The indie gaming scene is littered with promising betas that were abandoned by their makers, and for the better part of the decade, it looked like Cloudphobia would wander that same purgatory. Since 2003, the stylish shoot-’em-up from Japan has rattled around the web in the form of a single-level demo. Then, in December, a full version of Cloudphobia appeared on the developers’ homepage with no comment on the game’s long gestation—just a download link and a PayPal button.
Not that anyone’s complaining. The first level of Cloudphobia retains the crisp, surging visuals that made it such a tantalizing proof of concept, but four new stages make level one seem pedestrian by comparison. Cloudphobia’s look remixes modern anime with a touch of underground VJ style, creating lush backdrops that melt into the bots-and-battleships action.
The playing field is 2D, yet it occasionally twists onto the 3D background in surprising ways, breaking out of the flatness that characterizes side-scrolling shooters. In particular, the third mission, where missiles arc toward you from the horizon, has a dizzying sense of motion reminiscent of Rez. (The game’s generic synthesizer backing tracks don’t measure up to the Rez standard, though.)
Cloudphobia eschews power-ups and other baubles, opting for a simpler three-way mechanic. You have to watch the shields on your own fighter while also protecting a mothership that suffers damage whenever you fail to shoot down a bogey. Plus there’s a three-minute time limit on each level, so you often have to blaze through enemy lines more recklessly than you’d like. It all adds up to a hellishly difficult war of attrition; the only strategy is to balance your competing interests long enough to eke out a victory.
Beyond the game: A replay feature can record a successful run, which is nice, because when you manage to finish a mission, you’ll want visual proof that it’s possible.
Worth playing for: If lasers aren’t your thing, you can choose to pilot the sword-wielding “Núllpunktur,” a variation on Cloudphobia’s flying-robot protagonist that takes the shooting out of the shooter.
Frustration sets in when: You attempt to decipher the nonsensical backstory.
Final judgment: Check your fear of failure at the door, and you’ll be able to savor Cloudphobia’s hypnotic shoot-’em-up eye candy.