October 13, 2017

Cuphead - Review

The announcement of Cuphead brought with it a wave of nostalgia but after a lot of delays is that wave enough to help the game make it to shore?

Cuphead sees you take the reins of the titular character and if you are playing with a friend, Mugman, as they discover the local casino, which is in fact run by the devil and when they bet big and lose, the devil is set to claim their souls for his own, however they are able to convince the devil to hold off and instead they go and collect the souls of others who are hiding. The plot is basic, really a reason to explore the world and get into the fights that they do, the hero of the game is its gameplay, but it won’t be for everyone. The game also supports two players at all times, in fact I don’t think the game was meant for a single player, because the cutscenes and in game chatter always refer to the brothers, even when playing solo, it’s odd.

Over the years there have been several games that have proved to be brutal to unpractised players, but if you stick with it, you end up finding a gem of a game, Cuphead is that style of game. The gameplay can be broken into three distinct types, the run and gun, akin to Contra, the plane levels and the boss battles, with each have strengths and weaknesses each. When you first start out, if you aim for the giant dot on the ground you will encounter a run and gun level, which requires you to collect 5 coins and survive and while the coins are optional, the benefits of collecting them all is worth the effort. On the map, you will find a shop that sells extras that you can equip, like adding an extra hit point to your life, but that comes at the expense of dealing less damage, the options are varied and players will likely find something that suits their style.

The levels play on the basics that platformers are known for, but the change is that enemies and enemy attacks are coloured in two distinct ways, black and grey for your basics and pink for the ones you can parry. As you parry, you will build up your super meter, which will help with some of the stronger parts of the levels, which contain a few enemies, but you can also fill it by taking down enemies on their own as well, so you can choose how to do it. The problem with the special attack is that the attack is an all or nothing situation, meaning if you have 5 charges stored and you use it, you use all at once, which can be helpful against a boss, but not so much against the easiest enemies. The platforming is also not so great, there are times when you can feel a little floaty and while the game explains your moves early on, it does not remind you at all, so that dash move which seemed daunting to use at the start is something you need to use perfectly towards the end.

The other types of moving levels are the plane based ones, where you take control of a plane and move around in all directions, rather than just left and right. While the core gameplay matches that of the ground based levels, the addition of vertical movements does change things up, the problem is that the levels are more of a mix of boss fight and standard level, so it’s a challenge you should get used to fast. The ground based boss fights are the real challenge here and each time I died in one, of which there were a lot, I could never tell if it was my own lack of skill or the game being punishing. For those that do find the game hard, the boss fights do let you select an easy option, the problem is though that doing them all at that level locks some of the games final content away. However, no matter how often I failed to defeat a boss, I was always ready to jump right back in and that was helped along by the games incredible visuals.

The visuals of Cuphead were what drew most people to the game at the start and for good reason, they look great, combining the classic look of the Betty Boop era of cartoons with modern techniques has really turned out to be a blessing for any animation fan. Each of the enemies has a style that works, from their expressions to how they move, everything is animated just right, but to me, it was the bosses that stand out the most. From giant evil carrots, to carnival attractions, each of the games boss fights is an experience in and of itself, but it’s the expressions of them as you land that final hit that stands out. Combine all the above with incredible backgrounds and you quite literally get an interactive cartoon.

From a presentation point of view, the sound let me down, the jazz inspired soundtrack has its moments, but it feels disconnected from the action. Cartoons which inspired the look, were all about the mixture of sound to the animation, watch any classic short and you will see that easy, but here it’s nothing, just playing in the back ground. The sound effects are also strange, your only attack is a blaster and it sounds like eggs being broken against a foam wall, there is just no impact to the sound. There is also no voices for the characters, which is not a strange choice, at least until you notice that there are songs with lyrics playing for some, so not hearing Diceman talk is ok, but hearing a song while the speech bubble is up, singing about him, is odd.

Cuphead is both a love letter to classic animation and classic games, but its brutal difficulty will deter most from seeing it through to the end. The games visual appeal is hard to dispute, but I don’t think that’s enough to keep people playing.

Thanks to Xbox Australia for supplying the game for review.

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