Cloudpunk: City of Ghosts review
Rania is back, with her android canine Camus and new hovercraft AI. This time out, however, the story isn't theirs alone as ION LANDS' 3D voxel-based Cloudpunk: City of Ghosts introduces a new playable character named Hayse, along with his robot frenemy and would-be Corpsec officer Morpho. While this substantial downloadable expansion is even more talkative than the base Cloudpunk game, the new characters and an extra layer of polish on the already impressive production values make for an engaging return to the entropy-gripped metropolis of Nivalis.
Set two months after the events of the original game and Rania's fateful encounter with CORA, little has changed in the decaying city. The rich still live above the clouds, while the rest of society dwells in the perpetual gloom and rain beneath. In these lower levels, it seems everyone's out for themselves and the only way to get ahead is to screw everyone else.
No one knows this better than Hayse, a down-on-his-luck, profanity-spewing former Cloudpunk driver who indulges in whatever booze and drugs he can get his hands on. Since he owes money to more than a few ticked-off citizens looking to collect, it seems like Hayse isn't long for this world. Matters don't improve much when the robot Morpho shows up to arrest him. Not right away, though, as the bot doesn't officially start with the CorpSec police force until the next day. But he intends to follow Hayse around all night to prevent him from fleeing justice and to incarcerate him first thing in the morning.
After a brief playable prologue with Hayse, the game returns to more familiar territory as the narrative shifts over to Rania. Although familiar to players already, her time in Nivalis since we last saw her has made her a very different Rania. As she looks about the city, with its continued slide into chaos, she wonders if anything she did with CORA made a difference. In the two months since then, she's become noticeably more cynical and sarcastic. Fortunately, her ever-faithful and spirited sidekick Camus is still tagging along, and even becomes a playable character for a couple of brief segments. Having migrated from being a HOVA AI to inhabiting an android dog shell, Camus is still able to speak and, in his naivete, often still perceives events far clearer than Rania herself.
As before, Rania is still flying her HOVA, doing package drop-offs for the illicit delivery service Cloudpunk. Again the game starts with a variety of unrelated odd jobs for a group of eclectic characters. From being the personal shopper for a high-class woman entertained by the prospect of getting fashion tips from one of the downtrodden, to flying all around the city as a tour guide for a group of wealthy, bored hackers who have tapped into the video feed from her HOVA, to delivering a hallucinogen that she herself gets a whiff of, Rania certainly has a knack for packing a lot into a single work shift.
Unfortunately, City of Ghosts isn't as deft at drawing players in as its predecessor. In the original Cloudpunk, who or what CORA was proved to be a popular topic of speculation for most people in Nivalis. References to that mystery wended their way through most of Rania's early deliveries, hinting at the much larger tale still to unfold. This time there's no such underlying narrative scraps connecting everything together. The result is a series of assignments that, while interesting in their own right, feel a bit like disjointed leftovers that didn't make the cut in the first game.
It took the first four of the game's nine-hour play time – just slightly shorter than the original's ten – for things to come into focus for Rania and Camus. As a result of her work with CORA, certain powerful parties in the city are searching for Rania and send a representative from Curzona, a rival delivery service with a fatal way of dealing with those who say no to them, to recruit her. At about the same time, an assassin droid named Archo arrives on Rania's trail. Sent by a debt corporation looking to extract payment, or at least send a message to other welshers, the assassin is carving a bloody swath through anyone Rania has contact with, trying to catch up with her. Just as these strands emerge and start to come together, the game abruptly switches focus to Hayse once more.
Assuming control of Hayse is like starting the game over. As with Rania, he flies a series of barely connected package deliveries. But while Rania tries to keep her head down and her nose clean, Hayse prefers a much more hedonistic and self-destructive lifestyle. Even so, the result of the two approaches is roughly the same, especially when Hayse gets lured back to Cloudpunk, for whom he used to make deliveries: both characters inevitably get into trouble!
Hayse's narrative is slightly more focused, in the sense that the random deliveries he’s assigned are all used to illustrate how bad his life has become. Whether it's being repeatedly cut off on comms by his former girlfriend's new lover, or communicating from afar with a woman on a space station who's only brought out of suspended animation every few decades to maintain the facility, invariably the conversation turns to how much of a screw-up Hayse is. It would be pretty depressing if Hayse didn't have such a self-deprecating sense of humour about it all. Hayse follows his own tale throughout the game, and there are only a couple of points where it even comes into contact with Rania’s story. Ultimately, his narrative feels like the B story, especially when he abruptly drops out of game as events switch back to Rania for the final stretch.
As well as the structure of the story being weaker than in the original game, the way in which it is doled out can get a bit tiring at times. In the original game the dialog tended towards the long-winded side, but most of the time you listened to characters conversing as you piloted your way to the next HOVA navpoint. City of Ghosts doesn't do as good a job of pacing. Frequently I found myself just sitting and waiting for even more verbose conversations to play out before I was even given a target location.
At least the overwritten nature of the dialog leads to some ironic moments. For instance, at once point Hayse and Morpho go to see an underworld gangster. Hayse warns Morpho that if the “ganger” catches a whiff of Corpsec on either of them, he will certainly kill them. He advises Morpho, who typically speaks in a very precise and loquacious manner, to dumb down his speech and use half the words he normally does. I found this quite funny, as Hayse is the one most prone to verbal diarrhea throughout the game.
Although the narrative has taken a step back, City of Ghosts has received a bit more polish in other areas of concern from the base game. One nice addition is the ability to switch to an over-the-shoulder or even first-person view when the playable character is running through the streets of Nivalis on foot. In Cloudpunk, walking through the city was presented from fixed camera points. As Rania would move about, the camera would jump from one place to another and change orientation, sometimes as much as 180 degrees, which could make navigating the darkly lit streets problematic.
The new ground modes make it much easier to keep track of where the protagonist is. First-person mode is especially useful when Rania finds herself on foot in a maze in which she has to follow several narrow corridors and find a few specific items that are hard to spot from the third-person view. Another nice bonus of the new options is that they feel much more personal. No longer are you looking at the streets from a distant perspective. Now you're right up close with the decaying world and can see the details so much better.
Nivalis itself is largely the same as in the base game. There are a few new locations to visit, including the maze, which seems to also be part construction site, and a high-class arboretum with the only lush vegetation you'll see in the entire game. However, for general deliveries, the city districts appear to be the same as before, which make sense given that this is an expansion and not a wholly new title. As such, the different parts of the city still provide their own HOVA navigational nuances. Some areas are extremely dense with buildings while others are much sparser. The bowels of the city are still a dark, labyrinthine warren while the upper levels, accessible only on foot via elevator, are much more refined and well-lit.
While the sights haven't changed that much, there are a number of different things to do this time around. The section where Rania has to navigate the foot maze also introduces a few more typically adventure-style puzzles, of which both games are otherwise largely bereft. There are inventory items to be collected here (though they’re automatically used as appropriate), various security codes must be located for keying into onscreen number pads, and nearby construction equipment needs to be operated (with a simple button press) to manipulate the paths along which Rania can move.
Then too there's the assassin Archo, who brings a couple of new challenges with her. At one point she's pursuing Rania on foot with a laser rifle and taking potshots, so Rania needs to run for her life. Fortunately, though for no adequately explained reason, Archo can only move at a walk, so this action scene is not particularly challenging. If you do die from being zapped too many times, the game simply reloads just before the start of the pursuit.
Much later Archo returns, this time in a HOVA and a different chase is on. Here Rania needs to fly through the fog-shrouded lower levels of the city, trying to escape. Parts of buildings collapse as Archo shoots them, adding another obstacle to the course. It's still not especially difficult, but it's been wisely placed late in the game to allow players to get used to piloting the HOVA through their deliveries around the city.
Absent in the expansion are the occasional timed delivery runs from the original game. Personally, I was glad to see these removed, as for me a large part of the fun of the Cloudpunk games is to just be able to fly freely through the city and take it all in. Another reduction, though less welcome, relates to the side quests available. In the original game, many locations would have named characters wandering around in addition to the generic pedestrian traffic. These people had their own one-off or ongoing story threads throughout the larger narrative, sometimes just for flavour dialog, sometimes giving additional objectives to carry out. This time out, the number of incidental citizens seems to be greatly diminished, which is a shame because the variety of quirky characters is definitely a strong point of the series.
Once again there are several points that offer choices, but there's still no manual save system, only a single autosave, which meant that I was unable to try alternate decisions to see if they really mattered. Given that some of the options are what clothes Rania chooses for a socialite when acting as a personal shopper, however, I suspect the consequences of any given diversion are minimal, perhaps resulting in only a few changed lines of dialog. I only noticed one occasion when a character made a callback to a choice that I had made a couple of hours earlier. That said, even if it’s largely illusory, it's still a nice bit of player agency to help you feel more engaged with the story -- especially so in the shopping example, as Rania questioned whether she was making good selections in exactly the same way I was questioning myself.
Everyone you’ll interact with is fully voiced. Rania and Camus are once again excellent, while Hayse’s gruff voice and perpetually sarcastic tone fit his dialog perfectly. Fortunately there are far fewer android and machine characters this time around, and those that do appear have far less processing effects added to their voice-overs. Pashta, whom I loved as a character from the first game but whose voice I hated due entirely to its overly electronic sound, is nowhere to be seen here, although she is referenced several times. In fact, a number of side characters from the original game are either mentioned or make fun reappearances, including Huxley the robotic detective and the pair of gang members who stick it to the man by illegally improving children's play parks.
The soundscape of Nivalis is similar if not identical to the base game. Traffic whirs as HOVAs fly by. Distant Blade Runner-esque spoken advertisements can be heard throughout the artificial urban canyons. Occasional eighties-inspired sci-fi synth tunes kick in at various points to underscore the action. It all comes together nicely to enrich the life of the city. Of course, the crunch of HOVA on HOVA will be familiar as the other vehicles navigating the city are still oblivious to your own presence and have no problem with running into you, requiring the occasional stopover at a mechanic to get repairs.
As a follow-up to Cloudpunk, City of Ghosts explores the consequences of Rania's earlier interaction with CORA, even if it takes its time getting there. Hayse brings a different, more selfish perspective than Rania's do-gooding nature, and playing a character who has embraced corruption instead of trying to fight it makes for an interesting contrast while helping to differentiate this tale from the original. The storytelling isn't as sharp and the dialog could use some trimming, but flying through Nivalis is still as engaging as ever. The new slice-of-life side stories you’ll encounter are varied in content and tone: some are amusing, some are melancholy, and some are disturbing, but all are interesting and definitely one of the highlights here. A DLC expansion almost equal in size to the original game is almost unheard of, but while there are certainly some reused elements, there’s plenty here that feels new and fresh and not simply more of the same. All in all, it's another full night in Nivalis and I, for one, hope it won't be the last.