Available on Steam and Xbox One (tested)
Cuphead release date: TBC 2017
Cuphead certainly has quite the unique art-style in the era of photo-realism. It looks and sounds like a vintage cartoon from the 1940s and 50s, with graphics that recall Disney's Steamboat Willie and the surreal animations of Fleischer Studios. Complete with the grainy film ticks.
While Cuphead might look like a sweet little sidescroller, at its heart its a rather merciless and unforgiving run-and-gun. And one that will punish you for even the slightest mistake. It's not one for the faint-hearted.
In fact, you might even go so far as to say that it's on a par with Dark Souls 3 or Bloodborne. Well, in its butt-kicking nature anyway, as success depends on sharp timing, lightning reflexes and the willingness to persevere in the face of what sometimes feels like outright unfairness.
At the ten-minute mark the wide grins of some of Cuphead’s adversaries will undoubtedly begin to look chillingly sinister.
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The set up for Cuphead is pretty simple; the titular character and his best mate Mugman have stupidly lost their souls to the devil in a wager. The only way they’re going to get them back is if they do the lord of hell’s bidding, which if the preview demo is anything to go by, involves hunting down a collection of ever-increasingly bizarre monsters and besting them.
Players can access any of the boss battles from a central hub, presented as a top down classic RPG-themed map. Players can trundle between the different bosses and pick one at their leisure – they’re signposted with whacky names offering a clue on what to expect such as A Fowl Afoul and Botanic Panic. Once they open the door to one of the Boss Battles, players are in for a world of pain.
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Initially the Bosses feel like insurmountable obstacles – and not just because every last one of them is physically huge when compared to Cuphead’s diminutive figure. For a start it’s hard to tell how much damage the player is doing to the enemies that are trying to do Cuphead in. They show no signs of damage after sustained attacks and the only way players will find out how far through the level they’ve managed to progress is after they’ve died.
Second, the key to beating any boss is to watch, learn their patterns of attack and then dish out damage while dodging whatever the Boss hurls at you – much as is the case in Bloodborne. However, just when players think they’ve worked out an effective strategy, the Boss they’re fighting usually throws them a curveball in the form of an attack that comes with very little warning. At best this breaks up the all-important rhythm that the player has established and at worst it kills Cuphead on the spot.
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This means that pretty much all the Bosses can only be defeated through sustained attempts of trial-and-error. In other words, you will die in Cuphead – a lot – and this can contribute to a lot of the game feeling like something of a war of attrition. On top of that, the level design in some Boss Battles feels like it was implemented by a team of wilfully malevolent developers who collectively had a serious axe to grind.
In one level, players will be tasked with avoiding bombs, AI drones and attackers as they bounce up a series of ledges, fleeing from a steadily rising tide of molten honey. In another they’ll defeat a ghost that’s been pelting them with eyeballs only to be rewarded with the emergence of a giant skeleton that can kill them with one attack.
Cuphead’s playful visuals mask an unforgiving and rock hard run-and-gun. But it’s one I want to play more of.