This episode breaches the peace treaty with Tetsuya Nomura
What are the odds that I would be disappointed by two novelty vehicle-based games with punny names and chaotic set-ups in the same year? Back in May, there was Omnibus, a promisingly creative and hilarious game about driving a bus in a mad world of wild physics that was ultimately marred by expecting precision gameplay in a decidedly imprecise world. Replace “driving a bus” with “platforming across the backs of semi-trucks” and you get Clustertruck, a game which manages to fall flat for eerily similar reasons. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
Developed by Landfall Games and published by tinyBuild, Clustertruck is a game about jumping across the back of a truck convoy as it moves towards the finish line in 90 levels across nine themed worlds. Based on your performance in said levels, you rack up “style points,” which let you unlock various abilities. While initial levels are fairly straightforward, the game gradually adds more obstacles, more mechanics, and more intricate puzzles. It’s described by the developers as “a chaotic physics based truckformer,” which is another way of saying those fancy puzzle set-ups don’t mean diddly-squat, because the entire game lives or dies at the whim of its physics engine. Clustertruck hinges on the random and fickle behavior of the out-of-control semis, and expecting players to precisely jump across them creates scenarios which result in a lot of kill screens. A lot, a lot.
Take, for example, the forested “World 2” of Clustertruck, which introduces branches, rocks, fences, and other objects to step up both the platforming and puzzle aspects of the game. An early level in this forest has you jump in order to to avoid a low-hanging branch in the path of your trucks. Makes sense. In the next level, that same set-up is used again, but now the branch is high enough that you simply avoid it by staying still. The first time I saw this branch, I predictably jumped. My mistake; the game had played me like a fiddle, but I didn’t mind. The second time around, I remained stationary to avoid the branch, but was promptly wiped out by a sudden truck careening into me from somewhere off-screen, dooming me to death by branch if I jumped to avoid it and death by truck if I didn’t. This kind of random, meaningless death came to exemplify my experience playing Clustertruck, with the majority of my many, many failures resulting from the absolutely unpredictable nature of the game.
The physical, player-controlled gameplay of Clustertruck didn’t do me any favors either. The first-person perspective feels disconnected, with no sense of an actual model or character or anything other than a floating camera. There’s also no real feeling of weight in the player, with nothing to confirm that you’ve landed on a truck other than the fact you aren’t dead, and nothing to give you a sense of your size until you think you’ve cleared a jump and immediately die from barely grazing your hitbox. The game lets you reposition yourself in the air, but almost everything aside from you moves so fast that it’s more or less a useless function. While the rest of Clustertruck is high-octane, player movement feels slow and airy in a way that doesn’t seem to match with how the game wants you to play. Clustertruck didn’t really start to feel playable until I unlocked the double jump, which you can only do once you’ve gotten a minimum of 15,000 “style points.”
The difference between Clustertruck and, say, a roguelike, or any other game that touts a high failure rate, is that deaths in those games are often the direct fault of the player, and result in improvement of the player that feels rewarding when the challenges are eventually overcome. Clustertruck provides no such reward, considering the loose nature of the trucks often creates situations and convoy movements which aren’t exactly the same every time you attempt a course. This inherent unpredictability, combined with the poor player movement, repeatedly subjected me to failure after failure, and after a while, it felt as though I was just beating my head against a wall trying to complete certain levels.
There’s also a cavalcade of other minor problems which I found detracted from the experience. The unlockable abilities aren’t even addressed until you have enough points to buy one, and then you more or less have to figure out how to use them on your own. The game’s graphics have so much bloom they put Oblivion to shame, and until I went into the menu to turn off every single graphical enhancement, I felt like I was playing an impressionistic painting where every semi was a white, smudged brushstroke of Bob Ross. When playing with a controller, the mouse doesn’t lock into the game, resulting in a cursor showing up on every between-level screen. Since the menu can’t be accessed while playing the game, you have to hope for the best when changing sensitivity and other settings; otherwise you’ll just have to truck all the way back to the title menu and mess with everything again.
Clustertruck also has a level editor, which was no more of a success. Upon entering, the game serves up a cheerful menu and a dialogue box that states the editor is still “a work in progress,” and presents the options “Submit Feedback,” “Tutorial,” and “Skip Tutorial.” I went for “Tutorial,” or at least tried to. No indicator appeared on the screen, and after futzing around with my controller I realized this was probably meant for a mouse and keyboard. I unplugged the controller- still no indicator, or even the cursor which had been so present in all the score screens. I played around with the keyboard, hoping I wouldn’t be stuck at this stationary screen with the editor’s neo-porn funk soundtrack on loop. Finally, I realized my cursor was there after all, only completely invisible. Once I blindly navigated to the “Tutorial” button, the game spawned in a single truck, as well a tutorial dialogue box, which was completely overlapped and rendered unreadable by a different menu box. You’ll have to check out someone else’s review to see how all that works.
Finally, and perhaps most insultingly, Clustertruck has had full Twitch integration for more than a week prior to its release. For those interested, the game features a fully fleshed system in which viewers can vote for various events to happen in a streamer’s run, such as exploding trucks and inverted controls. This tells me that Clustertruck was groomed to be a Twitch darling; a game so eccentric, chaotic, and off-the-wall that all of its shortcomings are ignored by an audience of people who are just here to watch Internet personalities overreact as they die over and over again at the hands of a wacky novelty game. This isn’t even to mention the irreverent, geek-checklist references to other media which are designed to evoke nerdy squeals of delight, such as an achievement called “The Rude” for the desert world and a level with stop-and-go trucks in the style of SUPERHOT. There’s nothing inherently wrong with all this, but I feel as though the final product isn’t exactly worthy of a preemptive Twitch fame victory lap.
Overall, Clustertruck is a game with a good sense of creativity hindered by its own concept. If the gameplay was smoother, or the physics less bonkers (sacrilegious, I know), it might even be playable by people who aren’t streaming it to perform for an audience. The game reminds me of Bad Rats, which is another experience that ultimately suffered (aside from many other reasons) thanks to the capriciousness of its physics. Chaos in games is at its best when players can inflict it, and at its worse when it’s repeatedly inflicted upon players in an unavoidable and unenjoyable manner. I’m sure there are some people out there who will enjoy the mad nature of Clustertruck, but I’m not one of them. At least Bad Rats only had 44 levels instead of 90.