Cloudpunk + City of Ghosts DLC (PC) Review

Conversations About the Nature of Storytelling

By Alex Orona

Cloudpunk and it’s accompanying City of Ghosts DLC are stories around a futuristic city in the sky, but not an idealistic one. The most accurate comparison is the world of The Fifth Element – lots of smog, rampant street drugs, and classism based on the cloud layers. Playing a cab driver in this world brings interesting twists and turns in a Noir genre that’s befitting, but calls into question the nature of storytelling in videogames. 

The story of Cloudpunk follows Rania and with the DLC, a secondary protagonist Hayse. Rania is new to the mega city of Novalis, and  with only a few credits in her pocket, signs up for illegal delivery and taxi company Cloudpunk. From there, it’s an ongoing series of jobs that lead to mystery and intrigue the likes of any detective thriller. Rania is accompanied by her lovable dog AI Camus, and together they circumvent the dangers and thrills that Novalis brings while also interacting with the shady inhabitants of every walk of life the city has to offer. 

The individual stories of Novalis are what drive the narrative. Discovering rogue cult AI or drunken futuristic race car drivers are all part of the package that is this megacity in the clouds, and it’s quite the package indeed. Getting small morsels of independent story beats between deliveries is the most interesting part of Cloudpunk. It’s as if someone had amassed bite sized tales from the future and combined them into a loose fitting narrative, which works just as much in its favor as to its detriment. 

The art design is a sleek voxel look that when shown in a mass metropolis, feels grand. The sheer size and variability in the floating city with that look adds a layer of immense depth. The up close character designs look less amazing, especially since the developers have added a first person mode. Also with the labyrinthian layout of Novalis, navigating to package delivery waypoints can prove frustrating and confusing. Unfortunately navpoints only work on a flat map, not when you can go up and down multiple levels of a said city block of complicated maze-like markets.

While the stories are mostly interesting, the game spends a lot of time setting them up to mildly entertaining conclusions. I was always mildly amused by these stories, but the length of time it took for a measured chuckle felt longer than necessary. Cloudpunk has some things to say with it’s story but does so at a snail’s pace, dragging out the enjoyment until its ultimately satisfying conclusion. Cloudpunk and its DLC would do well with it’s pacing to shorten up the steps in the story beats to tighten up a pleasant but dragging experience. 

While the pacing proves problematic, what really vexes me is how the story is told within the gameplay of Cloudpunk. You control Rania as she flies her hover car from point to point, following whatever route you see fit, so the story is more or less spoken AT you (well voice acted mind you.).  This effectively makes the gameplay feel almost passive, like listening to a radio play while you direct the hover car to the next waypoint. While interesting, I didn’t find it engaging. I felt like I was removed from the video game entirely. That left me questioning how videogame stories keep the player engaged, keeping people clicking inputs to move plot points. 

How much activity is appropriate? Sometimes gameplay can get in the way of an amazing story. Oftentimes mechanics can enhance a story, but can stories play out around a player with zero engagement? The first Titanfall attempted this with a multiplayer deathmatch game and a radio play audio story progressing within each match. It was an interesting experiment that was abandoned entirely within it’s sequel but I still ask, what is the expectation? Other games like Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture weave stories within what we lovingly call “walking simulators.”Should players expect a higher level of engagement based on video games being known as an interactive medium of art? Or can their stories be as passive as say, film? 

There’s a lot to ponder, but I do think we should hold video games to their “interactive medium” title, if only to differentiate them from their companion art forms. Though the amount of interactivity is up for debate, it really depends on what you are looking for. Cloudpunk has a bare minimum interactivity with it having more in common with “walking simulators” than any other genre (though it’s more of a driving a flying car simulator.).  That being said, I still found it a relaxing breezy game to play when I was stuck between games. Checking in on Rania occasionally to see what her and Cadmus had gotten up to. There’s a lot of padding between story beats with some disappointing loose threads, but in the end I found Cloudpunk to be enjoyable enough to recommend to the cross section of Noir fans and Walking Sim fans. With some tightening up between the pacing of it’s story beats, I can find myself visiting Novalis once again for the sequel currently in development. 

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