Near the end of World 8-1 in the original Super Mario Bros. there is an insanely difficult jump. To be fair, those final stages are full of challenges; but that one jump moments before reaching the flagpole hits especially hard. The only way to cross the large pit of death is to make a running jump onto a platform barely wide enough for Mario and jump again without pause. Hesitate on that tiny platform and Mario wouldn’t have enough speed to cross the second jump; time something wrong and he would die. It made every challenge in previous worlds seem like a breeze. Now imagine trying to make that jump with Bullet Bills flying at Mario while Lakitu tries to drop Spinies on his head – oh, and a throw in a firebar rotating around the tiny platform for good measure. That is what it’s like playing Cloudberry Kingdom. And yes, it’s insane.
Jordan Fisher and his team at Pwnee Studios must have felt that the platforming genre was missing something: procedurally generated levels designed by an AI that can adjust difficulty based on player skill. The result is Cloudberry Kingdom, a blend of the vibrant, platforming worlds of a Mario game with the brutal difficulty of Super Meat Boy. Think of it as the platforming version of a bullet-hell type game. The initial brilliance behind this method of level design is that it allows for an infinite numbers of levels to be created, all with scaled difficulty.
Cloudberry Kingdom’s AI uses about every trick in the platforming book. Disappearing platforms, rotating hazards, spring blocks, spikes, elevators and more are all in place. Some levels feature a couple obstacles here and there, others will take every imaginable hazard and squeeze them together to the point where a safe landing is almost completely obscured. But no level is ever rendered impossible. While it’s possible to get a level so hectic and difficult that very few players could even process what was going on, that doesn’t mean it can’t be beat. There’s always a way to the end of a level and those who aren’t convinced have the option of watching the AI complete it.
What makes the experience enjoyable is the variety of ways levels are presented to the player. Those looking for a base challenge with a purpose will likely go to Story Mode first. Yes, Cloudberry Kingdom has a story, but not much of one. Players take on the role of grumpy and aging hero Bob. He’s tired of rescuing the princess all the time. The thing is, to reach the end of the story players are going to have to go through a few hundred moderately difficult levels which is no easy task. Some funny cutscenes break up large groups of levels and their hybrid claymation/paper mâché look is worthy of a full fledged movie. Story Mode is really just a method to all the madness, a way to give players some context if they want it. The Arcade provides a group of challenges for players to experience. Escalation does exactly what it says and ramps up the difficulty of levels while giving a limited amount of lives. Others modes like time trials have to be unlocked by completing a set amount of levels in previous modes. While locking away certain modes might be a way for players to improve, it does feel like an unnecessary requirement.
Free Play is the real meat of Cloudberry Kingdom. This is where players have the ability to fine tune every element that goes into a level. They can control the difficulty, length of a level and even adjust the frequency of hazards and blocks. Having Free Play instantly available is great. Players will be able to see how hard and insane the game can be by maxing out every slider and setting it to the hardest difficulty. From there, they can begin to craft their own challenges. Having the ability to save a generated level to play again is another great move.
One of the better elements of Cloudberry Kingdom is the Hero Factory. Players can adjust the physics of Bob making him bigger or smaller, jump higher, disobey gravity or even fall like a ton of bricks. Different “bases” are also given to the player. This means Bob can have wings and double jump, have a jetpack, be strapped into a rocket propelled minecart or turn into a spaceship. Playing as a ship puts an interesting spin on the game and truly does make it feel like a bullet-hell game along the lines of Ikaruga. For those that want to play with friends (and possibly lose a few in the process), local co-op is available. There’s even an option to tether all the Bob’s together, requiring teamwork to beat a level. It’s not the greatest thing in the world but provides laughs and could even be turned into a fun drinking game.
The one setback in playing Cloudberry Kingdom is how it controls. When a platformer calls for absolute precision to make jumps and survive, it is essential that the controls are tight and accurate. Super Meat Boy is one of the best examples on how to do it. On the default settings, Bob isn’t exactly the most graceful jumper. Sometimes he feels way too floaty while other time he isn’t as spry as he should be. True, some of these settings can be adjusted in Free Play, but Basic Bob needs just a bit more fine tuning.
Graphics & Sound
As mentioned, the visuals used during cutscenes in the story mode are stellar. It’s a solid enough foundation that it rivals many kid’s TV shows and other theatrical releases. Unfortunately, that same quality doesn’t exactly apply to the rest of the game. To be fair, Cloudberry Kingdom started its life as a Kickstarter project and was eventually picked up by Ubisoft. This comically bright world filled with grinning spike balls and ghostly disappearing blocks is appropriate for the atmosphere. The great color work actually helps make hazards pop and it obviously makes it easier to fill the screen with hundreds of ways to die. A decent amount of customization options for Bob also give the game a humorous flair no matter how rage-inducing it can be. Despite the fact that the game can look like a more robust Flash or mobile title, it doesn’t hurt gameplay at all.
A lot of great things can be said about Cloudberry Kingdom’s soundtrack. Featuring the works of Blind Digital and Peacemaker, the music primarily consists of some great electronic tracks with a few borderline metal ones in there as well. Though the music isn’t as intrinsic to the gameplay as something like BIT.TRIP Runner2, it expertly matches the ridiculous and frantic pace of difficult platforming sections. The heavy bass lines almost set the pace for the player, acting like a companion as they jump through the world. Special recognition should also be given to Kevin Sorbo for voicing Bob because hey, it’s Kevin Sorbo.
Cloudberry Kingdom is a difficult and random game. And that’s exactly how it was designed to be. Seeing what the AI comes up with next fills the game with excitement and freshness. It isn’t the prettiest game and it could control better, but the ability to adjust practically every aspect of a level is a freedom few games allow. Because levels get so complex, players might think they have to look before they leap. Instead, the game works best when tapping into those gaming instincts that just urge you to push forward. Much like that jump in Super Mario Bros., you just have to go for it; and in Cloudberry Kingdom reaching the end is an amazing victory.