth a punt if you like masochistic platformers, or even if the idea of procedurally-generated levels just appeals. There’s a tonne of variety on offer here, and even if you forgo the higher difficulty bits in favour of just playing Arcade Mode and seeing how far you can get before you get overwhelmed, there’s a fair bit of playability packed away in a small, cheap, and entertaining package.