Platformers tend to be exploratory affairs, where peeking into hidden corners pays off with extra goodies or new challenges. Even the more action-oriented ones like Sonic reward slowing down and seeing what you can find, and while speed and careful touch on the gamepad might be necessary towards the game’s end, for the most part they move at a measured pace with a middling challenge level. Cloudberry Kingdom isn’t having any of that, instead opting for a pure arcade twitch-fest that needs split-second judgment and good reflexes to complete. It’s also got an effectively infinite number of levels ranging from walk-in-the-park simple to “HAHAHA oh god no!” hard.
Cloudberry Kingdom is a procedurally generated platformer, where the AI works within a number of parameters to create a level the second before you play it. Every level is possible to beat, no matter how crazy it looks, and for proof it will demonstrate a flawless run, collecting every gem along the way and making it look easy. Spinning flames, disappearing and moving blocks, lasers, bouncy blocks, and much more mean nothing to the AI, but will tear you to pieces without a second thought when the difficulty is cranked to Hardcore mode. Fortunately for us mere mortals, most of the game is quite reasonable and slowly eases in to the truly crazy stuff.
The basic structure of Cloudberry Kingdom is left to the player. Firing it up for the first time there’s a Story Mode and The Arcade available, as well as Free Play if you just want to dive into the deep end. Story Mode is the most straightforward, consisting of a series of challenges where our hero Bob changes form every ten levels. Regular Bob, Double Jump Bob, Rocket Pack Bob, Bouncy, Fat, Rolling, Tiny, Bob-in-a-Box, and many more change the way he controls, and the level generator cheerfully tailors each challenge specifically to the specific character’s abilities. Unfortunately the auto-save only kicks in every 40 levels, and while they’re bite-sized, easily completed in a minute or less if you play flawlessly, that’s still a giant chunk of gaming when the later levels can take a dozen tries apiece (with unlimited lives) to get right.
The Arcade is a bit kinder to your personal time budget, thankfully. It contains four game modes that, while requiring plenty of play time to unlock everything, are much more suited to pick-up-and-play gaming. Escalation starts easy and gets harder, with a limited number of lives to get as far as you can. Time Crisis has unlimited lives but limited time, and each gem collected adds a second to the clock. Hero Rush keeps the time limit and gems but gives a random Bob power each level, and Hybrid Rush is similar but with multiple powers to contend with. It’s a good mix of game modes that lets you mix up the gaming in ways that make it very easy to flow from one type to the next without repetition wearing the experience down.
The final primary game mode is Free Play, and this is where the sandbox opens up. You can choose difficulty, edit all of Bob’s movement physics for each form, adjust sliders for the various obstacles to determine how much the AI uses them when creating levels, and more. The mode is strictly for survival and to see what kind of vicious creations the level editor can inflict on you, but it’s still fun to tinker under the hood and test drive the results.
There’s a lot of content and ways to play with it, but Cloudberry Kingdom has one small problem holding it back from greatness, and that’s a lack of personality. The story mode has cut-scenes that try to give it character but don’t quite manage it. The in-game art has fantastic color direction but it’s all obstacles, no enemies, and putting faces on orbiting spike balls doesn’t count. Neither do the flies, for that matter, seeing as they’ve got no more AI than any of the other hazards. There’s plenty of movement but no life in the levels, and eventually it takes its toll.
If you’ve come this far then it’s probably time for a disclaimer: I backed Cloudberry Kingdom during its Kickstarter and have been playing off and on since mid-May 2012. It’s evolved hugely over time, and the process has been fascinating to watch. The art style got completely revamped, level types have been added and removed, Bob’s gotten new powers and endless tweaks to the original set, one of the music tracks got its lyrics removed, and there are even some remnants of the original art style here and there. When Bob explodes at the end of a game the turtle shells, blocks, and other detritus that fly out are from a version of the game that’s long gone, and it’s fun to recognize them. However, for the purposes of this review, none of that matters. The game as it exists now is what’s being reviewed, and it’s turned out well.
It’s not perfect, though it’s certainly good fun. Procedural level generation wasn’t quite so prevalent last year, but this is the first true platformer to make it work. Every level is something different, and even though they tend towards being beatable by rushing straight forward with slight variations on speed and careful control of jump height, you’re still making these decisions on the fly. Learning Cloudberry Kingdom means learning to adapt to endless challenge, and it can be hard to put down when the next level could be just about anything.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360