Review: Cloudberry Kingdom is a procedurally-generated platforming game with a twist
You'd be forgiven if you took one look at an average level in Cloudberry Kingdom, the debut from Pwnee Studios, and deemed it impossible. It's sheer chaos. Visual nonsense. Overload. A tableau of lasers, wrecking balls, spikes, and lava so dense you can barely see the platforms leading inexorably towards the exit. Maybe you can't see the platforms, taking a leap of faith and hoping by the time you fall the whole mess parts like a deadly Red Sea and reveals a momentary spot of calm for you to land—only for you to immediately leap away.
See, Cloudberry Kingdom's levels weren't designed by humans, with all those particularly human weaknesses like “mercy” and “empathy.” Every platform, every searing laser or deceitful spike strip was laid by the cold, calculating hands of a computer algorithm designed by lead developer Jordan Fisher.
It's safe to say no human could build Cloudberry Kingdom's levels by hand. They're so complex, and require such precision timing, that the computer powering the heart of the game is obvious. It's like someone built the most complex wind-up toy possible and then set it loose.
This level wasn't built in a day
Every procedurally-generated level has one rule: there must be a path the player can take from start to finish. Everything else is flexible. Cloudberry Kingdom's platforming is just a surface-level abstraction hiding what is, essentially, a puzzle game. Actually jumping from platform to platform is hard enough, sure, but figuring out the route the computer intended you to take through each level is the real game here.
The nearest analogue, Super Meat Boy, may be a more difficult game overall (more on that later) but the levels are sparse in comparison. A series of saws here, some spikes over here, a laser or two. You can screw up early in a level and still recover because the game is built that way.
Not so in Cloudberry Kingdom. When I say the computer only needs to give you one path through each level, I mean it. Move too fast or linger too long, and the window closes. The various enemies and platforms will likely never line up again in the precise configuration you need to make it through to the end, so you might as well restart.
It's brutal. Punishing. Cloudberry Kingdom wants to turn you into a platforming machine, with superhuman levels of precision.
Yet as frustrating as the premise sounds, Cloudberry Kingdom is addictive. Die, and you restart instantly—each level is short enough (under a minute each) that it's easy to get into a “one more” mentality. I felt peaceful as I played, pulling off rapid-fire jump sequences with perfect timing and missing each new obstacle by a mere instant.
Not so random
Cloudberry Kingdom has three main modes, each with a different feel: Story, Arcade, and Free Play.
Story Mode is the closest you'll get to an authored experience. The levels are still procedurally-generated, but they seems to have been pre-generated, selected and then arranged into the order found here. Also there are a lot of levels. Like, hundreds.
After solving a certain number of levels you get a new cutscene telling the story of Bob, a grizzled, paunched, middle-aged hero who's grown tired of saving the princess and the realm. These scenes are brilliantly animated, with a papercraft, stop-motion feel that's utterly at odds with the rest of the game's Flash-esque visuals. Also, Kevin Sorbo does Bob's voice and it's kind of incredible.
Progression is handled well in story mode. Some levels are definitely harder than others, but there are no huge difficulty spikes.
Every ten levels you'll change abilities. You start the game as “Classic” Bob, meaning you can jump once. In the second set of levels, however, you'll grow a pair of wings and gain the ability to double jump. Then you'll lose your wings and strap on a jetpack. Eventually you'll hit a section where you can only move while jumping, or you have to invert gravity VVVVVV-style.
Put another quarter in
Arcade mode gives you a set number of lives and then serves up levels until you run out. Theoretically this mode could continue on forever, as there are an infinite number of permutations for the computer to generate; however, each level is a bit harder than the one that came before and your weak, fleshy thumbs (you are playing with a gamepad, right?) will eventually meet their match.
There's also a scoring mechanism in place that's not present in the other modes, which makes it a bit more important to follow the proper path and collect the various gems scattered throughout the level.
Freedom of choice
Most interesting, however, is Cloudberry Kingdom's Free Play mode. Here you can pull back the curtain to watch the game's algorithms work, modifying dozens of options to create your own levels.
There are macro-level choices, such as the difficulty, size, and setting of the level. However you can also delve into the minutiae, changing everything from the gravity to the length of your character's jump and how much friction each platform exudes. Generate a particularly fiendish level and you can save it to share with others later—though only by writing down a string of text.
Free Play is a great look at the heart of Cloudberry Kingdom, and gives you a much better understanding of how the computer generates levels.
Unfortunately familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then certainly ennui. Cloudberry Kingdom is at its most effective in the first few hours, because you haven't gotten deep enough to see the flaws.
As addictive as Cloudberry Kingdom is, the levels tend to follow specific patterns. The more you complete, the more you notice that the timing on each level is oddly...similar. It might vary by a pause here and there, but by-and-large you can complete most sequences with the same exact methods.
I don't want to spoil it here, in case you're planning to play. There's still a lot of fun to be had with Cloudberry Kingdom—I put in seven hours, including one marathon stretch that saw the sun come up outside my window before I managed to convince myself to break the cycle, close the game, and go to bed—but once you've spotted the pattern it takes a lot of the “puzzle” aspect out. At that point, it's just another difficult platformer.
Cloudberry Kingdom is a fascinating puzzle box to pull apart. I had a ton of fun cranking the difficulty up to maximum, generating the most insane levels I could, then watching the computer solve its own problem, rendering order where humans can only perceive chaos.
Once you've glimpsed the pattern in the algorithm, however, the game loses some of its luster. The platforming is solid, and the four-player local multiplayer is a great (though chaotic) addition. However, this game doesn't offer the challenge of Super Meat Boy, nor the same amount of variety. You're basically playing variations on a single level theme, over and over.
On the other hand, I did play it until the sun came up outside my window. Despite the game's flaws, something kept pulling me back in. Maybe it was the stop-motion cutscenes, or the pick-up-and-play mindlessness of it all. Maybe it was Kevin Sorbo's voice.
Regardless, Cloudberry Kingdom is a strong effort and a solid little platformer, even if it doesn't quite match the best in its genre.