Review: Cloudberry Kingdom (Wii U eShop)

Maddeningly brilliant

Cloudberry Kingdom has never left anyone in doubt — it wants to test and infuriate gamers. Yes, there are easier options and levels, but its trump card is filling a screen with what looks like an impassable range of obstacles and then teasing the gamer with the hint of a possibility that it can be beaten. It's a cruel, bullying game, yet oddly lovable at the same time; a Biff Tannen (see Back to the Future) of video games, if you will.

To make a brief comparison to the 2D platforming series behemoth featuring Nintendo's portly plumber, this title adopts the usual "kidnapped Princess" storyline, but with a little more attitude and the occasional twist — the playable hero, Bob, is a rather cantankerous little mascot, while the Princess is anything but pink and 'ladylike'. The cutscenes that tell the tale aren't particularly slick, however, and it feels rather irrelevant, if ultimately harmless. The lack of worthwhile tone-setting carries across to the audio, too, with a random series of techno tracks that loop around, pumping out beats and feeling more suitable for a shmup than a platformer; it's all part of being edgy, perhaps, but serves as little more than a disappointing backdrop to a lot of top-notch platforming.

The Story Mode can do without the story and the pumping soundtrack, then, but is more about tackling a lot of quickfire levels with ever-quirkier challenges. Much has been made of the randomly generated levels, but in this mode — broken up into seven chapters that are typically 40 levels each — there's a degree of structure and a gradual difficulty curve. There can be spikes; odd levels that had us gnawing our fingernails to oblivion, but for the most part it feels like a logical, steady introduction as you learn the ropes.

The best thing about this mode is that it introduces the player to the 20-45 second levels that don't vary significantly in terms of props, but are given plenty of life by Bob's various incarnations. Each set of ten levels typically follows a specific control theme, ranging from Classic running and jumping, to mini-Bob, fat Bob, double-jump Bob and more besides. A few examples are off-the-wall, with one that completely switches up how levels are tackled, so we won't spoil them here. Suffice to say every gamer will have their favourites, and maybe one or two that they don't particularly enjoy.

Most importantly, these Story Mode levels feel well-designed for the respective obligatory power-ups, so that focused, skilful players will be able to churn through upwards of 150 levels in a few hours, with the occasional road-block slowing progress. As you move further on the difficulty ramps up to maddening degrees, yet as the stages are so short — with checkpoints in most cases — it sucks you in to try one more time. Often, despite myriad spiked obstacles and deadly laser beams, you can glimpse a Bob-width space through which to leap; five minutes and 20 deaths later you might just nail it. As we've mentioned, there are noticeable points where difficulty spikes too far, but for the most part this story mode gradually hones and tightens your skills to make the impossible, possible.

As you progress through the Story Mode levels you receive a rating point for each level passed, and it's from here that you can step into the Arcade Mode. You need to attain certain ratings to unlock each, and they provide twists on the Story's structure and encourage one-sitting score — or level — chasing. Escalation gives you limited lives — topped up with points from collectible gems — and gradually ups the ante as you rattle through levels. Hero types — those variations from the Story Mode — are unlocked with progress, and each has its own profile at the mode select, so reaching level 50 (or 100 etc) with Classic Bob will allow you to start from that stage next time around with that character, for example.

Time Crises shakes things up with short, 3-5 second stages and a very limited amount of time; only gems increase your time between stages. Hero Rush adopts that mechanic, but changes your Hero type in every stage, necessitating a quick mind and rapid adjustment as you grab extras and race to the end.

Free Play is where the random level generator comes into the most effect, as you can determine the level of difficulty, setting, and Hero type. At the end of every level you can save it to play in future — this is an option in all modes — or continue with random stages; as the only mode without a driven structure, this actually has the least appeal; yet it is the ideal training ground for less experienced platform gamers.

It's certainly worth being clear, however, that those that are less experienced or skillful gamers should think twice before picking this up. While it's possible to play the easier levels, this is an experience that thrives when putting up a significant challenge. That's partly due to the structure of the stages, with a fixed side-scrolling perspective with no verticality; it's simply running to the goal on the right, without exploration or hidden items to hunt out. The controls are tight and the levels often well constructed and a blast to play, but the simplistic style means that it shines with steady improvement towards fiendish stages; for those that can't get beyond the early levels, much of the pleasure will be lost, or — worse case scenario — not even discovered.

Even for those with quick thumbs, however, progressing becomes a battle of attrition. The gems that are collected can be redeemed for a few useful tools, either to be shown a route or to simply slow down time, and these are nice extras to utilise. Other fun extras include the ability to customise Bob's appearance, while up to three extra players can join in at any point. This essentially adds extra lives, as only one player needs to make it to the end, and it's an enjoyable title to play with a friend on the couch. There's also the obligatory off-TV play, but no other Wii U features, while the absence of online leaderboards at launch — an update is promised — is a let-down.

Conclusion

Cloudberry Kingdom has a simple structure and piles up hundreds of 30-second stages to blast through. And yet, the various iterations of Bob keep things fresh, and it's a momentum-focused experience that urges players to always play one more level. The attempted storyline has little impact, while the heavy-hitting randomised music is disappointing; themed tracks for each area would have been preferable. Despite those shortcomings, this is a blast for experienced platformers, with difficulty to test the best reflexes you have to offer; ideal for 30-minute bursts of unremitting fun.