Blending simple mechanics with a gorgeous post-apocalyptic world, The Cub is an intricately detailed game that draws on a wealth of influences to ask a weighty question: What kind of world are we creating for our children?
The Cub follows on from Golf Club Nostalgia and Highwater from the same developers. Similarly to the previous releases, The Cub uses a playful premise to deliver its very serious message.
You play as the titular cub, a Mowgli-inspired feral child living in the ruins of planet Earth. An opening cutscene explains how he was separated from his mother when most of humanity fled Earth to live on a terraformed Mars. He has since lived on the abandoned Earth, raised by wolves and developing scrappy survival skills to stay alive in the toxic environment.
The game begins when Martians return to Earth to examine the wasteland. They notice the cub and decide to hunt him down and capture him—partly to study how he survived the poisoned air and partly to destroy evidence that the privileged class saved themselves and abandoned vulnerable children.
From there, you scramble through a gorgeously-designed 2D platformer that takes you from dark subterranean depths to the peaks of derelict skyscrapers with the three invaders in close pursuit. The platforms are wonderfully designed. The blend of overgrown jungle and the detritus of crumbled buildings paints a horrifying picture of a world exploited and abandoned by mankind, rendered unlivable and unloved.
They also make for fun platforming. The contrasting natural and man-made obstacles clash in a way that makes you think about how best to traverse each section. One particularly delightful level sees you shinny up the handrail and leap over the inverted seats of a wrecked subway car dangling vertically over the edge of a cliff.
As you go, you piece together the history of humanity by collecting emails, videos and newspapers scattered through the ruins. The Cub leaves absolutely no question about who is responsible for the destruction of the planet. Greedy corporations who prioritized profits over the wellness of the world and its human and non-human inhabitants did this. There is a direct line drawn between their actions in their obsession with advancing technology to fit their vision while hoarding as much wealth as possible and the utter destruction of the world.
The Cub is also not subtle about its comparisons with the real world companies and individuals making those exact choices today. A logo emblazoned across the side of lorry corpses littering the world echoes the Amazon logo. An early space travel entrepreneur is named Muskovitch. Some are not the most intelligent pieces of satire, but it’s nonetheless difficult not to chuckle at stories about capitalist planet-destroyer Jeff Bozo.
There are other collectibles you can acquire on your adventure. Some nod towards the influences behind the game. You find books including The Jungle Book, Moby Dick and Candide, and play video clips that echo profound scenes from recognisable apocalyptic film and television.
You also collect experiences that remind you that you’re playing as a vulnerable, lone child. You can dig into the darkest, scariest corners of the map to find luxuries, burps and hugs. These are the moments that remind you just how severely contemporary civilization is failing the next generation. The only moments of affection this nameless child experiences, while being hunted by the very adults who wrecked his home, are from dirty old teddy bears. It’s such a simple but effective way to hammer home the message of this game.
The entire game is accompanied by a truly stunning original soundtrack. Early on, the cub steals a helmet from a dead Martian. Whenever he wears it, you listen to an Earth nostalgia centered radio channel broadcast from Mars. Original songs beautifully accompany each stage of the game and the emotional beats of the story at each point.
These are punctuated by the gentle, friendly voice of a radio host who offers context about life on Mars. This is not presented as the utopian new world space pioneers dream of. Instead, people call in to tell heartbreaking stories of being separated from their families and hating living in a perpetual winter. The host kindly reminds listeners to take medication to improve their mood and that spreading “misinformation” about rumors of feral children living on Earth is punishable by law.
The Cub is not an especially long game, but it is good fun and incredibly well designed in almost every respect. It combines a terrifying warning with a sense of rebellious whimsy to make an important point clearly and concisely.
Review: The Cub (Nintendo Switch)
Gorgeous from start to finish, The Cub is a short but hugely entertaining 2D platformer that has been crafted with love to be not only a fun game to play, but a fantastic piece of satirical art that does not pull its punches in its critiques of contemporary reality.