FBT tries his hand at being a delivery driver. Hope you’re not expecting any packages.
As expected, the future is ravaged by environmental disasters, evil corporations and retro-synth music. Nivalis, a Mega-City-One kind of place, is starting to fall into the ocean due to the city’s increasingly buggy AI that controls its infrastructure. Those who remain in the city are corrupt, desperate, or both. Into this bleak world arrives Rania, who joins no-questions-asked Cloudpunk Couriers as a driver to pay off her debts. It’s her first night, and most Cloudpunk drivers only last one, one way or another. Gonna be a long night.
Aesthetically, we’re in Bladerunner here, but also there’s vibes of The Transporter - Cloudpunk’s only rules are ‘don’t open the package, don’t ask any questions’ - but also Futurama, given Nivalis’ cartoon voxel look and the weird subplots that emerge from the simple task of taking a box from A to B. We’re also getting some Fifth Element, Coruscant, pretty much every sci-fi blue-collar worker in corrupt city with flying cars trope. But that’s where the comparisons end - Rania is no hero; we don’t open a package and get thrown into some conspiracy or adventure, we’re just an Amazon delivery driver, trying to get through the shift, trying not to get involved. It’s almost plotless, and largely threat-free. It’s just do your job, listen to the stories behind the delivery. It’s refreshing being inconsequential.
It’s surprising how compelling it is to just have a simple task. Pick up, drop off. Normally I hate those kinds of side missions in an RPG, but it’s all I have to do, navigate the bustling city in my ‘HOVA’/Spinner, land, find the drop off, get the next package. This isn’t even one of those delivery or taxi games where it gets increasingly hard or you’re against the clock. It’s all about Rania and the characters she meets and this big, strange, uneasy city she’s turned up at with nowhere else to go.
Rania’s not alone though. The only thing she brought with her is the harddrive for her dog AI, Camus. Unable to afford a dogs body for him, she plugs the mutt into her HOVA and while Rania tries to keep her head down, Camus makes like a dog and sniffs everyone’s butts, making friends and drawing her into the city where everyone is as unimportant as Rania is. Meanwhile, you’ll see neon flicker, engineers lament that the city seems pissed off, and occasionally entire buildings collapse or shift. The place is alive somehow, or maybe it’s just dying.
Often, during deliveries or chats, Rania will be faced with a choice or asked to dole out advice, and you have no idea how they may pan out. They rarely impact the gameplay, just Rania’s mood as the impact gets reported back to her. One had me delivering a package that ticks. Presuming bombs don’t tick in the future, I delivered it. Later I heard the building had been levelled. Whoops. One had me pick up a suicide’s belongings to deliver to his family, but Cloudpunk wanted the goods to pay for the pickup. Annoyed, I intended to deliver to the family but accidently delivered to Cloudpunk; but then later met the family who it turned out encouraged the act. I was glad I screwed up that one.
Nivalis is a horrible place and it beats down on Rania mercilessly. There’s humans and Androids, and then there’s ‘Automaton’, machines that on some level are aware, like Camus who Rania encourages to be more than just a good boy. The megacorps that own the place also own the people, forcing almost everyone into some form of servitude to pay off debts they’ll never clear – to the point of taking children as payment. Not even death is a release; the corps just download your mind into an Automaton. It’s a terrible place. And then you park, and it gets worse.
The on-foot camera is infuriating. There’s no free-look, instead the camera switches view, which also flips the controls making navigating a headache-inducing nightmare. While the city looks great from the air, once you’re on the ground you realise there’s not a lot to look at or do – it looks like the work of some Minecraft obsessive and it’s hard to disappear into; it's beautiful, and there’s tons of ‘find me an x’ NPCs to interact with, sending you around the complicated streets picking up crap, but they usually boil down to a long-winded examination of the human condition - some relatable, some touching and sad, others thankfully skippable, but after a while, combined with the infuriating camera angles and lack of immersion, it gets a bit tiresome. Back to the Spinner. I mean, HOVA.
Flying around is soothing and enjoyable, especially once Camus figures out how to turn on his radio, but getting into traffic can be a bind. They have zero AI and just rear-end you or refuse to move. For saying you spend maybe 80% of the game in the HOVA, clanging around while listening to Camus question the human condition, it’s not as relaxing as it could be.
Eventually, against my will, I get bored. This is a beautiful, subtle, thought-provoking game, a kind of walking-sim that explores identity, purpose, self. But there’s just too much game and not enough gaming. I finished it in 13 hours, and that was twice as long as it should have been. Maybe monotony is accurate to what Rania is experiencing; I enjoy the idea of avoiding drama instead of diving head first as you would in most games, and when it does all coalesce, it’s a huge moment – all her tiny, inconsequential experiences suddenly meaning something; I’m just a delivery driver, I just want to finish my shift.
It’s an odd game – or maybe I just can't make up my mind. I loved just doing my job, but then got bored of it, yet when plots did surface I was irritated they took me away from delivering. It’s just not quite interesting enough and too whimsical when plots pop up. Along with the grating on-foot sections and same-old driving sections, it should just time-out, yet there’s something so compelling about Rania and her desire to just finish the shift. I keep coming back to it, enjoying the anonymity of just being a background character. It's just satisfying, and it stayed with me, and that is the mark of a good game.
And the mark of a good developer is them constantly updating and improving it, as Ion Lands have done - the latest update adds Cockpit view, which makes it even more immersive - and Bladerunner like. And beautiful. Easier to park too.
For me, the real ending isn't the fate of Nivalis, it's when Rania, beaten and tired, finishes her shift and heads for bed; yet tomorrow she’s got to do it all again. I’ll be more understanding to late delivery drivers next time. They may hold the fate of humanity in their ‘sorry we missed you’ cards. Hang on, I was in the whole time!