Cradle is an awkward game to try and review. As both a puzzle game and a game that has many themes and messages – some incredibly complex – interwoven within a slightly convoluted and disjointed narrative, it’s easy to dismiss criticisms against it as being simply a result of the reviewer “not getting it.” I don’t think I “got” Cradle by the end of the game. But I wouldn’t say it’s a bad game. I didn’t enjoy it. But it’s the kind of game that I feel “not enjoying” isn’t necessarily a criticism.
Cradle is a strange game. It’s a sort of blend between the old adventure games of yore – find the item, use the item on something else – combined with some puzzle solving, some out-of-place, action-y mini-games, and a dose of the infamous and controversial “walking simulator.” You play Enebish, a Mongolian man (how’s that for a nationality underrepresented in modern media?) as you attempt to unravel the mystery of your past. That’s right, you have the original sin of plot devices, amnesia. But for once, I feel like the main character owns this flaw at least enough that it’s not irritating, and it serves as a fair vessel to deliver the game’s narrative.
In investigating your past, you will also be unraveling the past of the mysterious robotic girl in your yurt (a Mongolian tent for the unworldly of you), Ida. Ida is both the source of and the potential answer to all of the game’s mysteries and both she and her voice actress do a good job delivering answers to those mysteries in a manner that kept me engaged enough to finish the game. It’s too bad, then, that Enebish’s voice actor’s delivery is so stale, particularly put up against Ida’s, and I had a hard time identifying with him in any real way or believing his motivations. This is Ida’s story, plain and simple. She’s the interesting one and the bits about Enebish seem like boring detours from discovering what happened to her.
I feel like there’s little chemistry between Enebish and Ida, however. At first, Enebish is merely using her for answers, to fill in the gaps in his memory, but I feel like as the game progresses, we’re supposed to get the feeling that they’re growing closer. But between Enebish’s flat delivery and the lack of any real emotion until the game’s climactic yet somewhat unfulfilling ending, I just never got that impression. This is not an emotional game. But I feel like it is a cerebral one…or at least, it tries to be.
Cradle is a story with an overburdening of themes. On the surface, it is about transhumanism – the idea that humanity will transcend its current existence through the use of technology. Don’t let the game’s colorful and gorgeous visuals confuse you, this is a post-apocalyptic setting as ultimately bleak as Walking Dead or Fallout. Mankind has suffered great losses at the hands of a mysterious disease and is using technology to transfer minds into artificial hosts. It isn’t exactly a new theme, but it’s not often represented in such a deep and contextual way.
But there are also themes of depression and inner beauty as well. Humanity has become obsessed with, for lack of a better term, designer genes and outer beauty, and those with inferior genetic codes are called – charitably – outsiders and – less charitably – uglies. Enebish lives out in the steppes of Mongolia and scans flowers to find those with the purest genetics to sell to the wealthy in the city. The higher the number, the purer the genetics. People love to see those high numbers, one of the other characters in the story tells you. But smattered throughout his house are flowers with lesser genetics, implying that he is a guy who appreciates the beauty of so-called “lesser” things. It was a subtle, implicit hint that the game doesn’t outright point out or explain to you about Enebish, and perhaps I’m reading more into it than the developers intended, but I thought it was a nice touch and one of the few things I felt made Enebish at least remotely interesting.
There are other themes on display here as well – identity, love, faith, etc. As I said, the game feels overburdened by them at times and it helps Cradle to feel a bit confused and weighed down as a result, almost to the point of it feeling pretentious. But its central story was engaging enough to me to see it through. I’m worried that the game’s multitude of themes made it so it couldn’t explore any of them with enough depth or care that they deserve and left the whole experience feeling more than a little fragmented and confusing. But again, maybe I just didn’t “get” it.
In truth, there was a lot about Cradle that I didn’t “get,” and I doubt I’d be the only one. I was ready to give it up within the first five minutes, primarily because the game’s “puzzles” are pretty much non-existent. Don’t expect Portal here, folks, Cradle is an instruction-following simulator, plain and simple. What gameplay is there feels token and unnecessary, merely there to keep this from being a flat-out “walking simulator,” a pejorative term that developers are probably keen to avoid in this day and age.
When you’re not simply walking to a place that the game tells you to walk, you’re digging around your yurt – which is badly in need of a maid, by the way – for an object that you have no idea what it looks like and absolutely no idea where Enebish, who should probably be on an episode of Hoarders, stored it. Early on, I was asked to get the salt from the shelf in order to make a dish to feed to a giant cybernetic golden eagle (this game is a little weird, just saying). I was told its relative location in a line of boxes (second from the left), but by the time I’d realized what line of boxes the instructions were referring to, I’d already scattered them in my pursuit of other objectives. One of them was even lying outside under a tree where I’d left it after hurling it at some fruits to dislodge one. And all of the boxes were labeled in Mongolian, so I had absolutely no idea which was which.
When you’re not hunting obscure and poorly-labeled objects in your cluttered yurt or simply walking to a place you’ve been told to walk to, you’re playing the game’s strange block-based mini-games, which I actually found somewhat enjoyable for awhile but I feel like most people won’t. And they never truly feel like they belong in the game’s world. Once you get the hang of them, they’re pretty easy to sail through. But that doesn’t change the fact that they halt the flow of the game’s narrative and feel very dissonant from the setting at large, even after Ida explains why they exist at all.
All of this combines to make a game that feels very small. There is little to do in Cradle, little to see and explore, which is a shame because this is inarguably one of the singularly most beautiful games I’ve ever played. The visuals are stunning, the animations excellent, and the landscapes are huge and truly capture the bleak beauty of the steppes. But once you realize that there’s nothing to do except what you’re told, it steals away some of the game’s majesty…but only a little. In all, the visuals were easily the high point of the game and it’s worth seeing through to its end just to be dazzled by them for just a little bit longer.
Cradle is a complex game – I would say needlessly so at times – and in many ways, it’s a small game. But at its price point, I find it hard to damn it for its flaws when it’s just so darned pretty. And despite being overburdened by its multitude of themes – many of which aren’t handled with as much depth as they could, or should, in the short, four-hour experience, which felt just about right by the time I reached the confusing, unfulfilling ending – it’s a smart game that has the potential to challenge the player, not in a gameplay sense but intellectually.
Reviewed on PC. Review copy provided by the developer.