I recently watched a video of a guy who got to the final fight in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!! in 30 minutes--while blindfolded. I sat there, mouth agape, wondering if he was more machine than man. Speedrunning is an art, and has actually become a genre unto itself as developers find new ways to test the thrillseekers and speedfreaks out there. Cloudbuilt is the latest challenge posed to speedrunners, a cel-shaded parkour-athon that offers loads of replayability--if you can get past its wonky controls.
Cloudbuilt puts you in the shoes (or rather, the disembodied spirit) of Demi, a female soldier and victim to some unknown trauma. After a brief tutorial sequence, you discover that you’re in a coma, and your body is hidden away in a hospital room. In order to regain consciousness, you’ll have to speedrun through nearly two dozen stages filled with gorgeous comic book-style visuals, discovering the mystery behind your vegetative state as well as information about the world around you as you go. It’s certainly a weird concept, especially at first as you’re unsure exactly why you’re trying to run and jump across a bunch of platforms in the clouds as quickly as possible. Speedrunning is clearly the focus here, but the snippets of story you get in between levels help provide some context and are genuinely interesting to discover.
And Cloudbuilt is certainly difficult. All of your moves (wall-running, boosting, shooting, etc.) are available from the outset, and Cloudbuilt does a good job of teaching you everything you need to know within the first few minutes--it’s up to you to figure out the right combination of skills you’ll need to surmount each obstacle the game throws at you. Demi moves like lightning over these floating platforms, and figuring out how to parkour your way from the start to the end of the course is one of the best parts of the game. Most courses feature at least two--sometimes three or more--valid paths through to the end, and speedrunners will find a lot to return to as they shave precious seconds off their completion time by finding the quickest possible route. When you finally finish a level after dozens of restarts, you’ll feel accomplished, like you’ve just taken on the impossible. Of course, you’ll also have that nagging feeling of “maybe I could have done it better,” with a set of online leaderboards hounding you to improve your times. Add in additional difficulty levels and course modifiers that can limit boosting, ammo, or health, and there’s plenty of challenge on offer here.
It’s tragic, then, that the controls are incredibly awkward. Cloudbuilt is controlled exclusively with the mouse and keyboard, yet the moveset begs to be mapped to a controller--even if the levels were specifically designed for the quickness of mouse-aiming. Movement feels loose, and way too many important functions are mapped to the left side of the keyboard. Having to control movement, boosting, and jumping with one hand will cause your brain to turn backflips in your head as you try to pull off some mental kung fu to sprint through these hellish obstacle courses. You can remap the keys to your liking, but since one hand will always be relegated to aiming and shooting with the mouse, there’s no comfortable way to make your actions feel natural. Slower-paced shooters can get away with making you activate important functions with your pinky finger, but things fall apart when you’re trying to dodge laser blasts, mines, and spikes while running up the side of a wall as quickly as possible.
Speaking of which, wall-running is also a huge pain, as it’s just as imprecise as general movement--leading to numerous restarts due to mistimed jumps and incorrect angles. If you can’t master the wall-run, you’ll find yourself hitting a brick wall (sometimes literally), as the controls conspire with the sparse checkpoints to stop your progress in its tracks. If you stick with it, you will eventually figure out its nuances and finish levels once thought impossible--but the controls never feel like a natural extension of your movements.
Cloudbuilt appears to have it all: a fantastic aesthetic with an intriguing premise and an addictive set of speedrun trials that add as many different layers of difficulty and replayability as you want. But if you’re going to play a game that focuses on completing difficult challenges as quickly as possible, you want to know that the controls are capable of allowing you to pull off these amazing feats reliably--and Cloudbuilt’s controls just aren’t.