Cloudpunk City of Ghosts

Another day older and deeper in debt

I was so excited to return to Cloudpunk. The main game was an almost plotless experience playing an NPC; you got to make some choices, but mostly it was just about getting through the night as low-key as possible, and it was beautiful. CoG is ‘sequel-sized’ as the devs describe it, and I am totally up for nothing more than more of the nothing that is Cloudpunk.

Several months after her first night as an ask-no-questions courier for Cloudpunk, Rania tries to keep her head down in the rain-beaten city of Nivalis and get through her shift. But Nivalis has other plans.

While it’s nice that Rania hasn’t become ‘the one’ after her actions in the main game, if anything she’s in a worse-off situation; her Hova’s been stolen, she’s at the bottom of the courier pile, and she’s struggling to make rent. Rania starts to realise if she’s going to get anywhere in Nivalis, she might have to play it at its own game. But Rania’s not the only one grifting to survive the city.

Occasionally we swap to a new character, Hayse, a burnt-out ex-Courier and the kind of person Rania might become. After picking up a CorpSec automaton who intends to arrest him when its shift starts, Hayse tries to get himself back on track, even though he’s his own worst enemy. Meanwhile, besides the deliveries, Rania deals with muggers, dealers, rich clients who treat her as a servant or plaything, rival couriers seeing her as nothing more than a commodity they should acquire, and a thief who forces her to find items he needs for stolen Hovas (and stole her original Hova). Cloudpunk is brilliant at hammering home the attitude of corporations and the rich toward disposable working classes. Still, all those working-class-hero tropes get a little tiring.

You spend a lot of time running around the streets, finding a nav point then listening to someone’s moralising. In the main game, those topics were mostly confined to calls or passengers espousing their world views as you drove - we were a captive audience but at least we were going somewhere; now we’re just a captive to the game’s lecturing. One woman we met had an augment installed that deletes negative experiences – when Rania points out ignoring social issues doesn’t solve them, the woman walks off, the augment having blocked Rania. That’s a good one, but mostly, the long-winded diatribes teeter on being sanctimonious. We get it, corporations are horrible, modern life is servitude, the rich are evil. If the devs really believed in Eat The Rich, they’d not have sold this on Steam.

There are some truly wonderful moments though, more than enough to keep a Cloudpunk fan happy – the ever loyal and still naïve Camus often picks up on something Rania misses, his innocence cutting through her increasing cynicism. Small choices Rania makes remain small within the gameplay – you just hear about the impacts on the radio. It’s a nice way of showing everyone has an influence even in a world as dehumanised as Nivalis.

Unfortunately, CoG is a little too dehumanised. In the main game you overheard conversations about the mysterious CORA, discussions about events and got the sense that the city might collapse at any second. Now Rania’s largely solved that issue, the city feels a bit emptier – there’s a lot less chat, gossip, and fewer NPCs to interact with and none of the small but important moments like finding Pashta (Who sleeps her way through CoG). Still, leaves me more time to stare in awe at Nivalis.

Nivalis is still Voxel based, but when we pull back, it forms the most beautiful landscapes to pass through and the detail is triple-A – never thought I’d stop to admire puddle reflections in a game that goes for a Minecraft aesthetic. Now we can zoom into first person or camera-follow instead of the disorientating camera switches, and it’s amazing up close. Trying to fly the Hova in first person turns it into a demolition derby though.

I seem to spend a lot of time and all my money on repairs. The controls and AI were always a bit janky, and the ‘Hova’ a bit more of a ‘Drifta’ but gliding around is mesmerising. I’m never happier than picking up a parcel and just joining the Bladerunner traffic and taking in the sights - except when I crash all the time and limp from repair station to gas station.

I will admit to getting bored of City of Ghosts, but that’s kind of the point. It takes about half of the game’s 10-hour runtime to get a bite of a main plot, and that’s a long time to be doing nothing especially when the nothing feels … nothingy, and the switches to Hayse feel like padding forced in to give it weight. When we’re just drifting through the city, being wistful and discussing Life, the Universe and Everything with Camus, it absolutely soars. It’s not as subtly compelling as the main game, but Couriers are the unsung heroes, and I loved being back in Nivalis, unsung.

The full sequel is coming soon, and the developers make it sound like a Nivalis RPG – Not sure about that, I like being an NPC, flying through the clouds minding my own business; I don’t want to be setting up businesses, taking over regions and winning by buying an apartment above the clouds. I like being a nobody, starting and ending as one of the little people who got through the shift. Cloudpunk is about people and about making the best of the choices they don’t get. But still, more Nivalis? … I’m totally pre-ordering it.