Review: Cloudberry Kingdom

A freshman developer builds a platformer generating AI which builds a really good game.

By Andy Hoover. Posted 08/23/2013 10:00 Comment on this     ShareThis
The Final Grade
grade/score info
1-Up Mushroom for...
Great gameplay variety with a theoretically infinite amount of content that can be as easy or masochistic as you want
Poison Mushroom for...
Simplistic visuals and repetitive sound design, some modes and mechanics not as fun as others

Shin Megami Tensei IV was, without question, one of my most eagerly anticipated games of 2013, and when I started playing it, it certainly did not disappoint. Now, one might ask what this has to do with Cloudberry Kingdom. The answer: more than you would expect. You see, when Cloudberry Kingdom launched, it completely derailed my game playing plans. I dropped SMT IV and seriously delayed my starting Pikmin 3.

By no means am I asserting that Cloudberry Kingdom is better than either of these games, because it definitely isn’t. Like many indie games developed by small, relatively inexperienced teams, Cloudberry Kingdom has its share of problems and quirks. But like the best of said indie games, it also has its share of new ideas and gameplay hooks that are immensely satisfying and dangerously addictive.

To put it as simply as possible, Cloudberry Kingdom is a platformer in the vein of Mario or Sonic; you run from right to left, avoiding gaps, enemies, and obstacles along your way while grabbing shiny things suspended in the air. However, instead of giving gamers several dozen beautifully crafted levels by master game designers, Cloudberry Kingdom contains an infinite number of stages generated by an AI programed to build everything from easy walks in the park to nearly incomprehensible messes of spikes, fireballs, moving platforms, and all the other nasty bits that have been dooming gaming heroes since the beginning of the genre. A random level generator is plenty fun in its own right, but Cloudberry Kingdom is more than that because it has wrapped a complete game around this idea that offers plenty of variety in what is otherwise a relatively straightforward genre.

Probably the best place to start is the story mode, which is a linear progression of increasingly difficult levels tracking the hero’s quest to save a princess. Bob is a middle-aged hero who is once again called in to save the princess from King Kobbler, Bob’s long time nemesis who also happens to have acquired a magic orb that allows him to generate a constant barrage of obstacles to slow Bob down. Thankfully, the story does manage to make itself more than a superficial throwaway even if it is far from being a stand out feature of the game. Bob is voiced by one of syndicated television’s greatest heroes, Kevin Sorbo, and his performance captures Bob’s extreme annoyance at once again having to go through the motions of being the hero. The writing is a little more hit or miss, with plenty of humor, some of it quite funny, some of it stupid, and even more of it so stupid it is funny. Though I will say that there is a nice twist towards the end that does turn the usual platformer story on its head in a fun and clever way. All that being said, the story scenes are few in number and are but brief islands in extremely turbulent seas.

Progressing through the 240 plus levels of story mode will provide gamers to an increasingly challenging assortment of levels that introduce the many gameplay twists that really make this game more than a mere random level generator. You start as a simple, Mario-like character who can just run and jump, then you get a double jump ability, and then you get a jetpack , and that is just the beginning. Each of these variations completely changes how you approach the game, and some of them get just plain crazy. One mode has Bob strapped to a wheel, drastically changing the sense of momentum and the role it plays in how Bob moves, jumps, and, most important of all, stops. And then there are the levels where Bob is super small, or much larger, or endlessly grows and shrinks between the two sizes. For some reason Bob also turns into a spaceship and plays like a side-scrolling shoot-’em-up minus the shooting. Bob can also ride a horse-shaped pogo stick, forcing him to bounce his way across the level. Oh, but I saved the best for last– Hero in a Box! Bob gets in a box and is then only to move while jumping, making precise movements all that much harder, and good lord are precise movements really important in Cloudberry Kingdom. However, not all of these mechanics are created equal; the spaceship levels offer some great variety, and double jumping has been fun for decades, but the wheel and pogo stick mechanics can grow tiresome, with the most difficult wheel levels proving the least enjoyable.

Early levels are simple enough affairs, short with few obstacles and easy jumps to make and blue gems to collect. Naturally, things grow more complex, and it manages to do so in a very well constructed arc that introduces the new mechanics and ups the ante while continuously reinforcing skills needed to succeed. Mind you, succeeding doesn’t mean breezing through levels, it means being able to read the rhythms of the obstacles and finding the optimal path through the levels. To the uninitiated, even some of the earlier levels might look quite dastardly, and the later levels completely unbeatable, but once you start playing and getting into the game you realize the key to Cloudberry Kingdom. Surprisingly enough, patience is your enemy in this game while speed and aggression are vital because the tougher the levels get, the tighter your timing needs to be as you link one jump to another. Eventually, I realized the really hard levels play almost like a rhythm game, because everything has to be near perfect with an incredibly small window for error while the gems offer a rough outline for the best path through the level. These demands placed upon the player are harsh, and you will die a lot, but the relative brevity of the levels and speed at which you respawn makes death an amazingly small inconvenience. It also helps that the most severe levels are usually followed by comparatively easier levels that allow you to catch your breath. Some games can make me furious, but Cloudberry Kingdom somehow manages to repeatedly beat me down without making me hate it.

Once you get through the story, or should you need a break from story mode, you can jump into the arcade, which offers more focused takes on the many mechanics introduced in the story. Escalation and Time Crisis modes start out with just regular Bob available, but the more levels you complete, the more variations you unlock, and then getting further in those opens up more yet. The difference is that Escalation gives you a limited number of lives to get as far as you can while collecting the gems will give you more lives, and Time Crisis gives you a limited amount of time while the gems give you more time. And it should go without saying that as the game progresses the levels get tougher and tougher. The other two modes rounding out the arcade are Hero Rush and Hybrid Rush. Hero Rush plays like Time Crisis only instead of trying to get through as many levels as possible with one mechanic, you change mechanics every level. And Hybrid Rush is just plain awesome, because each level gives you a combination of two or three mechanics, such as a double jumping wheel Bob or a giant Bob in a box with a jetpack; needless to say, it gets quite quirky.

While the story and arcade modes are what give Cloudberry Kingdom its gamey-ness, Free Play is the heart and soul of whole package. In Free Play, you are given dozens of sliders that control the difficulty of jumps, number of each type of enemy, and even all the physics that determine how Bob controls, and then the AI develops a beatable level based on your settings. You can create everything from the easiest level ever put in a platformer to a ridiculous maelstrom of death that would make even the most dedicated gamer frightened; and should you think a level unbeatable, you can spend some of your gems to have an AI controlled Bob run through the level, just to make you feel that much worse about yourself. Altogether, Free Play is the closest thing I have ever seen a game offer to actual, endless replayability.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the best part yet– multiplayer. Every mode I have mentioned can be played with four players, which quickly becomes an absolutely ridiculous experience that will have friends cursing one another while simultaneously having an uproariously good time. Multiplayer even allows for another option: you can tie all the characters together with bungee cords, which adds another layer of physics that makes the game that much more brilliant. Players who miss a jump can be swung back into the game, the elasticity making it possible to effectively slingshot players further and higher than regular jumping could ever accomplish, and any player that dies becomes dead weight holding everybody else down. Within minutes of booting up multiplayer with bungee mode activated I had been thoroughly reminded of the greatness that is local multiplayer and was crying from laughter.

Now I suppose I should talk about the bad aspects of the game, which are actually very few in number and largely aesthetic. The visuals are kind of a letdown because while the colorful palette and Bob’s ridiculous customization options give Cloudberry Kingdom a decent amount of charm, the animations and overall art design is quite simple, with the randomized nature of the game no doubt contributing to everything having a cookie-cutter feel to it. The cinematics in story mode have a really cool, paper craft style that I would have loved to see applied to the rest of the game. And then there is the music, which has the exact opposite problem, it is a really good mix of high quality rock and techno type tracks that keeps the energy high, but the game ultimately has too few songs resulting in constant repetition.

Taken as a whole, Cloudberry Kingdom is a very good game with a massive amount of content and a fantastic core concept that falls just short of greatness due to a few surface level problems. The simplistic visuals, repetitive sound design, and ultimately inconsequential story do detract from the game, and could in fact make it much worse for some depending on their tastes, but the heart and soul of this game is random level generating AI and the amount of variety it offers when combined with the level of customization and variety of play mechanics. Of course, other gamers might reject the game based purely on the difficulty, because while you can tweak Free Play to suit your difficulty, the story and arcade modes are focused on ramping up the difficulty; but even then, short of the masochism level difficulties, most of the harder levels are very beatable once you understand the rhythms of the game.

For me though, I really loved this game. While Pwnee Studios still have a few things to learn when it comes to presentation, they have managed to create one of the most impressive pieces of gaming tech I have seen in quite a while. The higher resolutions, bigger polygon counts, and increasingly more realistic lighting and physics we continue to see as the generations progress are plenty impressive, but it isn’t too often we see a game centered on advances in AI technology. Yes, plenty of games do random levels, but creating an AI to build a platformer with dozens of adjustable variables taken into consideration is truly innovative. If Pwnee gets the opportunity to make a sequel, they just need to develop a stronger artistic direction to make the game more universally appealing, and if they can continue to build on the tech then it will be just that much better. In the meantime though, Cloudberry Kingdom is a very good first effort, and even if it might fit your tastes, at the very least it deserves your attention.

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