Upon starting Cradle, players will find themselves in a circular enclosed hut filled with many, many things, and all objects confined within have something to tell you. The door of this structure opens out onto a vast landscape, but leaving immediately would be a mistake. The first 30 minutes of my playtime with the game was spent inside these confining walls, and I feel anyone that decides to play it should do the same. Players that relish in both finding and delving into huge info dumps – even if they sometimes will spout meaningless exposition – will be the people who end up getting the best out of what Cradle offers.
Above all else, Cradle is a game that’s all about the Journey. If you set your sights on the end, and disregard everything you meet along the way, you are doing it a disservice. It is full of scraps of information, with literal scraps of paper littering the game world. To get lost in what the developer has created, you must be willing to absorb and reflect on the various details the game puts before you. It’s probably worth having a notebook beside you as you play, as the details are so densely packed you’ll likely want to write down the ones that matter, or you believe will matter at some point. If you are the kind of person that skipped this part of my review, because you’d rather get a 100 word summary at the bottom, then maybe Cradle is not for you.
Right from the get go, Cradle offers generous helpings of unique sci-fi thrills. The story takes place “somewhere in Mongolia,” in what seems to be 2076 – unless that was an old calendar I found. The world appears to lie in ruins following a incident referred to as the “Köln Catastrophe,” which would eventually lead to the “Lilith Epidemic.” With this info (and much more alongside it) constantly in the background, the game has a main objective – finding spare parts to repair an inactive female droid. Although this mission is compelling, and propels the story forward, it was delving into the aforementioned background information that grew to be the most appealing facet of the game for me.
Whenever the word “sci-fi” is uttered, my mind almost instantly starts thinking of aliens firing space-lasers. Cradle could not be any further from this. It totally sidesteps the genre norms, and instead deals with heavier themes. Theories of reincarnation, along with both transhumanism and posthumanism are the game’s main talking points. The story goes down the route of genetic engineering too, with a focus on life extension therapies and all that surrounds it. Cradle quickly becomes adept at delving into ideas other titles never hit on – and even TV and movies rarely do either. In fact, most of the themes of Cradle seem like they are only ever found in hard sci fi novels, most of which can sometimes be a chore to fully wrap one’s head around. In similar vein, with the work needed to fully grasp what Cradle wants to tell you, playing it can sometimes feel like you’ve taken up a part-time forensic job.
Compare to Gone Home, Cradle is on another level when it comes to hiding it secrets. Whereas Fullbright’s effort helps players to connect the dots, slowly hinting at what awaits, Cradle is more a blank canvas teamed with an infinite palette of colours. Whereas Gone Home delved into the history of one family, Cradle has chosen to go in-depth on an entire civilization. At times it gets overly complex, often reveling in confusing details for too long. Whilst this certainly helps in terms of worldbuilding, it also means players may be crippled by indecision of what to do, and where to go next. There is a basic tips system available – mapped to the TAB key – but that only aides in helping with the main objective. And to be honest, the tasks asked of that objective are a bit more mundane than they need to be – regularly asking players to tackle much more busywork than feels necessary.
To make a game these days takes a large chunk of money, along with a large chunk of time. Because of this, developers want to produce content they are sure people will see. There seems little point to spend hours of work on little facets of a game some players will end up walking past, and a large number will never notice. Cradle seems to very much disagree with this rational. Its world is filled with beautiful looking minutiae, that is regularly hidden away and hard to find. A small sentence casually placed in a much larger paragraph of text can be vitally important to your understanding of the world that surrounds you.
One of the bigger downsides is when the game tries to introduce other gameplay mechanics into the mix. There are a few times players are tasked with working through a virtual neon-block breaking minigame, and although its inclusion is explained within the game’s fiction, it still seems out of place compared to everything else on show in the world. Thankfully, this irksome block breaking is just a small percentage of the overall experience – although you are cruely asked to perform the soulless task multiple times. If I had the choice, I wish it was never included in the game at all.
Cradle offers zero handholding. It tosses players into the deep end, and they’ll either sink or swim. It is a game that rewards a methodical playstyle, and respects players if they are willing to scope out everything they come across in the game’s expertly fleshed out world. There is a fantastic story waiting to be told here, you just have to work to unearth the details. The following is not a spoiler, but more of a warning. Cradle ends as vaguely as it starts. If you hurry through it just to see the finale, you will not be happy with what you get. People have the right to play games how they want, but rushing to see the end of Cradle is the epitome of playing the game wrong. No grand verbose narrator lies just before the credits roll to tell you the tale of your character’s existence.
I enjoyed my time with Cradle, but I dare say many will not. Its detailed, although imprecise storytelling gives many of its suitors reasons to dislike it, to not understand it, and at worst give up on it. Regardless, I believe there is something quite special at work here. The developers have built a fascinating world filled with possibilities, and for that they should be applauded. However, there is no getting away from the fact they could have done a better job presenting players its unique offerings. Simply put, sometimes it can be a little bit too vague for its own good.