Taking a look at one of Steam Greenlight’s notable games.
I’ve started using voice typing in Google documents as an experiment to see how I do with creating reviews. And I think it’ll forever kill my ability to create short reviews. But who knows. I think this review turned out rather well all things considered but you’re of course free to judge for yourselves. Feedback is appreciated.
A Paladin’s Review: Cradle. Contains An Ugly, Poisonous Sponger.
- Genre: First Person Single Player Narrative Exploration Game.
- Developed & Published by: Flying Cafe for Semianimals
- Platform: Windows and Linux.
- Business Model: Single Purchase + Optional Extras DLC
- Copy Purchased by Myself
Cradle was one of the first Steam Greenlight games to hit the scene several years ago when Valve launched the program. It quickly became one of the more popular ones in that service and had caught my attention. The presentation of an odd Sci-Fi open world look worked. Unfortunately, despite this initial success and greenlighting, the developers lost their lead designer for reasons that were never explained. When I saw that announcement, I pretty much figured this game would never see the light of day. So when it released late last year, well, I hadn’t expected that. So, is Cradle worth paying any attention to? Let’s find out.
Overall Gameplay Thoughts
It’s a first-person “open-world” narratively driven game. It’s not really a walking simulator as you can go off the beaten path but it’s not really an open world either for reasons I’ll explain later. But suffice to say, the lack of side quests or additional areas to explore make me question the open world label on this game. Set in a futuristic world of what appears to be Earth, the player doesn’t know who he is or what’s going on. It’s a four hour experience which considering everything it has to offer, is probably more content than I wanted. The player is tasked with solving the mystery of who they are, what this mysterious robot is in their yurt and what’s going on.
The player starts out in a small yurt-like building that, upon leaving it, reveals a large open plain with a colorful building nearby and some sort of track system. I’m going to start off by saying that I don’t agree with Cradle being called an open world game. I mean, you have this big open level that has all of the space in all of this clearly designed content to be an open world game. But when you actually experience the game, you realize it’s nothing more than moving back and forth between a couple of buildings. Sure there are little bits of lore strewn throughout the level and little collectibles to find but you’re not encouraged to locate them (and I didn’t even know that they existed until I looked at the achievements). Exploring this world is problematic. Even when I did, all I found was the same bland landscape with a few minor curiosities here and there. I did go to the edge of the map and I found the invisible wall. Which strangely has you collapsing from being out of breath. I find it curious that they did more than just create an invisible barrier, they actually had a special effect and labored breathing to go along with it. I doubt that many players would go that far. Not when the slow pace of walking/running and lack of incentive really doesn’t encourage the player to go off the beaten path.
All of that is to say that I feel like this was supposed to be a much bigger game. What we got instead could have easily been compressed into a much smaller map and had a snappier pace. This would have several immediate benefits including better optimization (more on that later), collectible finding that wouldn’t be a chore and more creativity with the storytelling. As it stands, I’m forced to conclude that it was done this way to pad the game’s length out and waste the player’s time. There is absolutely no reason to have to keep visiting the same building over and over for some part required by the story. It’s exploring a world that feels more static than alive. Which isn’t helped by the fact that the scripted sequences can be easily spotted. If you run from the yurt to the quest destination, the next scripted sequence won’t start until the game’s soundtrack has finished playing it’s somber track. So, several times I was standing there for several minutes waiting for the song to finish before the game noticed that I was at the destination and open the door for me. But not before the characters in the game had their little chat. So, it has some pretty severe pacing issues as a result not helped by its attempt to be an “open world”. What about the rest of the game mechanics?
The rest of the mechanics is locating important story quest items and placing them where they’re needed. While the player can pick up and put important quest items in your inventory, I noticed that reloading the game or going in and out of a mini-game will simply reset them back to their original location. So, there’s no reason to really pick them up till the narrative needs them. There are a few mini-games that the player will need to play that break up the usual running around. The first one is a Minecraft-like collecting mini-game. Your objective is to find 30 colored cubes in a multi-level room and throw them into the vacuum in the center of the room. While you’re doing this, red blocks will occasionally spawn and tried to destroy sections of the levels. Furthermore, you can’t touch the bottom of the level or you’ll lose points. Something you should definitely avoid. There are also white blocks which you can combine with the colored blocks to make more colored blocks. The strategy to each mini-game is to get all the blocks from the top floor, combine them with the white blocks and make your way down. They aren’t challenging or interesting once you understand what’s going on.
The other mini-game is flower-scanning. Mid way through, you’ll be required to go out and scan each completely open flower to determine whether they’re pure enough to be sold. It’s at this point that you kind of realize that the graphics engine is not up to the task because when you go to each flower, you then realize that the flower head itself is not attached to anything. They simply float in the air. As you can see in the screenshot below. I will grant that most games are never perfect with their graphics but this is so blatantly off that I’m surprised the developers would go ahead with it. Sure, it ties in with the story but it just seems like they could have done a better job at disguising that these flowers aren’t actually attached to anything. why you would do that because it’s so blatantly obvious that they’re not attached to anything. Besides that, it isn’t a particularly nuanced activity. Simply scan flowers until you find all of that meet the requirement. There’s no way to tell ahead of time what flowers will work and yes, the scanner requires you to be looking straight down at the flower which is even more finicky.
These simple tasks just come off as dull time sinks. Little things that I had to do over and over again to move the plot along but nothing that engaged my interest. This is a case where adding more game mechanics has actually hurt the game more than helped. It would almost be better if this was a “walking simulator” rather than an “open world”. It’s further hampered by this feeling that the game isn’t intuitive. That nothing is where I would normally expect it to be, though I can’t put my finger on why that was.
There is one last little thing I’m going to slam and that’s a little segment that happens towards the end of the game. In order to access one of the mini-games, you have to jump some metal beams and holes in the floor in order to get to the next pavilion. These holes being on the “second floor”. Now, see, I have a real issue with first person platforming at the best of times because it’s often clunky and frustrating as you can’t see where your “feet” are. I take further issue when it is put in a first person exploration game and required to be done in order to progress forward. Mostly because the jumping in Cradle is poorly implemented, extremely floaty and slightly buggy. Do not put first person platforming in a primarily exploration focused title. Otherwise, some reviewer on the internet is going to fail at it six times in a row and get extremely steamed about it. Especially if they have to do the whole sequence over again every time. The only good thing about it is that it happens once.
Narrative Talk (Spoilers)
After completing Cradle’s tutorial your character wakes up in a yurt. Who the player is and what’s going is unknown due to amnesia. Looking around, you can see a robotic vase, a small kitchen, bed and other living items. The game directs you to create some sort of meal for someone and so you go about doing it. Upon leaving the Yurt, you can take a look around at the open plain you find yourself in the middle of. After doing some fairly uninteresting tasks, you’ll eventually be able to turn on the Robotic vase and the plot starts to move along. However, she too has amnesia. This is where the game’s narrative really starts to lose me. It’s one thing for the main character to not know what’s going on but for the second and seemingly only other character to have amnesia is just a little too convenient. Especially when this character will continually drip feed information relevant to who these two people are and the world around them. As she’s remembering these things, we discover that a plague has been threatening to wipe out the human race. But humans transferred their consciousnesses to robotic bodies until a cure can be found. So, the duo try to salvage parts while looking for answers until she loses power and the ultimate final conclusion. Which I’ll talk about below. First, there are some parts of this story I feel I must analyze.
I’m willing to accept some amount of odd macguffins or ideas in a narrative so long as it isn’t egregious. However, Cradle goes too far with its story. Perhaps the most notable is a condition discussed in the game where children suffer from a phobia, a fear of the human body. Apparently, these children were so adverse to looking at a human body that they would puke, have nervous breakdowns and so on. How they solved this problem was by creating an elaborate amusement park designed to create positive feelings upon seeing a human body. This is how the narrative justifies the cube mini-games. I’m less than convinced that the method described would work but I’m far more skeptical that children would ever suffer from such a condition in the first place. I’m willing to accept a fear of spiders but the human body itself? No, I’m not willing to accept that even in a Sci-Fi story such as Cradle.
Perhaps the most egregious bit of writing is how emotions play into this game. I’m not opposed emotion-based macguffins. Some of my favorite series are based on the idea but this game handles the idea extremely poorly. With words like passium, spongers and the aforementioned fake phobia, it’s enough to take one out of the experience. There’s a discussion about the “beautiful elite class” and the “ugly poisonous spongers”. About how the poor class became known as uglies because they would become filled with so much negative emotion that they would explode, killing nearby people and poisoning the environment forever. The only reason they were “ugly” is because their DNA wasn’t pure so their value was diminished as a result. Oh, didn’t I mention that DNA pureness was a thing in this title? Because it is. But I have such contempt for how blatantly shallow it was talked about. This sort of look at classism/racism or rich vs poor has been handled a lot better in the Sci-Fi genre alone. Listening to them talk about the below discussion just made me disgusted by how amateurish that writing was. Maybe it was to prove a point but the point is so blunt that I didn’t care.
I think this is ultimately what the problem with the writing is: it more or less says that humanity gets wiped out because we have negative emotions and a poor class. Classism is one thing but having negative emotions causes you to explode?! I mean, yeah, sure, I explode when I get angry enough. (Like I almost did when I got to the first person platforming). But that’s perfectly natural as a human being. For the game to posit that us being negative in a robotic body sometimes will bring about mass casualties is ridiculous.
There’s a part towards the end where you’re reading hints from your grandfather in order to discover the big mystery about your character. These hints will help you navigate a trail just outside your yurt that takes you to some sort of metal mailbox. A mailbox that is maybe 30 feet away from your house and within direct of sight. A mailbox I passed by several times on my way to the amusement park. You can see it in the picture below. It was the most anticlimactic climax to finding out your big secret. Contained within it was a note from your grandfather saying that you’re not part of the family that you were supposedly a part of. It was a poor payoff made worse by the ending sequence of events. The robot in the vase runs out of power so the player makes a mad dash with her, in a sequence that is honestly just a little creepy, for the amusement park to power her back on. And then the story ends with the two of them going back in time. How? I have no clue. The game only vaguely hints at the how and why and then abruptly ends. To my extreme ire and dislike. After spending four hours faffing around in a world trying to keep a robotic lady alive, my only reward is that I find out that I’m not the son of this house I’ve been going in and out of. I don’t solve the mystery with the robot, I have no idea what the purpose of anything that I’ve done or why I should even care! It’s the biggest what the hell?! moment I’ve had in a long time.
The ending is completely undeserved. It clearly wants to be this big celebration of a hard won journey but nothing up to that point justifies its victory celebration. Not the story, not the characters and certainly not how it ends. Things are glossed over, plot holes left gaping over and dissatisfaction remains. It was clearly rushed or glossed over.
Settings include a graphics quality slider (I don’t approve), a reasonable selection of resolution options, fullscreen on/off (no borderless windowed), V-sync on/off, field of view slider from 50 to 80, textures low/med/high and antialiasing off to 8x. I can’t find out what kind of AA the game is using. Anisotropic Filtering is missing as well as view distance and a bunch of other graphical settings I expect in similar titles of this genre. Sound and music volume sliders are here but there is no voice slider. Keys can’t be rebound. Xbox controller is supported. Steam controller support isn’t official but it works.
The optimization for this game is extremely poor. Maintaining a stable 1080p, 60FPS is impossible even after setting everything to low. The graphics, while colorful, do not justify how poorly this game performs. Outside of the major characters, a lot of the world and foliage is very low fidelity. There’s also a number of graphical glitches including clipping and pop-in. It also doesn’t help that a lot of textures, especially in the main yurt, look like glued-on textures. It gets particularly bad if the game is trying to show the amusement park. Audio design is simply ok but not that engaging. For a big open lonely world there isn’t a lot of atmosphere to keep you invested as you travel around. Music is decent if forgettable.
Ultimately, I’m not surprised that I’m not happy with Cradle. I already had suspicions about the game even during its development process that this was a troubled project and the final product shows those issues quite clearly. In it we have an open world title that would be far better suited to a more focused narrative experience. There’s clearly a desire to talk about classism and DNA/eugenics but lacking the subtlety to pull it off gracefully. It’s poorly paced, poorly optimized and ends too abruptly for me to excuse. Exploration is only encouraged through achievements and that’s not good enough. What few game mechanics there are, are nothing more than busy work to pass the time. It’s a game that’s conflicted from the ground up and everything suffers as a result. Had Cradle gone on for more than the 3-4 hour runtime, I definitely wouldn’t have completed it. So, I can’t recommend Cradle.
Thanks for reading this review of Cradle. If you liked it enough, share it around. Otherwise, I hope you’ll take a look at some of the other reviews I’ve done on this site.