The Cub Review – A Cultural Mishmash Of Tedious Mishaps

Establishing a strong, recognizable creative voice is no easy feat. Demagog Studio’s first work, Golf Club Nostalgia, was a strong step in that direction: a game dominated by its hazy, eccentric radio tunes and personal character stories rather than its relatively unimpressive golf gameplay. Unfortunately, The Cub, as a direct sequel, creates a relationship between its elements that is so similar that it feels stifling as a result.

The challenge of revisiting the same story from a different perspective and in a different genre must certainly be exciting for creatives, but a little less so for me, who never felt the need to see the life of the mutated Earthling child before meeting Charlie. It was not what drew me into that world. The return of Radio Nostalgia from Mars, however, was enough for me to buy in yet again.

The cub sliding down inside the bones of a giant creature
Though I didn’t care much for most of the platforming sections, you gotta love a good platformer slide

Those unaware of The Cub’s origins are likely to be in for a surprise. Throughout most of this platformer’s play time, a radio with nostalgic tunes and stories of individuals from a human civilization on Mars will play on full blast, seemingly independent of the actions on screen. Its presence, or sometimes lack thereof, defines the entire experience, as the titular character climbs below ground to lose signal, only to regain it and return to a song about love in the stars or the presenter discussing society’s dystopian conditions.

Just like with Golf Club Nostalgia, the two don’t ever mash, but unlike there, the player character is likely to die every couple of seconds. Be that due to the game’s slippery controls and inconsistent collision detection or the abundance of different creatures and environmental hazards, this kid is certainly dying in one gruesome way or another. Never did these elicit much out of me. The radio keeps going as the cave-drawing animation of them exploding plays, while at other times their demise lasts merely a frame, making it feel more sudden and silly than memorably disturbing.

A cave drawing of a dead Cub
The silly cave drawings combined with the music continously playing often make player death feel weightless

Radio Nostalgia is a force of Eastern European dejectedness—an overpowering, contemplative mood that feels so much more important than anything happening on the screen. That quality is so strong that without a proper gameplay backdrop, it will be all the player remembers. Golf Club Nostalgia’s was unintrusive to seemingly accentuate that feeling, but The Cub’s is frustrating, with an occasional set piece to draw attention. Usually unsuccessfully.

There are moments with no radio, where the space helmet playing it is removed for one reason or another, and I think those more than anything solidify the idea that without it, the game merely alternates between weightless and unexciting. Getting it back is always pleasant, but before that can happen the player is left with a monotonous feeling akin to losing signal while driving to work.

The cub watching a superhero Marvel/DC spoof on TV
There’s only so many pop culture spoofs one can take per hour

A few nice vistas do little to hold together an overall forgettable and bloated level design. Nothing shows this better than the collectible placement. In most games, finding one is a treat, a reward for an inquisitive mind, but here they are often discovered in groups of up to four on one path, devaluing them as a result. Make progress, pick up the first, second, and third, and be back on your way.

Even if they were hidden more deftly, though, I think they would still be disappointing. The Cub has a redundancy issue, not to the point of making its point moot but certainly diluting the message a bit. Most newspapers explain the modern issues that led to the collapse of Earth, people leave behind messages of how this technological paradise brought them nothing but ruin, valuable things have long since lost their value which is signified by the Cub scratching their behind or burping loudly when the game crosses them off the list. Nothing the player cannot notice by simply running through the locations they are found in.

A newspaper simply titled "We're F***ed"
Every now and then, the game’s dark humor does work

From the tiniest of discoveries to the most prevailing gameplay mechanics, nothing feels like it truly matters. As I drowned myself in the sorrowful music and tragic stories, this two-hour experience seemed to just coalesce every moment into one. No moment stuck out, and if they once did I was likely to repeat them anyway so much that they lost their luster. Could be because I missed a ledge or an input for unclear reasons or the game would just crash like it did several times in a row during the last two chapters.

Though I did not like The Cub much, I think I can find myself enjoying Demagog Studio as a developer down the road. The patterns from their two games that I do enjoy, I enjoy a lot. I am a fan of this feeling of something bigger happening irrespective of my actions, a world’s or its characters’ grandiose change exemplified by something distant to the player character, or even non-existent to them: music, podcasts, messages, item descriptions, collectibles. This sort of approach is still being interestingly explored, it just unfortunately does not yield many interesting results this time around.

Mateusz played The Cub on PC with his own bought copy.

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