This week on Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Cloudpunk and Streets of Rage 4.
The connecting theme for this week's double-bill is "dystopias" and "places that are generally shitty to live in", which isn't much of a theme, I admit, 'cos that's every game. A game set in a place where everything's going swimmingly wouldn't have much of a game to speak of, and sometimes, it can be set in a dystopia and still not have much of a game to speak of, which, masterful segue, brings us to our first title, Cloudpunk, a story-focused science fiction DoorDash simulator. Cloudpunk is a game that makes for some very impressive screenshots; it's set in a layered and detailed cyberpunk city all built out of voxels - yeah, ask your dad about those, kids - and a recommendation is probably going to come down to how many times you personally feel like you could watch the first five minutes of Blade Runner, 'cos the scenery doesn't change much.
We play as Rania, a wide-eyed newcomer to the city who gets a job for an illicit delivery service and actually gets a vehicle, which puts her one up on that Mirror's Edge chick. Through a predetermined sequence of deliveries to various quirky characters throughout the course of a single night shift, Rania and her trusty sidekick, an A.I. hovercar that thinks it's a dog, embark upon an epic quest to find some fucking gameplay, for every delivery mission boils down to "go to icon on map, talk to person"; occasionally, we dip into Advanced Mode, where we have to "go to icon on map within a generous time limit" or "go to icon on map, then hunt around for parking space on map". You earn money, but the only things to spend it on are refueling every hour or two or buying entirely cosmetic furniture to fill the apartment you visit, like, three times in the course of the game, so it's either pointless or an unsubtle satire on modern living.
I suppose the driving around is slightly challenging when you have to weave three-dimensionally around traffic on the road, but you're in a flying car; you're only obliged to drive on the roads if you feel like role-playing as a sperm in a giant robot fallopian tube. You do go faster on roads, but outside the very occasional timed mission, there's not much point in getting to icon on map quickly, as half the time, I'd get there and have to sit frigging myself with the handbrake waiting for the unskippable mid-journey conversation with quirky passenger du jour to finish so I could trigger the quest completion and then frig myself with the handbrake for another three minutes waiting for the unskippable conversation that sets up the next mission!
But this all indicates that Cloudpunk is intended to be a story game first, and to sit here whining about gameplay is to demand sausage rolls at the vegan buffet. Through a linear series of encounters with unique characters, Cloudpunk builds a well-realized world of human-A.I. tension, inequality, corporate oppression, and all the usual bollocks cyberpunk goes on about, and at various times, Rania has to make moral choices which have the usual long-term effect on the story, i.e., little, if any. But the story really falls flat for me around one major central point like a six-inch nail in a soufflé: I just don't like Rania as a character.
She's come to this city she knows little about and openly hates from some kind of small nation of hipsters that you probably haven't heard of, but trust me, it's much better; half the characters she meets are obnoxious in some cartoonishly overdone way just so she can get all judge-y at them, and they keep foisting important missions and major life decisions onto her because they watched her drunkenly banging into lampposts and doing very unpleasant things to the handbrake for two minutes and decided she had the wisdom of the ages. I might've preferred Cloudpunk if it were Euro Cyber Truck Simulator and just had me randomly deliver stuff while I listened to podcasts, and it told its story more covertly through background details rather than make me sit and listen to what Rania thinks about something that's none of her sodding business.
But let's move on to our second game, Streets of Rage 4, which, in stark contrast to Cloudpunk, has loads of gameplay - to a fault, almost - for you see, it's an update to the classic Streets of Rage arcade brawlers set in a dystopian city where the standard form of greeting is the roundhouse kick. And when I say "update", I mean they made the graphics really nice, and bugger-all else. Really, really nice, mind; it's all hand-drawn and beautifully animated, and your gaze slides around it like balls on a greased-up pool table, but your dude still animates like they're walking to the side when they're moving up and down.
So it's your standard arcade brawler stuff: you play as the dude who's strong or the lady who's fast, or the dude who's really strong or the lady who's really fast because they've got twice as much dude/lady energy. You go from room to room beating up predetermined clusters of backup dancers from a Michael Jackson video, and there is nothing more nourishing and restorative than scarfing down an entire greasy chicken that you found in a bin. Oh yes, and you have three lives to beat each level, and if you run out, it's all the way back to the start, which was only ever reasonable back when these games were designed to steal quarters, and even then, only to shareholders. You've got my fucking money, Streets of Rage 4; you don't need my blood and teeth, as well!
I ended up having to play through every level at least twice, because it's hard to get a feel for the boss's attacks and weaknesses on your very first attempt while they're relentlessly smashing you in the face so hard that bogeys shoot out of your arse. So I'd run out of lives, and the game would get very fucking cute and say, "Would you like to replay the level with one additional life in return for taking half points?" Firstly, Feet of Strange Roar, why didn't you tell me that was an option before I went out and embarrassed myself? And secondly, save your charity for fucking tax season! I know myself, and I know exactly what would happen if I had one extra life: I'd get overconfident and swiftly lose it from something stupid, like falling off a ledge or forgetting to breathe.
My problem with Shreets of Shrage Shfour is that it's a game designed for confident people; your devastating special moves cost health to use, but you get the health back if you can land the next few hits without getting hit yourself, meaning that you become more effective the more confidence you have in your skills, and I doubt that this is the arena for a breakthrough where several years of therapy and alcohol abuse has fallen short. But I'd replay the level enough times, memorize enough encounters, and dodge enough devastating enemy attacks by move-walking six inches downwards, and I'd eventually struggle through and defeat the boss, whereupon the status screen would usually very grandly award my performance a "D" rank, which is always a buzzkill; it's like I finally collapsed into my tent after a long day of successful Arctic exploration, whereupon one of the huskies trotted over and pissed on my head. And this was only Normal difficulty! Talk about a skill ceiling; this is the Sistine Fucking Chapel!
Still, it looks good, and the hits are nice and juicy, and if you are a fan of the old arcade brawlers, then it's aimed squarely at you with a laser dot and a sniper scope. As for broader appeal, it's either a little too late for the nostalgic retread of the 16-bit arcade era, or a little bit too early for the nostalgic retread of the nostalgic retread.
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