Cuphead Review

Cuphead released in September 2017 to critical acclaim, boasting a unique 30’s style cartoon aesthetic and rock-hard run-and-gun gameplay.

You take control of Cuphead (and his brother Mugman in 2-player co-op) who, after getting into gambling debt with the Devil, have to collect a series of contracts from across the 3 islands of Inkwell. To collect a contract you must defeat a boss in a bullet-hell style showdown.

So after defeating every boss and completing the game, would I say it’s worth a purchase? Here’s the good, the bad and the mixed of Cuphead.

The Good

 

The graphics are simply amazing: The first thing you’ll notice is the unique 30’s style graphics, painstakingly hand drawn frame-by-frame by the developers. They simply look fantastic, and this is the first time I’ve played a game that is genuinely indiscernible from the medium it’s inspired by. It literally looks like a cartoon from that era.

The characters have a constant exaggerated bounce to them; they’re always moving, warping and morphing into different iterations in a charmingly absurd way. The designers stated one of the best things about working with the 30’s aesthetic was the lack of rules – if you want your character to morph its hand into a shovel then that’s fine. If you want them to grow to 10x their size, that’s also fine.

The designers have embraced that philosophy here, with some highlights including frogs turning into slot machines, a woman biplane morphing into a moon that spurts UFOs, and a demonic clown that changes into a balloon and a fairground ride. Most of the bosses change several times before the end of each fight, helping to keep things fresh but also providing the player with contextual cues as to how the fight is progressing.

The music is a pleasure: The designers have not only brought the visual panache of the 30s cartoons to the game, but also the music. 3 hours of upbeat melodies spread across the game serve to enhance the atmosphere and couple brilliantly with the on-screen action.

Mugman: The co-op is really fun and thoughtfully implemented. The second player takes control of Cuphead’s friend (or brother?) Mugman, who functions identically to Cuphead except he has a mug for a head instead of a cup… makes sense.

The additional firepower at the players’ disposal facilitated by co-op is mitigated by the fact that the health is doubled for the boss in question, and cleverly halves if a one of the players dies. The resurrection mechanic is genius, with a player given a small window to parry the deceased player’s ghost as it rises up to the heavens. The resurrection option obviously gives playing co-op an edge over playing single-player in terms of challenge, but the additional chaos the second player brings to the on-screen action (which is hectic enough in single player) again mitigates this factor, leading to a wonderfully balanced experience.

Challenge: The difficulty of Cuphead got a lot of attention when it was released, and indeed it isn’t a game that can be breezed through easily. Defeating any given boss requires memorisation of attack patterns and phases, plus mastering the parry system and learning each weapon’s strengths and weaknesses. You only get to absorb three hits per fight, and there’s no way to replenish health mid-fight, so once three are gone, they’re gone.

This can lead to frustrating moments, and replaying a boss for the 20th time can start to feel demoralising. However generally I found that each time I fought a boss I’d be getting further and further into the fight with each attempt, and parts I initially found tricky I’d be breezing through. Once I started viewing the repetition of the fights as a necessary, integral part of the experience, this rationalisation made me enjoy the game a lot more, and relish and appreciate the fights for what they were.

When you defeat a boss and get that ‘Victory!’ screen, it’s honestly one of the most satisfying feelings in gaming this generation. Games are frankly become far too easy, the result of which means that sense of achievement and accomplishment is diluted and in many cases not even there. Pushing from cutscene to cutscene in another Call of Duty iteration pales in comparison to the feeling of finally beating that damn Genie or scraping to the end of a run-and-gun stage you’d been stuck on for hours in Cuphead. It may put off some gamers looking for a more casual experience, which is fine, but for me, I loved the challenge.

No clichés: Cuphead is certainly not in the self-referential, fourth-wall-breaking category of something like Spec-ops or the recent South Park games, but it’s refreshing and interesting to play a game that avoids the tropes and cliches that clog up the industry. There is no princess to rescue, no world to save, no impending universal doom you’re striving to avoid. You had a bad time at a casino, got into debt, and now need to pay that debt. If anything it’s a valuable lesson into the follies of gambling, a lesson more valuable than anything most games manage to conjure.

Bosses: The real stars of the game are the bosses themselves. Of the 28 fights I can easily recall them all, and can honestly say only 1 of them was even slightly underwhelming in terms of design and challenge.

The hours poured into the design have paid off, with everything form the character, charm and challenge all polished to a sheen. The variety is impressive, one minute you’re battling a pack of root vegetables, the next you’re fighting a giant Medusa-esque mermaid from a biplane or a giant bumblebee CEO. It’s a genuine thrill when you unlock a new section of an island to see what the next bosses will look like, and they never let you down.

The difficulty also scales up nicely as you progress through the isles, with earlier bosses that you initially found impossible feeling like a doddle when you revisit them later having played through their harder colleagues.

Mausoleums: A nice diversion from the intense boss-fights and hectic run-and-gun stages come in the form of haunted Mausoleums, which have you defending an urn from attacking pink ghosts, that can only be parried rather than shot. It’s a nice change of pace from holding down the fire button, and forces you to get good at the satisfying parry mechanic.

Weapon balance: At any one time you can choose to carry two regular weapons, a super weapon, and a ‘perk’ (think extra life, special dash etc). The weapons are all unique and have different rates of fire, power and accuracy etc, and it’s testament to their design that they are all actually viable depending on the boss you’re fighting and your own playstyle.

Mixing and matching the weapons via trial-and-error yields satisfying results, and a few times I’d be stuck on a boss for ages only to switch to a weapon and destroy them in one attempt.

The Mixed

Island secrets: The overworld itself is lovely – a wonderfully rendered watercolour top-down map with the bosses and levels scattered throughout. There are things to do and characters to speak to on the islands. Each island has a shortcut within it, and characters will give you coins if you speak to them, and give you hints about how to defeat bosses or unlock secrets. There’s also a nice fountain that tells you how many times you’d died.

But… that’s it. I was left with the feeling that it wasn’t developed enough, which to a degree is understandable considering how much work went into the bosses themselves. But a more fleshed out overworld with secret areas, hidden bonuses and more characters would’ve been welcome.

Replayability: This is a tough one as there is actually a lot of replayability in Cuphead in the form of a ‘Hard Mode’, and the inherent challenge of getting the best possible rank on the bosses. However because of the brutal nature of the challenges I was often left with a reluctance to go back and replay the bosses, feeling I’d gained enough reward from learning and defeating them once. More unlockable characters or new bosses would’ve been a welcome addition, and I hope we get these in the form of DLC. Something like an infinite-mausoleum would also not go amiss.

The Bad

No healthbars: This is another tough one to call but ultimately I think it’s a valid criticism. Because the designers were clearly so devoted to the style of the 30s cartoons, they’ve neglected to add in features that might’ve enhanced the gameplay, through fea rof tarnishing the aesthetic.

The lack of a boss healthbar is a good example of this, and it wouldn’t necessarily have to be a literal bar in the top screen – having the boss change colour gradually as it weakens in health would have sufficed, but this doesn’t happen. The only clue the player is given as to their progress is whatever stage of the boss you’re on, and that only applies to some of the bosses.

Parrying: The game seems to want you to parry objects a lot, with the tutorial and the Mausoleums designed to get you good at it. But I found it really wasn’t worth it in the actual fights, as you can only parry pink objects, of which there really aren’t that many, and the only reward for parrying is that it gets you closer to activating your superweapon. The reason it isn’t worth it is that it’s risky- slightly mistime it and you’ll lose a valuable health-point, and sometimes it feels that you’ve unfairly been punished for a well-timed one. It would have been cool to be able to parry any projectile, or at least have more parry-able things to make it more worthwhile.

Double jump: For some reason I spent the entire game thinking it would be better with a double-jump. I don’t know why, maybe it wouldn’t. It just felt like it naturally needed it.

Run-and-gun: Whilst fun, the run-and-gun levels felt like they lacked the polish of the bossfights, which is a shame, as they are still fun to play and the potential is definitely there. Perhaps because Cuphead himself isn’t actually that versatile in terms of running and jumping (no double-jump!) it didn’t quite feel natural.

Loading times: My only real true annoyance with the game was the loading times. Mercifully, insta-replaying a boss takes no time at all, but going from a boss to the overworld back to another boss is divided with excruciating load times, albeit animated by a charming little cartoon egg-timer. It just feels jarring having such long loading times in an otherwise beautiful and polished game.

No online: Hopefully this comes with the DLC, but it really is a crime there’s no co-op online. They really should make it happen.

Overall

Cuphead is my favourite Xbox One game this year, and proved a real breath of fresh air in amongst the drudgery that has been the ‘AAA’ offerings this year. A refreshing challenge, unique and beautiful visuals and music, and truly unforgettable characters make for a must-play for Xbox One owners.

9/10

You can get a nice Cuphead figurine from Amazon here.

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