The Cub Review – When Twitter Collapses

The Cub Review - When Twitter Collapses

The team at Demagog Studio, developers of The Cub, and before it Golf Club (Wasteland) Nostalgia, has clearly spent some time dwelling on genre and its purpose. It’s been obvious that genre tags as commonly used in videogames (and, honestly, beyond) have been getting stretched thin for a while now; we cram racing and sport games together just so Forza can bubble up to the top of a pack of five, rather than four (although it would have been very funny had EA Sports FC won). Mario & Rabbids shares a category with XCom.

The Cub, specifically, is a sequel to a golf game. The trick being that the only golf in this game comes via passing references laced into the larger world narrative. You don’t play golf in The Cub; you run and jump over and swing from and occasionally climb things. Distilled down to a singular essence that an awards show might be able to toss into a bucket, The Cub is a platformer.

Even then, The Cub starts peeling into sub-genre. It never pretends to go after Mario-style hop ‘n bop play; first impressions are slower and more cerebral. Fall damage does exist, but it takes a long drop, and the opening sequence does a good job of making this clear, although the kid that players take the role of is still squishy and swift to die if a foot is placed wrong. You could argue that it’s a cinematic sidescroller, like Flashback, only with better controls. At other times, it seems like a massacre-core Meat Boy-like with worse controls.

We’re suggesting the sub-genre of a sub-genre’s sub-genre here. And this isn’t even the first example of this I’ve encountered over the past year. Our critical framework is probably broken.

You could almost build up an argument that The Cub is a triumph of genre-remixing, of stretching and swapping mechanics to fit the next challenge that the team wishes to lay out. Only, I don’t think that any of this is the expressive point that the team is reaching for. Not even close.

The Cub doesn’t see genre as a box to live in, certainly not the creative goal or target of its design. Genre, here, is a tool to achieve that end goal. I’d argue that is the correct mindset, although it can bring with it challenges to the level of polish and (perhaps inevitably) the clarity of communication with players in regard to mechanical challenges.

That communication niggle, in particular, stands out and does some work towards undermining The Cub’s accomplishment because death is a real, and throughout a couple of sequences, common factor. Worldbuilding is the goal here, of sharing and exploring this space and letting it speak on behalf of the developers. It has to be this way; how else could this be accepted as a sequel (or perhaps a companion piece) to a golf game?

It mostly comes down to it all being set in the same world. While Remedy has perhaps done a better job of flexing its muscles when it comes to building a cross-franchise universe, Demagog nonetheless also does better than Marvel through the understanding that it is, ultimately, the world – the universe itself – that matters, and that populating it with literal superheroes doesn’t create a unified world so much as it does an increasingly-sludgy puddle of franchise crossover fanservice. This is all a long-winded way of saying that The Cub shares its setting with another work and that the messaging and aesthetics carry through here. 

The core premise, then, will be familiar to anyone who has played Golf Club Nostalgia – a bunch of self-important billionaires done fucked up the planet for everyone else and buggered off to Mars. Both games build around a small party’s temporary return; with the Cub, you take the role of a native Earth child who seems playfully keen on messing with these alien-like creatures (that he can succeed is some nice catharsis; that you will likely see around fifty death screens before end credits embodies the role of cruel reality scratching at the back of your skull). All of this is scored by a radio broadcast from Mars – a mix of wistful presenter reminiscing, music, and corny, satirical advertisements – pumped through a stolen fishbowl space helmet. It’s at once tongue-in-cheek and sombre, if a little too direct in its usage of not-so-subtle parody names such as Fakebook, Faux News and Muskovich.

Also, for some reason actions such as passing through tunnels can apparently cause interference with a broadcast that has literally traveled between planets.

So, while the worldbuilding – and the greater narrative and aesthetic – perhaps uses parody to the point of a crutch in lieu of creating its own oligarch villains, it is this (and not any series of mechanics) that ties this game together with the golfing that came before. The Cub describes itself as The Jungle Book meets the armageddon, and this, to Demagog’s absolute credit, is a far better way of describing their game than anything involving the term ‘platformer’.

Again, genre here is just a means to an end, although the aforementioned frustrations do shine through when this means isn’t given quite enough attention. Everything plays second fiddle to atmosphere, the serene but sad apocalypse aesthetic by way of Nickelodeon’s Avatar being grafted onto late 80’s cyberpunk anime. Play shifts focus from exploring and collecting cultural artifacts (both pop and high) and more demanding platform sequences, often with some form of time pressure. 

The former here is seldom a problem and allows for the radio broadcasts to more effectively set the mood and add to the satire while the cub collects old newspapers, books, and consumes things that result in burping, but the latter suffer not only from controls that are functional but not quite snappy enough… and also from colour palette choices that leave players frequently being unable to see the spot where they’re supposed to jump or the pole that they’re supposed to swing. It’s kind of like a beautiful watch, accurate to the millisecond, but one where the hands can’t be clearly seen in many common lighting conditions.

This creates an unfortunate friction wherein by trying to place mood and atmosphere on the central pillar, The Cub can instead occasionally break it with a series of unfair-feeling game over screens. Sequences that should be thrilling or fun get turned into trial-and-error sequences of memorisation that eventually end up playing out like Quick Time Events, only without the button prompts on screen.

It’s an unfortunate problem. That the mechanics never feel like the main point, but the ambition of what The Cub is striving for is so often yoked to them, that a fair and reasonable (maybe even necessary) desire for variety perhaps superseded the development time and playtesting afforded to the team.

At its best, The Cub makes valid points. It perhaps makes them a bit too loud, but they are no less valid (or, indeed, important) because of this. It’s difficult to be too critical of such shouting when every passing day makes the reality of our current world seem more and more post-irony. If this review ever surfaces on some old internet archive of the future where a handful of the wealthy 1% have signed their lives away to live with Musk on Mars after a third term of the Trump family autocracy left everyone else to rot, well… know that maybe it was my criticism that was actually overstated Demagog wasn’t actually shouting loudly enough.

But for now, you can enjoy a grim reality-to-be from the comfort of your living room over a rainy weekend. Or even a sunny one; the choice is still yours.

The Cub was reviewed on the PS5 with code kindly supplied by the publisher. 

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