You’ve been used to play higher difficulty games nowadays by souls-like titles, but Cuphead is a pretty different beast. While the likes of Dark Souls are open world productions, Studio MDHR’s is a game where you just can’t escape or find workarounds – there are some challenges you just can’t avoid from getting right in front of your face, unless you don’t stop playing it. Plain and simple, Cuphead is the true definition of difficulty in video games, and that meaning is hidden under the shiny cover of cartoony graphics and music you’ll remember for quite a long time.
It’s a crazy journey for crazy people. Before you embark on this quest, you should know you’ll have nights where you’ll stop playing because you can’t defeat one boss, so wasted nights apparently, and others where you’ll do it quite good despite losing and losing all over again. It’s a game about patience, and understanding what’s happening around you, like enemies’ routines and behaviors. You really have to pay attention to the environment, to the movements, to everything is on the right, on the left, behind and in front of you, because just like in any other bullet hell… everything is danger, everything can take your lives by simply touching you in a moment of relief or distraction.
Cuphead’s a continuous flux, split into two different portions where gameplay feels quite different. There’s the run ‘n’ gun stuff, where you basically need to… well, run and gun, you know. That’s the moment where you really need to focus and have a clear understanding of enemies’ movements, where they come from, how they move around the places and what skill set they have, all this kind of thing you should be able to predict in order to get to the end of the level alive. It’s not a given that the more you run the easier you do it – at times, you’ll be required to wait and see what’s going on, check if you can pass through the wave of enemies instead of simply running into them, losing some precious lives of yours. Clear enough, this is the easiest portion of the game, the one where you can take your time to get the full picture and react of consequence.
The second half is the hardest, and it’s all about the boss fights. Many of them are close to the impossible, but none of them is impossible at all. You’ll be asked once again to understand their routines and be careful not to waste lives with their minions, but after that is just a matter of good timing and patience. There’s no situation where you’ll just wait and see that after some time the boss dies alone, like the game might want you to believe in several circumstances; but it’s clear that taking the initiative isn’t always the best thing to do. Reacting is a good option, if not your priority, in Cuphead and having a great timing in doing so will probably award you the final victory.
Bosses’ design is smart and fun, like you’ve probably never seen before a smiling flower shooting the hell out of you while dancing music from the ‘30s. And at the same time it’s also smart the way they take advantage of the environment they have around them in order to beat you until you die crying at how much harder life is lately; for example, a blue ball will read your movements and jump accordingly against the border of the screen in order to hit you while falling; the aforementioned flower will select points where it should be planting the seeds from which plants hitting you will be born, etc.
The game was thought with this all well in mind, and clever choices like showing you a bar of your progress throughout the level when you die is emblematic of the process; from that, you’ll be able to track your progress very differently from other games – it tracks your way up to your failure, not to your victory – and notice your behavior is just like a pendulum: one moment you’re so close to beating the damn boss, the other you’re incredibly far away from the end. In the middle, all a series of trials and errors that will see you slip away every second more from the final target. It’s a focus on the defeat you won’t find in other games where, like in Dark Souls, you’ll always be running in order to recover your lost souls/progress and won’t ever take your time to analyze why you’re so bad, or precisely when you start being that.
Talking about graphics, you’ve never seen something as cohesive and impressive as Cuphead is. From the very beginning – cutscenes and the very little narrative portion – to the characters and the sound effects, everything responds to the same artistic vision: creating a title that would look exactly like a cartoon from the ‘30s. It delivers, and maybe goes even further when providing believable and precise animations you have both while moving and standing. It’s so painful to fall in love with it, but you can’t really unseen how catchy the game looks and feels.
Among the flaws I would remark the lack of an online co-op, even though the development team has already stated this could be coming soon (and they also said having it only offline was a part of the original vision, where the creators would play it on the couch just like they were child), and a not-so-great selection of weaponry/power ups, which you can buy at a specific shop ran by a pig on the 3D isometric map. Also, platforming is very marginal in the overall experience, so if you thought the last delay was going to further add onto this aspect, well, this has happened very relatively in comparison with the overall amount of content on offer here. Nothing serious, though, really.
Cuphead is a polished and visionary side scroller shoot ’em up, which you should give a try because of all the aforementioned reasons. Plus it is only $19,99, and you can play it on PC Steam/Windows 10 and not only on Xbox One. It would be a total waste of your gamer time should you focus on other titles between the end of September and the beginning of October rather that this one, mate.