Attempting to learn Cloudbuilt is like scaling the face of a cliff with your bare hands. It offers no assistance, no guidance, and relentlessly beats you down to where the game can begin to feel almost hostile. There’s so much going on within a given level moving so fast and incomprehensibly, that getting your bearings can seem an impossible task in a game designed for a higher class of player. But Cloudbuilt’s most apparent problem is also one that’s almost entirely frontloaded, and once I made it over that wall and could peer over the whole of the game, Cloudbuilt evolved into one of the most endlessly satisfying and expanding games I’ve played in a very long time.
The controls that felt initially clunky began to showcase their ingenuity, inputs feeling natural and smooth as I chained moves together in a blur of animation. I stopped having to even consider which buttons I’d press and when, merging with my character to where her actions became an extension of myself. That’s not to say I no longer slip up, but those mistakes are now fully my own carelessness rather than the fumbling of button presses. And when I do land that perfect run, the feeling is incredible.
Cloudbuilt gives you such a control over your character that the act of pulling an insane jump or sequence of wall runs is that much more of a personal accomplishment. I was never coddled or helped along, which caused the first few hours to be a gauntlet of painful ineptitude, but once I grew past that point every success was entirely the result of my own skills versus the game giving me a helping hand. It’s a distinction that makes even just a basic series of jumps gratifying, each movement feeling intensely connected to my own input. Cloudbuilt is addictive not because of a daily grind or manipulative elements of its design, but purely how amazing it feels to do well at it. I’m not sure I could name another game that has given me such an intoxicating sense of satisfaction, calling me back even after I’ve played through every level because I just can’t get enough.
A lot of that is definitely owed to the wondrously and intentionally exploitable level designs. Though there have been games designed around freerunning before, Cloudbuilt is the first I’ve played that embodies its focus on experimentation and versatility. Levels are designed for the express purpose of speedrunning with a speedrunner’s mindset. Branching paths extend in every direction, directly incorporating the sort of impossible shortcuts and unorthodox approach to levels speedrunning is built upon. I wanted to replay levels because I knew there was always some way through I hadn’t tried; some faster run yet to be discovered, providing with it a glimpse at how enjoyable speedrunning can be without requiring I break the game or even be very good at it.
Everything in Cloudbuilt has such a sense of purpose, of perfect connectedness and intelligence. Your moveset and the levels you use it within compliment and expand upon each other. Small aesthetical touches like the colors of objects and enemies lend a great amount of readability to level designs, converging for the point of ensuring you’re forced to slow down as little as possible. The only thing Cloudbuilt does poorly is teaching you how to read a level and use the tools it gives you. It’s a challenging game to begin with, and requiring players largely figure it out on their own means many will likely give up early on before they arrive at the point of clarity several hours in.
That moment of comprehension never does arrive for the narrative unfortunately, regardless of how long you spend analysing it. Its method of delivery, that being narration after completing a level, is bland and exists in a space that almost begs to be skipped over, written in a style that’s verbose and crudely philosophical. There are themes worth discussing here, like the military’s abuse of its soldiers and the moral implications of experimenting on an comatose patient even if for the purpose of saving them, but they’re overwhelmed by wordy introspection that always seems to circle around and arrive at no conclusion. Perhaps it’s accurate for a character effectively trapped within their own head, but it’s no less difficult to digest and seemingly unconcerned with whether you pay any attention to it or not as it rambles on.
Cloudbuilt is one of the most remarkable games I’ve played in years. It’s also one of the most difficult to appreciate without committing yourself to a great deal of hardships. I wouldn’t be the least surprised if they proved too much for some players, but they’re troubles that exist all but entirely within the first few hours of play, standing as a barrier to an otherwise astoundingly intelligent and enjoyable game. I’ve yet to have a session of Cloudbuilt where I didn’t come away having discovered a new layer to its design or be even more interested in coming back again. Arriving at that point was unquestionably brutal, but having gotten to the other side of Cloudbuilt hurdle of comprehensibility, I’m extremely glad I stuck around to see it.You can read more of my writing on Kritiqal.