Over the years, a lot of developers have found that 3D platform games seem to be much more difficult to get right than 2D ones.
Cloudbuilt, an upcoming offering from Swedish indie developer Coilworks, is an attempt to look at the situation from a different angle. Rather than specifically attempting to make a standard 3D platformer, a conversation with creative director Anders Davallius at the Eurogamer Expo reveals the approach he and his team are taking, and it's an interesting one.
"We're taking ideas from the old 2D Sonic the Hedgehog and Mega Man games," he tells me. "We're also taking inspiration from Mirror's Edge, but we're not trying to copy these games; just borrow some of their best ideas."
The influences are immediately apparent as soon as you start playing -- each level is an intricately-designed platforming challenge with multiple possible routes to your goal (Sonic) that is frequently bastard hard (Mega Man) and which requires skillful use of main character Demi's parkour abilities to progress (Mirror's Edge). At the same time, it has a character all of its own thanks to a gorgeous aesthetic that makes the whole thing look almost hand-drawn -- think Gravity Rush, though Davallius notes he doesn't own a Vita and thus has never played it -- along with a wonderful fluidity of movement once you get your head around how to control the main character.
The game's story revolves around female protagonist Demi, an injured war veteran currently undergoing mental rehabilitation. The levels are all the product of her imagination, and thus have something of a surreal air to them, and they represent her working through her various issues on the road to one of four different endings.
"You can feel free to ignore the story, though," says Davallius. "More than anything, this is a game for gamers."
It's an overused soundbite, but it's definitely applicable here: at its core, despite the ambitious-sounding story, Cloudbuilt is a solid, "pure gaming" experience that demands you master its systems quickly and improve your skills over time. There's no unlocking of skills and growing in mechanical complexity as the game progresses -- everything you need to know to navigate the game's increasingly challenging levels is provided to you at the outset.
Demi's an agile protagonist. Not only can she run and jump in traditional platformer style, she can also run along and up walls, then jump off them to get to otherwise difficult-to-reach areas. A "booster" device she's equipped with allows her to double-jump and continue to run along or up walls much longer than she would be able to under her own steam, though its use is limited by an energy bar that gradually refills over time -- or immediately if she collects powerups. Certain challenges require that Demi plan a careful route that takes her through powerups while continuing to boost for a long period, though there are often multiple ways to approach a given situation.
Like many of Sonic's later levels, Cloudbuilt's levels aren't a straight line to the finish. They twist and turn in all three dimensions, frequently double back on themselves and require that you have full spatial awareness of where you're going, where you've been and what Demi's innate abilities are. To help with orienting yourself, though, the next checkpoint you need to aim for is always marked with a pillar of orange light, and the level's goal is marked with a green pillar. If things go disastrously wrong, restarts are instantaneous and checkpoints are frequent, helping to take some of the sting out of failure -- though the more times you die in a single attempt on a level, the greater your time penalty.
That's where another aspect of Cloudbuilt being a "game for gamers" comes in -- although Davallius and his team are clearly pleased with the story and concept for the game, they've also built it to be an enduring challenge for those who like to do more than just clear each level once and then be done with it. At the end of each stage, you're given a ranking according to how quickly you complete it, and each level has a number of different variations available to increase or simply change the challenge. Think you're good? Try it with a fragile protagonist who can't take nearly as much damage, or without the benefit of Demi's weapon that can destroy enemies from a distance. Or just try it again with your own improved skills -- it's the kind of game where the more you play, the more you can feel yourself getting better, until you reach a stage where you can zip through the challenges without having to stop and get your bearings every few seconds. I was initially absolutely terrible at the game when I tried it and wasn't much better by the time I left the booth, but I did feel like I'd improved noticeably, and was apparently only the second person since the start of the Expo to make it through one of the levels I tried.
Cloudbuilt is a game that's clearly been built for computer players. Davallius admits that while there's controller support in the game, it's really built for the faster response times that mouse and keyboard controls afford -- indeed, in the few levels I played, there were numerous occasions where you have to make split-second decisions and movements in order to successfully pass an obstacle, and I can imagine it being much more difficult with a controller.
That doesn't mean Coilworks is against the idea of developing for console, however; when I asked him if the team had any interest in working with Sony as part of the company's big indie push, Davallius told me that he had spoken with Sony on several occasions -- the trouble was, however, that Cloudbuilt's emphasis on mouse and keyboard control didn't make it especially console-friendly. He's not ruling it out for the future, but for now the intention is to focus on the PC version, with Mac and Linux versions to follow if there's sufficient demand for them.
Cloudbuilt's an impressive, enjoyable but very tough game -- and it's all the more impressive for the fact it's the developer's first game that will see release -- although that said, the basic engine was built for an earlier, cancelled project that proved to be somewhat too ambitious for the five-person team that currently makes up Coilworks. It's been in development for a year and a half already, with Davallius hoping that it will see release by the end of this year. Much of that is dependent on it successfully getting through Valve's Greenlight program, however, so if a jet-propelled third-person Mirror's Edge with strong 2D Sonic and Mega Man influences sounds like something you want to play, make with the "Yes" votes!