Cloudberry Kingdom

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Pwnee Studios for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, Vita, Xbox 360, and Wii U, originally released in 2013.
Cloudberry Kingdom is a platformer built around continuously escalating difficulty. Technically speaking, most games increase in difficulty as you play, but few take it to quite the level as this. While early levels are laughably simple, later levels are so packed with obstacles that they seem well-nigh impossible… at least until you learn to look for patterns in the levels’ construction that let you dash through them like some kind of platforming superstar. Watching the game’s attract mode will give you some idea of what you’re in for.

The levels in Cloudberry Kingdom are procedurally generated, with obstacles and enemies placed mathematically and given different levels of speed and aggression. Early levels feature a small number of slow enemies that are easily avoided, dropped into small environments that take only a matter of seconds to complete. Platforming veterans can dash through the opening 20 or 30 levels of Story Mode in just a few minutes, as most of them are designed to be completed in less than 10 seconds.

You have infinite lives, and dying returns you to the level’s stating point. As levels become more complex, checkpoints are added, giving you an opportunity to respawn at the midpoint without repeating the entire level. Later levels feature 2 checkpoints, and then 3, before eventually removing checkpoints altogether in the final most challenging runs.

The mechanics are simple, but they vary from level to level. You begin with a character named Bob who can move to the left and right and perform a variable height jump. However, every 10 levels, your character will change into a new form that changes his abilities. For instance, the winged Bob can perform a double jump while the mini Bob can soar high into the air like Mini Mario in New Super Mario Bros.

When you change forms, the levels that are generated are built around the use of that form. So, levels designed for a double-jumping Bob will feature wider gaps, higher platforms, and gems that would be otherwise unreachable if played in his standard form. The rules around double jumping are more forgiving than many games that feature this mechanic. Landing on any sort of platform resets the double jump and lets you perform another, but so too does bouncing off the head of an enemy or launching from a bouncing platform. This allows for some more complex level configurations where you’re soaring through levels with very large gaps – or no floor at all – where you must keep yourself aloft by strategically landing platform hops, bounces, and enemy bops.

Other forms include the jetpack which lets you fly high into the sky, and even off the top of the screen. The same rules apply as the double jump, allowing a new jetpack blast each time you land on a platform, bouncing block, or enemy.

There is a bouncing form where Bob rides around on a springed carrousel horse. In this form, Bob cannot stop bouncing, but he can also perform higher bounces by holding the JUMP button.

A wheel form places bob inside of a ball where he rolls back and forth. In this form, inertia plays a bigger role, as it takes significantly longer to build up speed and it’s harder to slow yourself down. This makes it more difficult to line up long jumps and make precision landings.

There are several forms that alter Bob’s size, with a tiny form that allows him to perform high floaty jumps, a fat form that reduces his jump height, and the very peculiar “phase” form that makes Bob transition repeatedly between these two sizes. When in the phase form, Bob will cycle back and forth between his tiny and fat sizes, and you must time your jumps appropriately to ensure that you can reach the full distance before becoming fat and falling to your death. The fat form also makes it harder to avoid obstacles like spikes that jut up from the ground, meaning that you not only have to stick your landing but also ensure that it’s still safe when you grow to full size.

There are 2 different vehicle forms as well: the spaceship and the “rocketbox”. The spaceship levels are auto-scrolling and require that you fly through enemies and obstacles. Formerly safe objects like moving platforms will now kill you if you touch them. In addition to moving up and down to avoid obstacles, you can also slow down and boost forward quickly.

The rocketbox is essentially a rocket powered mine cart that thrusts you forward quickly while still giving you the ability to jump. You can slow down a bit, but you can’t stop altogether, meaning that you’ll have to make quick decisions to line up your jumps.

There are a couple of other interesting forms that completely alter the way the game is played. One is a gravity switching form that makes the levels play out like VVVVVV; rather than jumping, you are switching gravity and moving back and forth between the floor and the ceiling.

Another form is based around time, and the objects in the environment only move when you do (with a few exceptions, like falling platforms). These levels play out more strategically, since you can essentially come to a stop and plan your next move with no fear of being killed by moving objects. Interestingly, running back to the left reverses time and makes all of the animations run backwards. In practice, however, continuously moving to the right makes the level play out just like any other, so aside from stopping time momentarily, there are no other new mechanics associated with this form.

And, just when you think you’ve mastered a particular form, the game begins introducing hybrids. In these levels, two of the aforementioned forms are mixed together for some strange results. For instance, you may find yourself in a wheel but also equipped with a jetpack, which means you’ll have to contend with inertia while also trying to stick landings from great heights.

As mentioned, the difficulty escalates throughout the game – although you will find a few surprisingly easy levels worked into the mix – until you eventually reach a point where the entire level is filled with things that can kill you. However, most levels are not as dangerous as they appear. When you watch the game’s attract mode, the computer-controlled character seems to be performing superhuman feats of platforming prowess, narrowly missing every obstacle on his way to the finish. But there’s a trick to this, and it’s the key to surviving the levels in the back half of the game.

Every level is procedurally generated, but they are all technically possible to complete. Not only that, all of the enemies and obstacles cycle back and forth every few seconds. Pendulums swing to the left and right, spikes jut out and retract, disappearing-reappearing platforms do their thing, lasers blast and disappear, etc. Somewhere in that chaos is a safe place for you to move, and recognizing the patterns is the key to success.

Just as bullet hell shmups feature bullet curtains with one little safe area hidden within them, so too do these levels have a safe spot for you. If you get your timing right at the start of the level, you can just run to the right without ever stopping. You just need to jump, double jump, jetpack, etc. at the appropriate time and keep moving. You will suddenly find that moving platforms are in just the right spot for you to stick a landing, those spikes retract just before you run over them, those lasers shut off the instant you reach them, and on and on.

Aside from the levels that have you being chased by a wall of spikes, you generally have as much time as you like to study the pattern before moving forward. What’s important is that you don’t stop for anything once you start moving (although there are some exceptions to this), and you’ll need to master moves like the quick jump-tap to keep your forward momentum going without sacrificing it for an overly high jump. Generally speaking, pressing LEFT is a sign of weakness.

The placement of checkpoints gives you a bit of breathing room, since you can dash madly toward them and then take a breather while you look for the next pattern. If you die, you’ll have the same level configuration to try again, so you can adjust your movement slightly to look for the right pattern. Did you run face-first into a swinging spiked ball? Try starting your run a half second later and you may be able to run straight through. If that didn’t work, try starting a half second earlier instead.

If you get truly stuck, there are a couple of powerups that can help you out, but each comes at a cost. Spread throughout the levels are floating blue gems. And why not… this is a platformer after all; it’s not unusual that you be collecting something. However, since there is no score and you have infinite lives, the gems serve little immediate purpose other than showing you where you should move next, or baiting you to try to reach a gem in a dangerous area. If you manage to collect all of the gems in a level, you get 10 bonus gems added to your stock.

Gems can be spent to purchase one of three powerups, although the cost for each increases as you reach higher levels. The cheapest of the three options has the computer demonstrating a safe run through the level, which you can speed up, slow down, or stop as you like. A second powerup allows you to slow down time. And the most expensive option draws a line through the level and has a moving ball that shows you exactly where you need to be at any point to survive. You can combine this powerup with the time slowing option to give yourself a slow motion follow-the-ball route to the end.

Given the cost of the more expensive powerups, it is best to save them for when they are truly needed. There are 240 missions in the main story mode (and a bunch more after that, reserved for the masochists among you), so blowing gems too early or often may mean that you won’t have enough when you truly need them. The short levels and low penalty for failure essentially mean that you can try again and again until you get the pattern right, reserving powerups for those levels that you can’t seem to complete no matter what. You’re bound to find a few stumpers in the early going, but things get pretty gonzo after level 200. Until then, you’re better off holding onto your gems.

Levels change theme as you move from one area to the next, but these are little more than tile swaps as few levels have challenges specific to the theme of the area. For instance, ice themed levels don’t have slippery floors, and bottomless pits are traded for lava later in the game, but it serves the same function. Even the game’s soundtrack is just an infinitely-looping series of tracks that play from the beginning of the game to the end, and they are not themed to any particular area. Every 10 levels, you get a summary screen that shows the most recently completed level (it’s unclear why there are no summaries for the other levels) and allows you to watch a replay of your actions, even watching all of your attempts at once, Super Meat Boy-style.

Story mode tells the tale of Bob, who appears to be a regular hero off to rescue the princess from a dastardly villain. However, things are not quite what they seem. The cutscenes are done in CG with a nice-looking papercraft style, with the voice of Bob provided by Kevin Sorbo (yes, that Kevin Sorbo), the princess played by Kevin’s wife, Sam Sorbo (aka Sam Jenkins), and the voice of King Kobbler played by Martin Olson. Despite the high production values, the story itself is awfully sophomoric, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the game.

As the one custom-built element of an otherwise procedurally generated game, the story is at best a distraction that gives you a quick breather between the blistering pace of the levels, and at worst actively detracts from the experience by negating the bit of motivation you might have for completing the story rather than playing the somewhat more engaging arcade modes.

There are four arcade modes, but only one is open at the start, titled Escalation. Just like the story mode, the goal here is to run through increasingly challenging levels while collecting gems. The difference, however, is that you are working toward a high score. Each gem you collect gives you points, and each time you collect all of the gems in a level, it increases your multiplier. With the dangers growing in each level, keeping a multiplier going can be tough work, and missing a gem or getting killed resets the multiplier. This adds a risk/reward factor that isn’t present in the story mode, and players can post their best scores to an online leaderboard.

Progress is only saved every 50 levels, and opening new arcade modes is dependent on your overall level progression. A counter keeps track of the total number of levels completed in story mode and arcade mode, and new arcade modes open as you complete the requisite number of levels. Also, completing enough levels in individual arcade modes opens new form-specific levels, each with its own leaderboard.

Next up is Time Crisis, which puts 15 seconds on the clock, and each gem you collect adds a bit more time, again providing a risk/reward factor. Next is Hero Mode, which is similarly timed, but you change forms between each level, meaning that you’ll be constantly shifting between double jumping, jetpacking, tiny, fat, etc. An icon over the doorway at the end of each level shows what form is coming up next so that you can mentally prepare… which is useful since you don’t really have time to slow down. Lastly, there is Hybrid Rush, which is just like Hero Rush, except that it features only hybrid forms, and it mixes three types together for some outrageous combinations. You may find yourself running through a level as a bouncing fat jetpack, or rolling along in a wheel, phasing between tiny and fat, with the addition of a double jump.

Lastly, there is a Free Play, which allows you to customize every aspect of the experience, allowing for an endless amount of variety. The levels are still procedurally generated, but you can adjust sliders that impact the appearance of platforms, walls, enemies, saw blades, etc. You can also play as any of the pre-set forms, or create your own hero by modifying his acceleration, speed, size, gravity, friction, jump length, and more. You can also determine the overall length of the level and the number of checkpoints.

Any of the game modes can be played by up to four players in offline co-op. There are a number of customization options to differentiate player characters from one another, including color, facial hair, and hats.

Cloudberry Kingdom was created by Pwnee Studios, a developer based in New York City’s East Village. The studio is headed by programmer and designer Jordan Fisher, and is also comprised of TJ Lutz, Michael Siswal and Oleg Kozhushnyan. The game was long in development and was showcased as early as Microsoft’s Dream Build Play competition in 2009. The game was eventually funded through Kickstarter.

The artwork and CG papercraft cutscenes were created by Tigar Hare Studios, who was also responsible for creating the game’s vastly different look late in its development.