Giant Bomb Review

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Cradle Review

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  • PC

Uneven pacing and a handful of poor design decisions can't bring down Cradle's unique, sci-fi mystery.

All I'm saying is that if you have the time to set up a cyber-humanoid flower vase, you have the time to get a coaster for your cup.
All I'm saying is that if you have the time to set up a cyber-humanoid flower vase, you have the time to get a coaster for your cup.

Cradle makes a hell of a first impression.

You wake up in a colorful room, dense with artifacts in a way that makes it feel lived-in, not just constructed for consumption. This small space and the things inside of it manage to communicate information about the world outside of its walls in both concrete and abstract ways. The room is covered from top to bottom with pamphlets, newspapers, advertisements, kitchen goods, consumer electronics, and other items for you to scour in search of answers about the place you've woken up in. But it also has objects that exist only to raise questions: Flowers numbered and pressed into hard plastic displays; a gynoid that doubles as a vase; a strange recipe that will eventually lead you to open the front the door.

Whenever I start a game as evocative as Cradle, I find myself thinking about a scene in Christopher Nolan's 2001 neo-noir Memento. The film follows Leonard, a man with a faulty memory, as he tries to piece together the facts of his fragmented life. Memento combines traditional mystery elements with a reversed scene structure as a way to communicate the protagonist's disoriented perspective. In the the scene that shoots into my mind, Leonard finds himself suddenly running through a trailer park. He looks around, takes stock of his surroundings, and says "Okay, what am I doing?" The audience is primed to ask its own questions: "Where is he going? Why run instead of walk? Who is that other guy sprinting through the--Oh!" Cradle's question is different ("Okay, what the hell is up with this world?"), but as in Memento, the game's player is slyly drawn into into asking questions of their own.

It's a technique that creates a great deal of potential, but it also means that the work needs to either answer the question (by providing a satisfying path to the answer) or else perform the rare feat of relieving the audience of their desire for an answer. Memento manages to do the former by echoing that scene's question throughout its entire runtime ("What is Leonard doing and what has he already done?"). Cradle, on the other hand, nearly succeeds at the latter. It lets some of the mysterious potential go to waste through an unfocused structure and a shift from self-directed investigation to linear exposition, but the world depicted is so fascinating that it's easy to forgive missteps and minor transgressions.

Without delving too much into the setting (since the most pleasurable part of the game is arriving at the specifics in your own time), Cradle is a game that explores themes of transhumanism, emotion, and the unexpected ramifications of scientific "progress." Despite this, it eschews the narrow alleys and overcrowded urban sprawl of our most familiar techno-dystopias, instead offering up the bright, broad, and painterly Eurasian Steppe of Mongolia. Yes, there are robots, laboratories, and mega-corporations enacting class warfare, but Cradle's take on cyberpunk is not the the smoke-and-neon standard that has become so familiar as to be defanged. The result is a science-fiction setting that is as striking as it is intriguing, and one that I almost sadistically wanted to remain in crisis, if only so that I might get to see another story told there.

Don't be fooled: Cradle's colorful world is no less dystopic than the cyberpunk works of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.
Don't be fooled: Cradle's colorful world is no less dystopic than the cyberpunk works of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.

You learn about Cradle's world and its inhabitants in a few different ways. At the start of the game, you make discoveries by carefully combing through all of the aforementioned ephemera spread throughout the starting room. Like Her Story, Gone Home, or Analogue: A Hate Story, this method of non-linear investigation allows players to stumble onto the larger picture from many different angles. This style of storytelling is fulfilling for me not only because it's (currently) so novel, but also because it so cleanly maps over my desire to answer the game's "central question."

Once Cradle introduces NPCs, though, it shifts into another, less satisfying modes of storytelling. In place of the organic detective work done in the game's first couple of chapters, the remainder delivers its story via dialogue. At first, I didn't mind this too much. The NPCs are themselves fascinating mysteries who know only bits and pieces about the world, and who say as much with their character designs as they do with their words. (Take, for instance, the way that Cradle's androids wear video-screens where their eyes should be, and that those screens actually display live action video of real, emotive human eyes.) But as the game continues on into its later chapters, these characters end up simply unspooling reams of lore in nearly one-sided conversations. It's a disappointing turn which misses the fact that the method of investigation is as important as the matter investigated.

This frustration is compounded by the fact that this exposition is locked up behind unnecessary navigation challenges and a recurring set of mini-games. While both feel tacked on, it's the latter that are truly out of place in an otherwise focused narrative adventure. In order to retrieve MacGuffins (which will in turn unlock more exposition), you need to attempt a sort of cube-collection action-puzzle game. I say "attempt" because after I completed the game I learned that failure at any of the later mini-games offers you the chance to simply move on with the story, but Cradle doesn't offer you this option ahead of time. Regardless, it's a jarring switch in gameplay that feels bolted on. While there is a fictionally coherent reason for these puzzles to be in the world, I couldn't quite shake the feeling that they were taking the place of investigation-style gameplay that would've been too expensive or time-consuming to implement. I don't know whether that feeling reflects the reality of Flying Cafe for Semianimals' production conditions, but I still couldn't shake that feeling that Cradle's ambitious narrative reach exceeded the practical grasp of its game design. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Cradle's final chapter, where climax deflates as quickly as it approaches.

Maybe it's because I just finished writing this review, but when I look at this picture, I kinda wanna just curl up and nap.
Maybe it's because I just finished writing this review, but when I look at this picture, I kinda wanna just curl up and nap.

As Cradle's credits sequence came to a close, I felt conflicted. Great premise, flawed execution. But Cradle didn't actually end at the credits for me. I did what I suspect many do after wrapping a game like this up: I turned to forums and to friends to compare theories. I read extra background information, filling in gaps of crucial story information I'd missed, as well as cultural knowledge I lacked. Cradle was made by a Ukrainian team on the western bounds of the same Eurasian Steppe that the game takes place in, and it leverages a number of conventions from Buddhism and other non-Abrahamic religions in ways that go beyond Western media's normal well of references to the East. As new distribution methods and more accessible technologies encourage greater exchange of games around the world, Cradle left me wondering how personal knowledge of cultural tropes may shape our play experiences. Case in point: The puzzle game that frustrated me and felt out of place actually integrates aspects of a particular Buddhist story. Might that knowledge have adjusted the way I felt about those puzzles when I first played them? The process of learning about the nuances I'd missed (both the cultural conventions and the narrative tidbits I'd overlooked) recreated the pleasure I had at the beginning of my playthrough. Cradle's protagonist had read page after page about the world he'd found himself in, and now I was doing the same.

For some, it might seem strange that I'd consider activity performed when Cradle's executable was closed to be "part of the game." But I don't think that this is actually unique to Cradle. My experience of Dark Souls has always been shaped by information-sharing with other players ("Oh! So that's what the "Adaptability" stat does!"). In poker, the best competitors do more than play the cards, they also "play" the other people at the table. Fez was completable only through information gathering and theorycrafting done by players "outside" of the game. Cradle follows in the footsteps of these games (and many others) by breaking down the binary between "inside" and "outside." This is only appropriate given the story's focus on disrupting and deconstructing our own notions about individual interiority and airtight selfhood.

Cradle isn't perfect. It doesn't fully follow through on the promised potential of the first few chapters. Its best ideas are stymied by inconsistent structure and poor pacing. Yet Cradle's unique setting, captivating characters, and fascinating mystery elevate it above its flaws, enshrining it as a new member in the ever-growing pantheon of great first-person narrative exploration games.

51 Comments

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ninnyjams

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Cradle seems to exceed all of my expectations going in and then proceed to fall short of the ones it creates once I'm actually in. Very good game, but I couldn't help but want more.

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AMyggen

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Great review. I loved this game despite its flaws, which is mainly for me some of the ways it tells its story. But the world is fantastic and the story is really, really good.

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hassun

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How is this not a @vinny review!?

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TreeTrunk

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Edited By TreeTrunk

so many great games

Great review

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TheBlue

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I continue to need to play this.

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Yerolo

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I really enjoyed Cradle as well, seemed to come out of nowhere (at least for me). After watching the first 5mins of the QL I knew it was something I wanted to play for myself. I agree that cube minigame was horrible and out of place (luckily you can skip it after you fail)

Its in my top 10 for 2015 for sure

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Warmachine

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I totally agree. The pacing at the end was way too abrupt. Almost every story beat in the game has plenty of time to breath and leave its impact except the climax. And as for the block puzzles: I think they would have been fine as a single instance, but repeating that process 3 or 4 times causes it to lose what little luster it had. Great review.

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mikemcn

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Love the premise, love what i played, but walking sims make me seasick and i don't know why.... Gone home, cradle, jazzpunk, all nausea-inducing

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RonGalaxy

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Edited By RonGalaxy

Bought it, but my laptop couldn't run it, so I got a refund. I really hope it comes to ps4, because it looks really cool

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Homelessbird

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I like this review a lot. Keep doing what you do, Austin.

Top of paragraph 5, though - "into a other, less satisfying modes of storytelling"

NBC needs to buy you guys a copy editor.

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Rincewind

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Edited By Rincewind

Can't believe you gave it 4 stars. The game isn't that great, it wasn't anything like it was hyped to be then ended as a damp squib.

The puzzle block rooms are so tedious that it's actually refreshing the devs acknowledge that and just let you skip it when you fail the room the first time.

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threeOCT

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NBC needs to buy you guys a copy editor.

CBS may call for collusion if that was the case.

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Homelessbird

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@threeoct: Oh right. See, this is what I get for typing at the end of the work day.

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deactivated-5d000a93730da

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I'm glad you can skip the block collecting mini game. I don't think it really adds anything

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newmoneytrash

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I thought this was a Vinny review and got so excited

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austin_walker

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@homelessbird: Typos (and missing them in the copy-editing phase) happen for the exact same reason ;)

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Homelessbird

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@austin_walker: Oh for sure. That's why it's easier when you've got a third party to catch that stuff. But I was just monkin' ya. Shit happens. Patrick had a minimum of two grammatical errors per article.

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BabyChooChoo

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Edited By BabyChooChoo

I would have never even heard of this game if it wasn't for this site. It does sound fascinating though. Gone Home doesn't do much for me, but put that shit in a sci-fi setting and explore some of the themes that my favorite anime, Ghost in the Shell, explores? Sooooold.

The latter half of the game does sound like something that would also bother me a lot, but the rest of the game sounds like it's absolutely worth it.

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EricSmith

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Edited By EricSmith

@hassun: When I saw it up I thought "Holy shit, Vinny reviewed a game!"

Alas.

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MEZwaan

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I had a similar experience with the Vanishing of Ethan Carter. I spent several hours reading forums and interviews with the creators to get a better grasp of the story of the game. And for games like these - that focus on storytelling - that can be an important part of the game. I guess the same will be true for Her Story. Once I finish it I will go looking for other gamers experiences with the game. See if they have came to the same conclusions as me and if maybe I've missed some important scenes.

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deactivated-5e851fc84effd

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Great review Austin! really loving you on this site :)

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extintor

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great review and great choice of a game to review... Cradle is definitely one of this year's most interesting games.

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Winternet

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Edited By Winternet

For a moment there I thought we were going to be graced by a wild Vinny Caravella review.

You aight too, Austin.

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SnideInsinuations

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Oh man, I meant to play this one after I watched the quick look but I never got around to it. This is giving me new motivation, it sounds really interesting.

Shame to hear that about the ending though - I feel like a lot of games recently have had really disappointing endings, for whatever reason.

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Sessh

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Edited By Sessh

Nice review, Austin. I really appreciate your reviewing style.

After already being intrigued by this after watching the QL, I think now I really need to get this.

@austin_walker Also just a head's up: There's one "the" too many in the sentence with the Memento YT link.

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joshwent

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Edited By joshwent

@austin_walker Thanks for the interesting elaboration on the sort-of extra curricular work that lead you to enjoy the game more. After pretty much every movie I watch, I do the same thing. Whether it's to better understand a cultural/historical context, explore some details I may have missed, or just find out why the critical consensus I'd heard differed from my own reaction (i.e., Vertigo is a bad film. Man does that movie suck! Why the fuck does every critic say it's the best thing ever made? WHY!?), that kind of added effort almost always enriches the experience. But I do want to point out that, to me, the other examples you provided in your review are a very different thing.

The Souls series and Fez (and many other games) intentionally engender that external experience. Their puzzles and systems are obscured to the point where they expect collaboration to be a necessary part of playing the game to completion. It's a huge risk, of course, because as the devs have no real control of the player's motivations or dedication, they could just as easily have created frustrating games that everyone drops half way through. But the important thing is that the intention is there from the devs that this kind of person to person exploration will be a part of the larger experience that feeds back into playing the game.

Just as Miyamoto made ridiculously hard "puzzles" as obstacles to progress or see everything in The Legend of Zelda in order to fuel school yard interactions between friends. You could look up some cultural things and better understand how the people in caves interestingly adhere to the traditional style of Japanese ghosts, that the Triforce is modeled after the the emblem of the Hōjō clan, or even why the fuck that one dungeon looks like a swastika. But the more direct kind of intended "deeper understanding" is closer to simply which bush that looks exactly like all the other bushes you need to push to open the thing that lets you get the other thing.

As I said above, that kind of filling-in-the-gaps search for knowledge and diverse perspectives is wonderful, and will almost always allow a viewer/player to more deeply enjoy a work. But as opposed to the kind of message board collaboration to solve a puzzle that some devs try to bring about, I'd argue that the process of learning more about aspects of a work is a distinctly separate, personally unique thing, separated from the game itself.

And in our current world seeing more things like Bungie shoving the meat of Destiny's story to an external website, and the devs claiming that those efforts are similarly still 'part of the game', I think it's evermore important that critics are able to distinguish between the two.

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ObsideonDarman

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Awesome review, Austin. Looks like I'll have to check this one out at some point.

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austin_walker

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Edited By austin_walker

@joshwent:

Hey! Thanks for the in depth response.

I totally understand the impulse to separate out the games that do this with mechanics from the ones who do it with narrative, cultural, or thematic content. This review fundamentally rejects that separation, and it's the third piece I've written this year that touches on these topics. The first was this piece on Paste about Subterfuge and the "Formalism" debates of January, the second was this piece for my old Patreon about "immersion." The long and short is that I want to move away from a method that centralizes mechanics as the most important element of games to analyze--and I say that as someone who, I think, is at my best when I'm analyzing the mechanics of games.

So when you write "The Souls series and Fez (and many other games) intentionally engender that external experience. Their puzzles and systems are obscured to the point where they expect collaboration to be a necessary part of playing the game to completion," my response is that games like Cradle, Gone Home (a game with an "external" component that I was a big part of), and Her Story also intentionally engender that external experience, except through narrative instead of "puzzles and systems." For that matter, Dark Souls does this too! Much of my love of that series comes not only from unpacking the complex systems, but doing (and reading) the collaborative detective work necessary to grasp the narratives being told through its use of forensic storytelling.

Believe me, I understand that this position is not the normal one. It's also a position that has a strange and storied history. For a long time, many players would answer a question like "What's this game about" by only explaining the game's story ("In MGS, you're a spy being sent into a base to stop a nuclear attack,") and as systems literacy has improved, many average players have gotten better at talking about the actual moment to moment play ("MGS V is a game where you sneak into bases, use tools to locate and retrieve resources, and manage enemy attention. Also sometimes you can't spin all the plates at once and things explode into a whole beautiful mess.") So I can see how the push that I and others are making to consider games holistically (and not just as little boxes-of-mechanics) might seem retrograde. But I think if it is actually done holistically, and doesn't privilege narrative or aesthetic or mechanics over the others, we'll end up creating better, more comprehensive, and more emotional criticism.

Obvs I don't think everyone will follow me on this path, and I don't think it's the only valid path towards creating good games crit, but I hope that at least better explains why it is I tackle stuff the way I do. Thanks again for your comment, it was fantastic.

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moregrammarplz

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Edited By moregrammarplz

I really enjoyed the first half of this game, which I spent reading every single newspaper clipping and crumpled note I could find. Slowly developing a clear picture of the wider world and the circumstances leading up to the 'apocalypse' were what kept me hooked. Once I'd read all the little readables and explored the house, the flower beds, and Gerbera Gardens, there wasn't much left to do besides advance the core plot and play those underwhelming cube puzzles.

I would have rather had a new locale or two to visit instead of those puzzles.

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OMGFather

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Dr. Austin Walker, word master

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michaelpeterson

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@hassun: Last game Vinny reviewed was Rachet and Clank: A Crack In Time in 2009, it would be cool if he wrote more, but I feel like GB is moving away from written reviews anyway.

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HiCZoK

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I really liked this game minus stupid vr game moments and too complicated ending

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Yerolo

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Edited By Yerolo

I really hope they work on another game to flesh out that universe...so interesting

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Shrekeh

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Cool, thanks for this Austin, I will definitely check this out when it is on sale. Love that you are able to see the flaws in a game such as this and then offer such a positive score; you see the bigger picture behind the game and instead of backing away and being critical of its obscurities, you explore those obscurities and in so doing appreciate the game even more. Very cool appraisal, and fun to read.

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BakalVitaliy

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Edited By BakalVitaliy

Its a good point about cultural diversity, but Buddhism and Mongolia are as alien for ukrainians as they are for americans.

Whole thing is based on a fever dream game creator had. Before that i think he didnt even knew what yurt is.

Minigame was tacked on by game programmer at the time minecraft was new and hot. Some interviews kinda show frustration of game creator .

Glad to see that thing being out after all the turmoils although it didnt sell at all and studio is closed and creators are still paying debts(

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Cactusapple

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"Fez was completable only through information gathering and theorycrafting done by players "outside" of the game."

Not true. Ok, true for most of us mere mortals, but watch Kay's blind FEZ run to see how a sharp brain and a passing interest in cryptology makes it possible to work that game out without any outside influence.

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blabbermouth64

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Good review Austin! I really love reading your and Alex's reviews. They've been really thought provoking as of late.

Also, does anyone have some recommendations for some good cyberpunk stories? I'd like to get into the genre a bit more and have no idea where to start. Books, games, movies, I'd be down for anything!

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porjos

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Edited By porjos

The dialogue in the comments below between @austin_walker and @joshwent are just as interesting and thought-provoking as the article itself :D I love GB.

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Cybexx

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Edited By Cybexx

I echo your issues with the minigames, I would say that even the minigame design itself feels like they ran out of time. The first cube minigame has one mechanic, the second flips that mechanic around but then the remaining minigames just reuse those two variations instead of coming up with any more mechanics, they just adjust the difficulty by decreasing the height of the environment which increases the chance you'll fall and get penalized for it. I would have been kinda okay if they had continued introducing new ideas but it really just feels like a fetch quest near the end and I was too stubborn to skip them.

I was impressed by the production values overall, there are some muddy textures here and there and some graphical glitches but the art direction is super strong, the characters are modelled well and animate really well, the eyes were especially a clever way to get around spending a ton of money on facial animation. I look forward for whatever this team does next, I hope the Steam sales have been good for them.

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fram

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@porjos said:

The dialogue in the comments below between @austin_walker and @joshwent are just as interesting and thought-provoking as the article itself :D I love GB.

Thanks for pointing this out, it made for a great externalised reading experience once I was done with the review! Things are getting meta.

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Humanity

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The one thing that actually kept me from exploring this game further is, if I'm reading Austins review correctly, the lack of any real closure to the plot at the end of the game. When I'm playing a bombastic rollercoaster of an action game I'm willing to forego a concrete ending (although ironically those games more often than not are very concise in how they wrap things up). When I'm playing a game that is light on mechanics but heavy on story I actually want to see that story fleshed out and most importantly concluded in a satisfying way.

There is something to be said, as both Austin and @joshwent discussed, about digging deeper into a story post-credits through the collaborative efforts of the internet at large. I myself will almost always head to IMDB after watching a movie in order to read all the interesting facts and maybe skim a few reviews to gauge and contrast other reactions to that of my own. That said, there is a line you cross when your game stops being simply mysterious and starts feeling incomplete. As such I would hate to have Cradle entrance me with it's questions only to eventually leave me at the mercy of speculation.

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Quicklyer

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Was so full of the eerie and weird. Plus that endgame was more unsettling than anything I've ever played.

Great review. Thank you so much Austin for recognizing this game. Currently sits #2 on my GOTY.

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Billy_Ray_Valentine

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Great review, @austin_walker! I had never thought about Cradle as similar to Dark Souls or Fez in the community/discussion sense. Thanks for evoking that thought!

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benderunit22

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Edited By benderunit22

So, I just finished this and I do like the world they talk about in the various texts and dialogues, but the game itself is kind of bad. Or at least, it's overly formulaic and the few gameplay things, i.e. the block puzzles are utterly tedious. Austin sums it up pretty well in his review, but most of the game is just "do a thing, get backstory as a reward" until you get some bonkers ending.

I dunno, I'd love a better game in this cyberpunk universe, but this one was a bit of a disappointment. SOMA was much better.