Category: Reviews

My thoughts about the things I am fortunate enough to play, read, watch, or listen to.

  • In a Weary World by Megan McDuffee Review

    In a Weary World by Megan McDuffee Review

    On her latest album, In a Weary World, Megan McDuffee taps into something special. You can call it synthwave if you want, but that’s really a disservice to this fantastic album. Don’t get me wrong, I love synthwave music but a lot of it doesn’t sound dissimilar to late 80s/early 90s EBM or synth-pop. And I suppose that is exactly the appeal for a lot of people, and I get it. Synthwave is huge right now, and has been for the last few years. So much so that there are as many varieties of it as there are of other styles of electronic music. The synthwave music that I tend to gravitate to though is the slower, more prodding, more cinematic-sounding stuff. The stuff that emulates 80s movie soundtracks, essentially. That’s a bit closer to what we have here.

    I grew up listening to electronic music. It’s one of the things that lead me down the “path of cyberpunkery” from an early age. It always appealed to me, even as a young child. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, music was such a commonplace thing and so integrated into culture and society that it almost seemed kind of mundane. But it was electronic music that, whenever I heard it, piqued my interest in not only the music itself, but whatever media was associated with it. I’m not sure why. It might be my love of computer technology from a young age. Or it might’ve been my love of science fiction, also from a young age. But something about music being composed with technology appealed to me on a deeper level than traditional music ever did.

    In the 80s, electronic music was fairly prevalent for a variety of reasons. I imagine one of those reasons was the mass marketing and consumerism surrounding synthesizers. New wave music was getting really big and every band had to have a synth/keyboard player. At least one. Sometimes many more. So I imagine the market for synthesizers blew up as a result of every high school kid wanting to start a band and be the next new wave phenomenon.

    Another major reason was movies. Electronic music scores certainly didn’t start in the 80s. There was Wendy Carlos’ amazing score for A Clockwork Orange, a film that came out in 1971 and predated the 80s proliferation of electronic movie scores by far. It was, as I understand, hugely influential on it though. And rightfully so.

    You could spend a whole day talking about all the 80s films that used electronic music scores and only get to a fraction of them. The reason for this is debatable. There is a likelihood that many movie producers/directors simply chose it for aesthetic effect because it fit the theme of the film perfectly. The Terminator and it’s score by Brad Fiedel is a good example here. But I suspect that there was a bigger reason that electronic scores were so prevalent in the 80s and it has to do with budgets. Often these scores were created by one single person. And it was infinitely cheaper for movie studios to hire one musician with a synthesizer to compose a score than to hire a high-profile composer and an orchestra. So I assume using synthwork was a cost-cutting measure by movie studios.

    But hey, that’s ok. It’s what lead to the amazing revival of 80s movie-sounding music we have today in the 2020s known as synthwave. Thank you cheap-ass movie studios!

    My exposure to electronic music owes itself to this. I watched a lot of movies as a kid in the 80s and so I experienced a lot of electronic music. There were three films in particular whose scores stood out and helped create a deep-seeded love of electronic music in me. One was the aforementioned The Terminator. But there were two more that had an even bigger, more profound impact. It should be no surprise, given the theme of this website, that one of them was Blade Runner. The other was Legend. Two very different movies by the same director, Ridley Scott. Blade Runner’s soundtrack was composed by Vangelis and Legend’s was composed by Tangerine Dream.

    The music these artists composed was often referred to as “new age” by media outlets. That was unfortunate because new age music was associated with many of the fluff pseudo-religious movements of the time. I had heard new age music, and this was not that. Even as a child I knew this was not that. It was moody, yes. It was calm, yes. It was ambient, yes. But it wasn’t new age, even if the artists themselves sometimes used the term to describe their own music. It was a disservice to the brilliantly deep, creative, thought provoking electronic compositions they were creating.

    These artists were actually part of a music scene known as “Berlin school” or “the Berlin school of electronic music” as many of the genre’s most prominent artists were from, or were based in, Berlin, Germany. Vangelis was more of an honorary member as he was from Greece, but created a very similar style of music. I didn’t know anything about this genre at the time though. I had no idea it even existed. I was a kid and there was no internet available to the average American household. I had to rely on music magazines that I would peruse whenever I’d visit a book or music store and glean whatever info I could. Had it not been for these films though, I sadly wouldn’t have even known these artists existed at all.

    As movies got bigger and bigger, they also got bigger and bigger budgets. And eventually the synth-based score became less popular as movie studios began to favor classical “organic” scores with big grand orchestras and high-profile composers at the helm. Electronic music itself was also evolving away from the analogue modular synthesis work of the late 70s/early 80s and began adopting digital and software-based technologies in the late 80s and especially as the 90s rolled in. Modern electronica took off and Berlin school music, as it had been known, became less prevalent and more underground. The most prominent artists like the aforementioned Tangerine Dream and Vangelis, as well as others like Jean Michel-Jarre and Klaus Schulze continued to thrive but weren’t talked about much outside of electronic music enthusiast circles.

    The genre wasn’t dead but it had become niche. And it would stay that way until a little revival from the 2010s to the 2020s. Some newer artists have begun adopting the old styles of Berlin school and creating a modern take on them. Arists like Neuland and Martin Stürtzer are great examples. Even bands like Apoptygma Berzerk have gone back to their modular synth roots and started writing modern music with older tech, and it’s all the better for it. Which all brings me, finally, back to Megan McDuffee and her album In a Weary World.

    McDuffee has earned a name for herself for creating music for critically acclaimed video game soundtracks including Wayforward’s River City Girls series and Atari’s Recharged series of revamped classics. She’s a highly sought-after artist for video game, TV, and film projects and despite being such a prolific artist for years, she didn’t release her full length debut album until May, 2021. In a Weary World is her latest full length effort. It’s a completely instrumental album in the vein of the aforementioned Tangerine Dream, Vangelis, and Wendy Carlos. She describes the album as chillwave, a downtempo style of music often associated with synthwave.

    Image Credit: Megan McDuffee / Artwork by Casey George

    For me, what the album really is, though, is a modern and updated take on classic Berlin school music. And it sounds like an authentic one too. I’ve said on this website before that this style of music is the unofficial sound of cyberpunk thanks to Vangelis’ score to Blade Runner. And indeed, In a Weary World is chock full of cyberpunk vibes. Every track on this album conjures up mental images of a calming journey through a futuristic cityscape at night. It’s easy to get lost in these mental images as you listen and a whole fictional cyberpunk world unfolds in your mind.

    There are 9 tracks on this album with a total play time of roughly 33 minutes. Most of the tracks are ambient, though percussive elements pop up from time to time that, while not quite dance-worthy, raise the tempo up a bit. But everything stays below mid-tempo here. The beats are simple but effective. The album is relaxing and cinematic through and through. The lush, classic-sounding synthwork succeeds in sounding simultaneously retro and futuristic, which has in modern times become a staple of this genre and one of the things that I’ve come to adore about it. The dichotomy of the the two puts my head in such a delightfully unique place that I’d physically move to it and live in it if I could.

    In a Weary World couldn’t be more aptly named. This was exactly the collection of music I needed to escape the stress and anxiety of life in the world of 2022. I loved every minute of this album. It’s a short but sweet collection of retro-style and modern production that took me on a journey to a delightful retro-futuristic world. This album goes on my list of important works in this genre and will be one of the soundtracks for my many cyberpunk daydreams for years to come. It checks all the boxes on the list of everything I love about this genre.

    In a Weary World can be purchased on Megan McDuffee’s bandcamp page for $8. A small price to pay for a fantastic collection of music that will take you on a voyage to a much more relaxing dystopia.

  • Cloudpunk Review

    Cloudpunk Review

    Cloudpunk is a game that had been on my radar for a long time. The game was formally announced back in 2018 by indie developer ION LANDS. It immediately piqued my interest. The idea seemed straightforward at the time. It was like the flying car segments of Blade Runner except you were a UPS-style delivery driver working in a vast cyberpunk city. It was a unique idea that immediately appealed to me. I wanted to fly freely around a huge cyberpunk city with electronic lights glowing in the endless rainfall. I wanted to so badly. So I followed the game’s development for the next two years and became increasingly excited as new details emerged. Then it was finally released in 2020 and I. . .did not get it for another two years. This year. This week in fact.

    And now that I have played through it I realize what a fool I’ve been. An absolute fool. A ridiculous, absolute fool. Had I known at the time how much I was going to love this game, I would have purchased it on day one. I shouldn’t have been surprised. I wanted to fly around an endless cyberpunk city in a flying car delivering packages and when I finally could, I delayed. Cloudpunk indeed delivered (heh) the Blade Runner-ish flying car package delivery that it promised for years that it would. But it also turned out to be so much more than I was expecting.

    It never stops raining in Nivalis. The city is oozing with atmosphere and you’re free to explore it all.

    The game wastes no time throwing you into the aforementioned flying car, called a HOVA in-game. You are Rania, a startlingly level-headed woman with a wry sense of humor who has just recently arrived in the city for work in order to pay off debt. Debt is a big deal in this world, by the way. If you are in debt, you are relentlessly pursued by a group called the DebtCorps whose job it is to make your life a living hell until you pay what you owe. They’ll take your home, kidnap your relatives, and do god-knows-what to you if they catch you.

    The city Rania has arrived in is called Nivalis and the work she has come to the city to do is to be a delivery driver for a sometimes sketchy delivery company called Cloudpunk. You are given a brief introduction to the city and to Cloudpunk by a mysterious dispatcher known to you only as Control. You eventually learn his real name later on but for most of the game he is simply referred to as “Control.”

    You are told to go to Cloudpunk HQ to pick up a package and deliver it to a destination that is given to you by Control. This is the crux of the gameplay in Cloudpunk. At it’s core you are simply delivering packages, and sometimes people from Point-A to Point-B. When Control gives you a job to do, he will place a “nav point” on your map. This is an icon that shows up on your map and shows you where to fly your HOVA to.

    The focus of the gameplay is on the flying segments but there are plenty of on-foot areas where you get to exit your HOVA and explore an area by walking around. This is usually when you arrive at a delivery destination. After you find a parking spot, that is (this turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of this game). The on-foot segments are fun but limited as you don’t interact with the environment much outside of operating switches for elevators, picking up an item from time to time, or interacting with vendors. It’s immediately noticeable how little you can interact with the environment in these scenes and it really says a lot about the design of the setting that I would immediately want to interact more with it.

    After you deliver your packages, it’s back in the HOVA for you where you will almost immediately be contacted by Control and given your next mission. There is a lot of playful banter between Raina and Control and it’s a fun little addition that makes the characters more personable. Your other companion while exploring Nivalis is Camus. Camus is an AI assistant who appears as a dog. He helps Rania during her trips through the city and even provides useful guidance her make moral decisions from time to time. Aside from Control, Camus is Raina’s only friend for most of the game.

    When arriving at delivery locations you exit your HOVA and explore the area on foot.

    Not every job you are given is as simple as delivering from Point-A to Point-B. There are some morally questionable delivery requests that pop up from time to time. Cloudpunk as a company doesn’t ask questions, but Rania and Camus certainly do. For example, one of the early packages when picked up is making a strange sound that makes Camus uneasy. When he tells you that he doesn’t like it, a secondary nav point is added to your map and you’re given the option to delivery the package to it’s intended recipient or take it to a trash disposal. As it turns out, the package was a bomb intended to blow up the recipient.

    I ended up delivering the package to the intended recipient because I didn’t yet realize right away that I had the option to do something else, despite Camus’ pleading. I felt bad but I made up for it by making future moral decisions more carefully. There is no long term impact of whatever decision you make. It triggers some interesting dialogue between you and Control and between you and Camus. But to have the option to disobey orders and make a decision that you feel is right is a nice touch.

    While you are making your deliveries you are meeting various people and speaking with them. As you do this you start to realize that there is an overarching story unfolding. This is where the game surprised me. I knew that I’d be meeting and talking to various people and learning more about them beforehand. But I was not expecting to experience the sort of in-depth story-telling present here.

    Rania notices a lot of people in Nivalis use the term CORA in various ways. It’s sometimes as slang, sometimes in the context of something mythical. But sometimes in a literal sense, as though it were a living thing that truly exists. Rania becomes more and more curious the more she hears the term used and begins to investigate what or who CORA is. The city, according to its citizens, is very old. Hundreds, or possibly even thousands of years. No one really knows. The city is treated in many ways as though it’s systems are mythical. No one really knows how the city works, technologically speaking. That information was lost ages ago. They just know that until now it has. But things start going wrong with the city and its various systems and Rania and others believe CORA might be involved.

    CORA and its nature are one of the most intriguing aspects of the game.

    This aspect of the story gripped me and inspired me to keep playing. I wanted to unlock more of the mystery surrounding CORA. And when the truth was finally revealed, I was not disappointed. This was real cyberpunk novel-worthy stuff.

    As good as the story is, the real star of the show here is the city itself. Nivalis is a living city, bustling with endless amounts of people, be they human or android, and other HOVAs flying around the busy “roads” all around the city. Visually, the city is stunning. It consists of hundreds of tiers stacked upon each other and extends over vast distances in all directions. All over you see the electronic light of digital billboards riddled with ads, the lights of noodle shops and apartments. You can navigate your HOVA up and down all these tiers, but not all the way to the towers above the clouds. Those can only be accessed by the ultra-rich. You do access some of these “spires” but only when it involves a delivery job you have to do.

    And it’s raining. Constantly. The entirety of the game takes place on Rania’s first night on the job so it’s possible that it’s just a rainy day. But it is never not raining in Nivalis during the game and I have no complaints about that. The city is delightfully atmospheric as a result.

    Adding to the atmosphere is the sounds you hear as you walk past various establishments. You’ll hear sirens above you as police HOVAs are chasing someone around in the skies above you. You may hear the thumping of bass as you pass a night club. You’ll hear ads and occasionally news reports. This all adds a sensation of life to the city.

    On top of all the background and foreground sounds you hear, there is also the music. Which I would be remiss not to mention. The soundtrack, composed by Harry Critchley, is very good. It’s mostly electronic music in the vein of various styles of synthwave. You have everything from the more ambient atmospheres of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack to the more pulsing dance-oriented stuff that has risen in popularity over the last few years.

    All of this amounts to an extremely fun, addictive game that I had a hard time turning off. I played through almost the entirety of the game in one session and it was over too soon. Which brings me to my second complaint about Cloudpunk. It’s too damn short. When the game was done, I wanted more. It’s like a movie that is so good you wish it wouldn’t end. Fortunately ION LANDS has since released DLC for the game that acts as a full-fledged sequel called City of Ghosts. I’m looking forward to playing that and will tackle it in a separate review sometime in the future.

    Cloudpunk is a breezy, fun, and very addictive adventure through a living cyberpunk world that feels real even in spite of it’s voxel-style graphics. A little more interactivity with the on-foot segment would have made this a near perfect experience. It’s a game that I will likely replay time and time again forever. I love being in the city of Nivalis. I’d live there if I could.