Cloudpunk, the futuristic flying car adventure/exploration game from Ion Lands, is a cyberpunk game that dispenses with gunplay and focuses on connections. Between people and machines. Between people and places. And not least, people and other people. Protagonist Rania is a fresh immigrant to the futuristic mega city of Nivalis. It’s her first night on the job at Cloudpunk, a shady courier company that delivers basically anything, to anyone, anywhere, from the burned-out wreckage of the vents to the glittering heights of the ultra-rich. Along the way, our heroine will have a literal crash course in the highs and lows of Nivalis society.
Fortunately, Rania doesn’t have to make her deliveries Death Stranding-style. You’ll spend most of Cloudpunk piloting your HOVA, a flying car capable of navigating Nivalis in a full three dimensions. After a promising hands-on with Cloudpunk at last year’s EGX Berlin, I was excited to fly freely around the city and see if it had real substance behind the neon glare.
Cloudpunk is a beautiful game. Before even getting into the story or gameplay, it’s hard not to just get lost in the labyrinth of neon lights that makes up its world. The game is rendered in voxel graphic style. This lends everything an angular aspect that actually complements the strong, bright blocks and lines of the city’s architecture. It also lends an air of brutal artificiality to the whole scene that complements the cyberpunk theme. The constant rain and murmurings of sinister commercials mix with a dreamy synth-vaporwave soundtrack to create an atmosphere you can really lose yourself in.
Fly by night
The actual gameplay of Cloudpunk centers around driving your HOVA. This is simple enough on its own, but skillfully navigating busy traffic and tight spaces can get tricky. This goes double for the few time-sensitive missions in the game, but most of the time you’re free to cruise around to take in the sights. Bash your vehicle too many times and you’ll be prompted to go to a station for repairs. You can also buy upgrades for your HOVA that give a speed boost or add durability or cosmetic stuff like different colored contrails. At a later point, you even switch out the old junker for a new model of your choice. Fuel stations are also common near the neon tubes that make up the main roads, so even terrible drivers (like myself) are never far away from help.
The freedom of flight here makes exploring Nivalis a joy, and you’ll be going up, down, and all around to see what each multi-layered area has to offer. There’s a mini-map that indicates things like vendors, items, and objectives. Objectives are easy to follow, but hunting for items for side quests can be a puzzle all on its own because disembarking to get somewhere requires dealing with that true element of urban hell – finding a parking space. Often, by the time you find one, that item you spotted won’t be visible anymore. You’ll just have to navigate the walkways and elevators on foot.
Cloudpunk‘s 2020 release inevitably puts it in the shadow of the hotly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077, but if anything, CDPR would do well to nail the genre half as well as this indie title. All the major themes and tropes are present. Idiosyncratic AIs? Android-organic social tension? Bio-augmentation? Bizarre drugs? Cloudpunk has it all and then some. Nivalis is the kind of hyper-capitalist hellscape typical of the genre, ruled with a chrome fist by mega corps. Cloudpunk hits all the notes without getting too schlocky, but it’s not afraid to poke some fun. One of my favorite characters is an android who only speaks in gumshoe detective noir narration.
There’s no combat in Cloudpunk, but there is violence. It’s mostly the systemic, social kind perpetuated by CEOs, debt collectors, and corrupt authorities. Rania herself, try as you might, likely won’t come out of this without getting her hands or her conscience dirty. The decisions you make don’t really change the flow of the game, but there are some tricky ethical choices that will leave you second-guessing. There’s also no manual saving; you have to live with it.
Missions are handed out by Control, the company operator. In theory, you’re just delivering packages from A to B, but things don’t stay that simple for long. The times Rania has to foot-slog are also fun for the most part, though the locked camera can get kind of screwy. While running around, Rania will meet various citizens — gangsters, androids, hackers, hawkers, and other oddballs — that can offer side missions or just flavor.
The soul of the city
The real star of Cloudpunk is the city of Nivalis itself. Every street, plaza, block, and back alley is finely detailed to make it feel real and lived-in. The layered and twisted environments and ambient movement of people and traffic all work to give the impression of a vast, almost organic network of human and mechanical activity. Nivalis has character on a macro and micro level that a foreigner like Rania has difficulty coming to terms with, even as it works its influence on her. The different districts all have their own feel, and Nivalis has to be one of my favorite video game cities of all time.
Cloudpunk is an excellent game, but I was still disappointed every now and then to bump up against boundaries. The tight one-night story is very well done but leaves little to do afterward. You can buy cosmetic items for Rania and her apartment with money earned. In the case of the latter, it’s kind of a bummer that there’s no interaction with any of them. You can clean up side quests and cruise around. I do wish something had been done to flesh out casual play outside of the main plot. That said, there’s more than enough here to recommend, especially for fans of the cyberpunk genre and aesthetic, and I hope that Ion Lands will see fit to expand upon Cloudpunk in future updates.