Review: Cuphead (PS4)

Platforms:

  • PlayStation 4
  • Xbox One
  • Nintendo Switch
  • PC/Mac

Platform/Hardware Used:

  • PSN Download
  • PS4 Pro
  • 4K HDR

Extras:

  • DualShock 4 Required (1)
  • Move None
Title: Cuphead
Format: PSN (4.03 GB)
Release Date: July 28, 2020
Publisher: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
Developer: StudioMDHR Entertainment Inc.
Original MSRP: $19.99 (USD)
ESRB Rating: E10+
A code for the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
PS Nation Review Policy

Gameplay:
After initially releasing on Xbox One and PC in 2017, and later coming to Switch in 2019, Cuphead has finally made its way to PlayStation 4. The run-and-gun platformer takes its unique inspiration from 1930s cartoons like those produced by the Fleischer and Walt Disney Animation studios. While some games may take inspiration from a genre or piece of media and then make it work within the constructs of their own idea, Cuphead actually succeeds in replicating its source material in painstaking detail. Every facet of the game, including the menus, sound effects, music, and gorgeous visuals, is brimming with the charm of the classic animations of the thirties.

Cuphead begins with the two playable heroes, Cuphead and his brother Mugman, coming out on the losing end of a gamble with the Devil. They are tasked with rounding up the souls of the Devil’s debtors who have escaped across the three Inkwell Isles. Each island serves as an overworld that can be explored in a zoomed-out, isometric perspective. Scattered around each island are the various playable levels as well as NPCs who sometimes offer helpful advice.


The majority of the game is played as a side-scrolling platformer. Most levels are boss fights that take place in a relatively enclosed area, but there are also “Run ‘n Gun” and aerial levels. “Run ‘n Gun” levels are more like a traditional platformer in which you progress through a long level and face a variety of foes throughout. In the aerial levels you command a little airplane and the combat is more like a shmup.

Gameplay is extremely tight and responsive. The hand-drawn animations move with an impressive fluidity that is as fun to watch as it is to control. The basic moves at your disposal are jump, parry, dash, and shoot. Each character (you can choose between Cuphead and Mugman or play as both in two-player co-op) can equip two shooting weapons, a charm, and a super ability. These can be earned through gameplay or purchased at Porkrind’s Emporium, the shop that is located on each island.


There is a fantastic amount of variety between all of the weapons. Learning the strengths and weaknesses of each shot type and experimenting with different combinations becomes vitally important for some levels in the game.

As you land shots and parry pink items, you fill up your super meter that is represented by a row of playing cards at the bottom of the screen. Once a card is full on the meter, you can use your weapon’s secondary mode, or save it up until all the meter’s cards are full to unleash a powerful super ability. Pulling off one of these super abilities at a key moment in the frenzy of battle requires strategizing and patience which makes the payoff incredibly satisfying.

Charms are add-ons that provide an innate bonus, like a dash that makes you briefly invulnerable, or a super meter that fills continuously. Some charms offer a tradeoff, like increasing your health but slightly lowering the damage of your attacks. Overall, the charms feel well-balanced and offer a nice way to tailor gameplay to your own strengths.

Besides its bold stylistic choices, the most prominent feature of Cuphead is its difficulty. Played at the default difficulty, the levels range from challenging to arguably some of the most brutally difficult in all of platforming. On boss levels, you can lower the difficulty to “Simple”, but that proves to be a misnomer. Once you beat the game you unlock an “Expert” mode for those who are truly masochistic.

There are several factors that make the game as difficult as it is. Health is represented by hearts, with the default being three hearts to start with. Each time you are hit by an attack or come in contact with an enemy, you lose a heart. This gives the already-challenging precision platforming a heightened sense of danger.

Bosses progress through different attack phases, keeping you on your toes. The first three phases may fit your playstyle well, but the final phase might be the most punishing. When you die, a timeline appears as a painful reminder of how far in the level you got, with little flags signifying each phase. These flags do not serve as checkpoints, though, as you will have to start over at the very beginning of the level. It is the brutal cycle of getting so close to victory, only to die and start all over again, that makes Cuphead best played in small chunks. It requires an adjusted mindset to play, one in which you are unfazed by failure, while refusing to accept it.


Another main source of the difficulty is the randomness factor in most levels. Some difficult platformers have sequences that can be memorized and perfected through repetition, but Cuphead couples intense platforming with a flurry of randomized projectiles.

Any time a game’s difficulty is one of its defining features, there will be a debate as to whether or not it is justified. Cuphead is no exception. On one hand, it is a shame that such a distinctive art style may not be experienced by some players simply because it is too hard to progress and see all of the enemies. On the other hand, if you can persevere then you will experience a feeling of accomplishment that a less difficult game may not afford. In the end, it really boils down to personal perspective.

Visuals:
Cuphead‘s identity lives within its visual presentation. According to developer StudioMDHR, the game’s beautiful and charming 1930s art style was created by hand with the techniques of the era, including watercolor backgrounds drawn on transparent sheets called celluloids. These painstaking efforts result in animations that are so historically accurate that it is hard to believe you are controlling them.

The uniqueness of the animations would be all for all for naught if the game’s performance suffered because of it. Fortunately, that is not the case. The throwback aesthetics are paired with a graphical fluidity that rivals any modern platformer.

Devotion to the 1930s source material is evident in every single facet of the game from the moment you turn it on. Even the title screen has a hand-drawn aesthetic, complete with the flickering and subtle graininess that you would expect to find in an old Disney classic. Loading screens, menus, and even the various fonts used throughout the game have clearly been carefully designed to feel era-appropriate. This dedication to detail is staggering and elevates the game to a higher level.

Character models in Cuphead are as imaginative as they are beautifully rendered. From giant, anthropomorphic vegetables, to demonic, flying cigarettes, there is no shortage of outlandish enemies. Making it through a boss fight to see all of their evolutions in appearance often feels like a reward in itself for making it through the game’s high level of difficulty.


Audio:
The audio design of Cuphead remains as loyal to 1930s cartoons as the rest of the game. The original soundtrack from musician and composer Kristofer Maddigan provides an authentic soundscape that often swells to breakneck speeds to match the frenzy of gameplay action. Each song features instrumentation that would be right at home with the popular jazz and big band music of the time.

Sound effects lack a modern touch in the best way possible. From airplane propellers to Cuphead’s fingers snapping as he fires off a shot, the sounds all seem to come through a filter that places them back in time to align with the visual presentation.

The game has a fantastic narrator who belts out such old-timey lines as, “Good day for a swell battle!” or, “This match will get red hot!” The charm only wears off slightly after the hundredth time you have heard it due to restarting the levels, which is a huge feat. There is even a tinny reverberation to the voice lines, hammering home their authenticity.

Online/Multiplayer:
This game can be played in single player or local co-op. All gameplay for this review was single player.

Conclusion:
Cuphead is a phenomenal journey into a bygone era, with all the modern trappings of a top-tier platformer. Its challenging nature is arguably to its detriment, because it will prevent some players from experiencing the game in its entirety. What cannot be argued, though, is that there was a tremendous effort put into making the game look, sound, and feel authentic to the era of the classic animation that inspired it. PlayStation 4 owners everywhere should rejoice now that Cuphead has made its way to the system, because it is a one-of-kind experience that should not be missed.

Score:

* All screenshots used in this review were taken directly from the game using the Share functionality on the PlayStation 4.

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