Whatever its other problems, you can’t fault Cradle’s staggering attention to detail. The yurt where the game begins is a masterpiece of scenography, crammed with domestic clutter that simply begs to be examined. Just a glance around this room gleans a vivid impression of sci-fi world rich in history and cultural flavour not unlike that of Cowboy Bebop or Firefly, the sort of gritty near future in which tattered buddhist paraphernalia and rusty wood-burning stoves exist side-by-side with cyborgs and holographic displays. No matter how nonsensical Cradle’s plot eventually becomes, the mundane reality of this space - the dishes in the sink, the mop propped up beside the door – remains utterly convincing. If only the whole game was as well conceived.
Take the clumsy controls, for instance. Cradle is a first-person exploration game that mostly involves picking up and using different items, but doing so is not as simple as it sounds. For some bizarre reason, Cradle doesn’t allow players to put objects back in their original position (a la Gone Home) or at the very least to place them neatly on a nearby surface, which is fairly inexplicable given the artistry that went into arranging every detail of the yurt’s presentation. Instead, you can either abandon items at your feet or lob them aside, making the game’s first task of serving up breakfast a lot more comical than was probably intended. Maybe stabbing at a piece of fruit as it rolls around on the floor is an accurate reflection of the harsh culinary conditions of a dystopian future, but this slapstick lack of finesse when manipulating objects completely derails the game’s tone and feels like a glaring oversight. Coming so early on in the game too, it’s the first hint that perhaps Cradle wasn’t quite ready for public consumption, even after four years of development.
The most obviously undercooked element is the game’s story. The setup, trite as it may be, is at least functional: you’ve woken up somewhere in the Mongolian steppe with no recollection of who you are and how you got there. Luckily for you, there’s a robot woman at hand who may well have the key to unlocking your past, if only you could find her missing parts. From there, things quickly spiral into an amorphous mess that involves psychic powers, time travel and the fate of humankind, but the plot’s biggest problem is that it never actually decides what it wants to say. Rather than a strong thematic statement, Cradle offers something more like a mind-map of underdeveloped ideas, touching upon inequality, consumerism and the nature of consciousness without really giving you that much to think about any of them.
There’s also some technical blunders to contend with. Between its rolling hills, soaring pylons and desolate ruined amusement park, Cradle’s scenery is downright stunning, but it can also be deadly. Twice during our playthrough, we found ourselves snagged on a piece of geometry with no option but to quit the game and load a previous save, which it turns out are few and far between. Misplace a key item – which is easily done given how awkward they are to handle - and you’ll need to do the same. A tricky bit of impromptu platforming also suffers from poor checkpointing. Sure, getting it right took us a couple more tries than it probably should (try twenty), but did we really have to climb all the way back to start every... single... time!?
Otherwise, Cradle is pretty much on the right track. Its puzzles are nimble and intuitive without giving themselves away and the Minecraft inspired minigame that pops up every now and then is fun enough once you get the hang of it, even if its connection with the rest of the game’s world feels contrived and tenuous. And while it’s desperately in need of an overhaul, you could hardly accuse the story of being dull. The world-building too, as discussed already, is ensorcelling.
But as Flying Cafe’s cacophony of ideas continues to unravel, flaws begin to emerge even here. For example, as an eighteen year old living in the year 2076, why would a photograph of your parents look like something torn out a wartime scrapbook? Or your grandparents for that matter? Weird inconsistencies like this make it seem like the scenes were designed first (meticulously arranged as they are) and then a story was haphazardly retrofitted on top, generating all sorts of accidental holes and contradictions.
Whatever Cradle was supposed to be, that initial vision clearly got lost at some point during its reportedly troubled development process. The game’s lead designer departed the project fairly early on, leaving the team in a state “deep crisis” after which they missed one deadline after another. Four years later and it’s apparent that the game never quite found its way back, but as frustrating as the final result may be, at least it ended up somewhere interesting.