Pwnee Studios’ Cloudberry Kingdom is the amalgamation of a number of delicious sounding ingredients. Combine equal parts nostalgic love of 2D side-scrolling platformers, some impressive technical AI wizardry, and self-esteem-crushing, unforgiving difficulty, and you have the gaming entrÃ©e that is Cloudberry Kingdom.
But is the resulting dish a tantalizing treat to be savored, or is it something to politely spit back out in a napkin while no one is looking? Read on to find out.
One of the first things to jump out about Cloudberry Kingdom is both obvious and a key theme that seems to permeate the entire approach to its design, and that is that there is a lot of game here. Between a six-chapter story mode that boasts 40 stages per chapter with an additional seventh chapter for those who really enjoy punishment, an arcade mode with four different play types, a customizable free-play mode, and local multiplayer, one could easily spend just as many hours in front of this downloadable game as they could a fully-priced retail release. However, it’s this exact same “quantity-over-quality” design scheme that holds this game back from reaching the same bar set by some of its peers, most notably Super Meat Boy and Rayman Origins, that were major catalysts in the recent resurgence of the 2D platformer.
Super Meat Boy is the clearest line to draw from Cloudberry Kingdom as both games center around ultra-challenging levels that will kill the player many times before they are finally able to complete them with some fast finger finesse. However, the experience of playing the two games is much farther apart than one would assume despite the similar core design mechanics. The reason for this seems to simply be inconsistency, and unfortunately, inconsistency can be found almost everywhere in the game.
The biggest inconsistency, and arguably the most important aspect of a game whose design demands nothing short of perfection in order to progress, is the way it controls. Guiding the protagonist, Bob, through each danger-drenched level never feels as good as it should. Instead of the laser-precision response, accuracy and control found in a game like Super Meat Boy, players must endure controls that at times feel somewhat smooth, but more often than not they feel jerky, haphazard, and sometimes unresponsive.
By comparison, when a player died controlling Meat Boy, it was always apparent what they did wrong, and that it was in fact their mistake. Deaths may have been frequent, but it always felt fair. In Cloudberry Kingdom however, dying can often feel cheap. This has the potential to leave players feeling both frustrated and without a clear idea of how to correct their play. After many consecutive deaths of this nature, fun quickly turns to tedium. The feeling of joy and accomplishment the player is supposed to get after completing a tough level is replaced instead by happiness that it is simply over, and can move on.
Inconsistency rears its ugly head in the stages as well. Level design runs the full spectrum from super short to slightly too long, from insanely hard to why-even-bother easy, and from sublimely rhythmic to stop-and-go stutters. The result is an overall lack of direction for the game as a whole. The elegance and flow to the level design in a game like Rayman Origins is completely absent at times here.
Sure, Cloudberry Kingdom offers plenty of challenge, and when the game is able to find a sense of itself in regards to how those challenges are given to the player, there is absolutely enough fun to be found here. Unfortunately, there are just as many of those moments as there are times when the design just falls completely flat and relies on visual bloat to distract and overwhelm the player rather than giving them a unique challenge.
Rather than design every single one of the hundreds of levels the game presents to the player, Pwnee Studios has developed an AI system that caters each stage to the player’s skill level, while still providing ample amounts of difficulty. This is the aforementioned technical wizardry that all happens behind the scenes of the game and really is quite an achievement as the Cloudberry Kingdom can essentially create an infinite number of levels for an infinite number of players. However, it is also most likely the culprit for the lack of a clear progression, style or human touch to the game’s overall level design.
Aesthetically, the game takes a few cues from classic Super Mario titles, albeit in a more skewed, offbeat manner. Jumping from castles, to ice, to fire and back again, all while hurling fireballs, spikeballs on chains and rotating arms of fire at poor Bob, the influence from the chubby plumber’s earlier adventures is quite clear. The game is visually vibrant and sharp.
Story mode utilizes cut-scenes that use a three-dimensional paper sculpture motif for all of the character models that is far more compelling than anything the gameplay has on display, however. These bits ooze with charm, though it only accounts for maybe six minutes of footage, making it feel disjointed from the rest of the game.
After completing the 240 stages that make up the six main chapters of the story mode and the additional collection of stages in the extremely punishing seventh chapter, there is still more pixel-precise jumping to be had in the arcade mode. The four game types here do a nice job of putting some additional spin on the proceedings. Racing against the clock and mashing together different abilities/costumes, like double jump or sitting in a cardboard box (no, seriously), adds a bit of frantic lightheartedness that the story campaign frequently lacks. And for those players with a few extra friends and controllers, the game’s multiplayer will also deliver some enjoyable moments.
Cloudberry Kingdom is a game that is just a few small tweaks away from being able to sit at the table with the titles it tries so hard to embody. Masochistic players with both an endless supply of controllers to rage-throw at the wall and a thirst for something painfully challenging will definitely find some shining moments as they navigate Bob from one end of the screen to the other. But those players will have to also be somewhat forgiving of all the little shortcomings that keep the game out of the same conversation as Meat Boy, Mario and Rayman because that level of refinement is simply not there.
The amount of content mixed with the random level creation sends the game’s replayability through the roof, assuming one hasn’t already flipped their coffee table and lodged their fist in the television screen. When Cloudberry Kingdom gets it right, fingers will be flying furiously and emotions will change at the drop of a hat all in the name of fun, but when it gets it wrong… it’s better to not even mention what happens then.
Cloudberry Kingdom is currently available on XBLA, PSN and in the Wii U eShop. The XBLA version was played for this review.