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Cuphead Review: Style Over Substance?

You only have to see Cuphead in action to love it.

Every moment of it is a work of art, with years of blood, sweat and tears visibly poured into it. Just like most art, however, it’s definitely an acquired taste. Some will love it, some will hate it, and many will like it but not be enough of a connoisseur to take in its full beauty. And that’s possibly a problem.

You see, for many players, Cuphead will just prove to be too hard. Its 1930s styled visuals and soundtrack will attract gamers of all skill levels, both young and old, but only a very small percentage of them will ever be able to complete it. For example, at the moment of writing, despite Cuphead being a game that can feasibly be completed in around three hours, just over 1.2% have done so according to Xbox Live Achievement stats.

Comprising of more bosses than you can shake a stick at, a smattering of run ‘n gun stages and a few parry challenges, Cuphead is a game spread over four maps that you can freely explore. Technically, the run ‘n gun stages are optional, as all you really to do to progress is defeat all of an area’s bosses. If you want to buy new shot types and a slew of perks to make your life easier, however, you’ll have to do them as they offer a wealth of coins to be collected. Saying that, you can obtain a handful of coins by exploring the world maps and interacting with their inhabitants.

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Six shot types are available overall, each with their own quirk, ranging from the standard shot down to the powerful grenade launcher-like Lobber. You’re allowed to equip two of them at any one time, instantly switching between them with the touch of a button, and along with the one perk slot that you can also fill, you’re afforded some degree of gameplay variation and strategy.

Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a boss that’s causing you huge amounts of trouble and reassess your loadout, as some combinations are highly effective against particular foes. It’s also worth seeking out and completing the trio of mausoleum parry challenges that can be found, each one unlocking a new super move that can be assigned. They can prove to be very useful, such as providing a brief moment of invulnerability which can make all the difference between victory and defeat.

One of Cuphead‘s best features is the support for a second player to jump in at pretty much any time and assist. The damage output of both players is reduced slightly to compensate for the extra help, but many bosses are certainly easier to take down with twice the manpower. Personally though, I found many bosses harder to beat in co-op, as the action becomes so hectic that enemy attacks are often obscured. And the run ‘n gun levels I found nearly impossible to beat with another player in tow.

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There’s no doubt about it; Cuphead is fiendishly hard, and it seems to revel in it. Bosses have multiple attack patterns that you must painstakingly learn, and there are usually three or more phases to each fight that you must battle through without any checkpoints or health refreshes. Quite often you’ll find yourself in a situation that feels unwinnable, that just doesn’t feel fair, and you’ll have to just sit back and accept your fate. Trust me, it can be unduly frustrating to get to the last phase of a battle and then die, forcing you to play through it all again for the nth time. It just isn’t fun.

To cater for those who find its bosses to just be too much of a challenge, nearly all of them can be taken on in “Simple” mode, but it doesn’t help in the grand scheme of things. With a more limited range of attack patterns and less phases, the bosses are certainly easier to defeat, but it does little to help you defeat them on regular difficulty. Plus, I said nearly all of the bosses as you can’t actually take on the final boss and complete the game until you’ve beaten all the previous bosses on regular difficulty anyway, making simple mode rather redundant.

It would have been better if there was an easier mode that granted infinite hearts, or provided checkpoints between each phase. Something that would have enabled players to experience the bosses at full force and practice their skills before tackling them without a crutch in regular mode. Simple mode just feels like a ham-fisted and hasty solution to a problem; more of a band-aid than a cure.

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I also have an issue with the game’s parry system, one which allows you to essentially ‘smack’ pink objects to perform a double jump. It seems rather pointless to be honest, a feature popped in just to provide an extra layer of unnecessary difficulty. But hey, performing them is mandatory if you want to get the best grades, so you best get looking for those pink objects so you can smack them when it’s probably easier to just avoid them. Perhaps if performing parries had more of a benefit, like sending back the projectile at your attacker to do some damage (there is actually a perk that sends an axe back, by the way), they’d feel less like a needless complication.

For those who do have the reflexes of a ninja and the patience of a saint, however, Cuphead is likely to prove to be a highly enjoyable experience pretty much from start to finish. After beating all of the game’s stages and bosses they can go back and do them again to get the best grades. And then they can try and do it all again in expert mode or unlock a black and white filter by being a pacifist. Those who love Cuphead and truly gel with it will get more than their money’s worth, but they’ll be assuredly outnumbered by players left in turmoil by its brick wall of a challenge.

Overall, Cuphead isn’t so much of a case of style over substance, but rather style over accessibility. The art is simply astonishing, and so too the music, but the gameplay is frequently too frustrating to make Cuphead a totally enjoyable experience. Essentially a boss rush game, its pacing allows for no relief. There are no moments of downtime to come down from the frustration or elation of your battles, it’s just long bouts of tension and stress that, for the most part, outweigh any joy that’s felt. It’s a shame, because at times Cuphead is an absolute pleasure, but more often than not I was left shouting vile things in anger at the screen, and I’m quite a patient person. So yeah, Cuphead is a work of art, and it will divide opinion like the best works should.

Cuphead is available on Xbox One and PC. We reviewed the Xbox One version.

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