Jumping for joy
(Reviewed on the PC using an Xbox 360 controller.)
Over the past few years there's been something of a surge in the world of extra-hard platform games. The minor challenge of simply getting from A to B whilst jumping on a few heads had lost its appeal, and so a new wave of games emerged to test the mettle of determined gamers. Two of the most notable examples, Terry Cavanagh's VVVVVV and Team Meat's Super Meat Boy jumped from the realm of Flash-based short demos on sites such as Newgrounds to being widely-publicised and highly-lauded releases which captured the hearts of those looking for genuine difficulty in their gaming. Cloudberry Kingdom, the debut release from Pwnee Studios has followed on in this tradition of pixel-perfect jumping with a few new tricks of its own hidden up its sleeve.
Upon starting up Cloudberry Kingdom you are presented with three game modes to play around with. These are the relatively straightforward Story Mode, Arcade Mode which features several styles of gameplay to unlock, and Free Play in which you can completely customise your platforming experience. As it'll likely be the first option players will pick, we'll start with Story Mode.
The star of the show is the heroically-named Bob, who is presented in the game's cutscenes as a rather disgruntled and rotund green-armoured knight on a quest to save a sardonic princess from an evil king, who is the only person who doesn't see the ridiculousness of the situation the trio are in. Whilst the cutscenes aren't integral to the gameplay, they do provide a welcome moment of respite from the frantic main action of the game, as well as bringing some comic relief when they pop up between the themed areas throughout the course of the adventure.
A leap forward
After you and up to three other players customise Bob to your personal fancy with a range of facial hair styles, colours and hats, you advance into the game proper. I made a few minor alterations in order to become Mysterio from the Spider-Man comics myself. The main point of gameplay is to traverse from left to right in 2D levels, which have been procedurally-generated by the game's engine, in order to reach the exit at the far side. At the same time you collect gems, which serve as currency to spend on the game's power-ups.
This technique of creating levels on the fly means that no two playthroughs will ever be completely the same, although the artistic design of levels and the types of obstacles you face remain constant depending on your progression through the different chapters.
Whilst the early levels get you acquainted to the game's controls and many of the obstacles you'll face along the way, the difficulty begins to ramp up quickly. With most objects liable to kill you off in one hit, you suddenly find yourself having to pay much more attention to how you're playing and the timing of your jumps.
Just as much as in the aforementioned games, the precision of your playing will begin to be tested to the limit. If you fail a jump it's very rare that you'll be able to backtrack and try again, instead you'll be hit by a rotating spiked disc or vaporised by laser beams and be sent back to the beginning of the stage or a mid-level checkpoint. There is no room for error or adjusting your route once inside a level, and as a result one weakness that emerges is that, providing you time your initial jump from the start correctly, certain levels can be completed with simple timing rather than a genuine test of skill.
Thankfully this is not always the case, and the game shakes things up by adding modifiers to the gameplay every ten or twenty levels, which alter the way you have to play. These range from simple additions, such as a double-jump mechanic for Bob, to your personal gravity flipping direction each time you press the Jump button, so you're running across both the floors and the ceilings. These changes keep the game constantly fresh, as you progress through the hundreds of levels on offer throughout the Story Mode's playing time. Some of these can frustrate more than entertain however, most notably a mid-game set of levels where Bob is transformed into a spaceship. The precision needed in order to progress mixed with a perpetually-moving ship resulted in a greater gnashing of teeth and uttering of expletives than any other section of the game that I played.
The technical side of the game doesn't slouch off either. The cartoon-like graphics are crisp and clear, with the animations of the various dangers and Bob himself being wonderfully fluid. Bob handles sharply and precisely with no unwanted momentum from running or jumping, with leaps landing where you intended them to. If you end up needing to seek a reason for your continued failure to complete levels, you won't be able to blame it on any technical failings. Pwnee Studios have done a great job of ensuring everything that results from each successive jump is down to the player's diligence, and isn't the result of unfair death-traps.
Cloudberry Kingdom's Arcade Mode features several differing game styles, which all focus on making your way as far as possible through an infinite number of gradually more difficult stages, all of which are again generated on the spot. There's no way to practice here. You either get through on the strength of your own skill, or you lose by depleting your stock of limited lives or running out of time in Time Crisis mode.
A spring in its step
The Free Play mode provides the most likely feature to ensure that the player returns to the game on a regular basis. With this mode you can completely customise the trials you will face, from adjusting the number of spikes and moving platforms that will appear in the stage, to adjusting the difficulty of jumps and changing the modifiers affecting your character. Once these options are set the levels are generated speedily, and you'll be playing within seconds. Being able to just load up the game quickly and drop into a few off the cuff levels of platforming hell will provide a welcome distraction for those needing to fill their time in short bursts in the future.
However it has to be said that although the tricks and traps in Cloudberry Kingdom are numerous, they are still limited in the end. Whilst the gameplay modifiers are doled out in a fairly even spread throughout the Story Mode, the great majority of the obstacles will have been seen by the player by the halfway point. Elongated sessions can therefore become a slight chore, especially when the player is stuck on a particular themed section of the game. This means that the next change in the variety of gameplay gets further away the longer you fail to beat the levels holding you back.
Overall, Cloudberry Kingdom provides a robust trial for those looking for a challenging 2D platforming game. There's enough variety to keep you playing for a good while before repetition begins to hit in but eventually it unfortunately will despite the myriad of game modes. The experience until then however is definitely fun and worth sinking some time into.
Cloudberry Kingdom is available now on PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U through the Pwnee Studios website.
We've been lucky enough to secure a quick Q&A session with Pwnee Studios, the developers of Cloudberry Kingdom. Read it below!
As mentioned in my review, there has been a rise in the number of extreme-difficulty platformers in recent years. Do you think there's an underlying reason for this upsurge in both development and demand from gamers?
I think a big reason for a lot of difficult platformers coming out in recent years is the age range of the developers. We are at a point now where a lot of current developers are the people who grew up playing the original NES. It feels like ever since the NES, games have tended towards being easier and easier (with obvious exceptions). A lot of developers now have been craving an intense challenge for years, with no real way to satiate that hunger. I think now, that these people with a desire for a true challenge are making games, a part of them is making the games for themselves - to get something that they have been missing for years. I feel like the demand from gamers is formed in somewhat the same way, a number of people desire the opportunity to really challenge themselves without too many negative repercussions. Extremely difficult games give them exactly that.
Are there any particular modern or classic platform games that you feel were an inspiration for Cloudberry Kingdom?
We had a number of inspirations for Cloudberry Kingdom. One of our biggest was Mario 3. We absolutely loved the way that the game felt, the controls were near perfect. We could never blame a death on anything but ourselves, and that is something that we really aimed for in Cloudberry Kingdom. We also loved Super Mario World for its sheer number of obstacles. It is very difficult to grow tired of a game when it is switching things up on you constantly. A couple of the more modern platformers that we took some inspiration from were Super Meat Boy and VVVVVVV. Both were very difficult games with very tight mechanics.
The 8 and 16-bit eras provided a plethora of ridiculously hard platform games, my most well-remembered one being Kid Chameleon on the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis. Are there any classic platformers that you loved, or indeed still have resentful memories of?
For the most part we stuck with the Mario series, though Jordan had Cool-Spot? I think that's what it was called. I also really enjoyed Whomp-em for some reason. I'm sure if we were to go back through our collections there would be a good amount of rage inducing titles that we had completely forgotten about....but we shouldn't do that. Otherwise we would be tempted to play through them all and beat them this time around.
Since the release of Cloudberry Kingdom has there been a moment where any member of the team has thought of a deadly obstacle that you wish could have made it into the game?
We are constantly thinking up more devious obstacles to throw into the game, but we taught ourselves a while back that it would be a bad idea to act on those impulses. Now we've made the habit or recording those ideas for future use rather than trying to force them into something where they may not be a perfect fit. Hopefully these are the types of things that you will be able to see from us in future games!
And on a similar note, were there any that were removed from the game for being too difficult or not gelling well with gameplay?
We had a number of obstacles that were removed because they weren't quite refined enough, or too difficult. There was this beast, The Rockwheel, which may have been a bit much. We also had a number of other hero types that weren't quite up to snuff when we got round to the chopping block. The game would have been quite the mess had we not done some trimming around the edges.
Finally, any clues on what gamers can expect next from Pwnee Studios?
Whatever we do next, it is safe to assume that it will be even better than Cloudberry Kingdom. We learned a lot through the development process, and with Cloudberry Kingdom as our first official title - we see a lot of additional things that we can do to make our next game that much better.