An oasis of love and friendship.
We’re not doing a long-ass intro for this one. Cruelty Squad owns. This is the best new game I’ve played thus far in 2021 and I’m going to tell you why. Strap in.
Much digital ink has been spilt about the game’s visual style. I love it, but I’d go so far as to argue that once you know what you’re looking at Cruelty Squad is equal parts stylish and functional. In many ways it does a BETTER job of communicating critical information than most games in the genre. From the eyeball that clues you in every time you’re being watched, to the life meter using both color and number so you know how well your meat is doing at a glance, to your gunshots dropping in pitch as your mag gets low, everything serves to inform the player of what’s going on without ever cluttering your view with red flashes or obnoxious audio cues. As a result I have an easier time assessing and reacting to threats in Cruelty Squad than I do in other games like it, and given how the game looks that’s an extraordinary feat.
The controls make some very intentional deviations from most shooters. Most notably, Q and E are lean buttons that make your aim reticle dodgier during use and R is your interact button. There is no reload button. To reload you hold down right click, which pulls up a vertical meter and locks your camera. You drop the mouse down to drop your mag, pull it up to slam a fresh one in, and let go of the button to get back to shooting. It cannot be understated how satisfying these motions feel in play, and it carries the tangible gameplay benefit of faster reloads than most games would allow. It’s reminiscent of light gun games and how much haptic satisfaction improves in those, but brought forward into a full featured immersive sim with the hardware you already have. Aside from active reloads, how many games really iterate and improve on something as simple as reloading? Cruelty Squad does. If each gun had a unique CHIK-CHAK sound effect on reload it would be borderline gun porn.
Speaking of guns we have a golf bag of bangers. The game starts fairly predictable: silenced pistol, SMG, shotgun, burst rifle, etc. But give it a few levels (and some exploration) and you’ll be firing gas grenades, rockets, silenced sniper rifles, you name it. And if you go out of your way to find secret weapons you’ll find some of the greatest (and also garbage because it’s funny) guns I’ve seen in a shooter in ages. I’m gonna spoil one: the fucking Cerebral Bore is in this! As one of about a dozen remaining Turok fans in the year of our Lord 2021, finding its fleshy cousin in this game was a treat. It comes complete with dental-drill screeching, head-latching, and head-popping just like Acclaim intended. It was love at first smite.
Each level begins with an assassination assignment given to you by your blobby boss. You’re given a map with a set number of targets and free reign to handle them in any way you see fit. Want to stack up on armor and do your best Terminator impression? Or mod your body to allow you to grow new rockets for your launcher mid-mission? How about an armor piercing sniper rifle and a modified grappling hook appendix (named the Grappendix, naturally) to get to otherwise inaccessible positions via spider-man swings, plus getting some holes drilled into the bottoms of your feet for waste-propelled fall damage insurance? These are all options and, crucially, these are all normal. With a few exceptions for straight up wacky equipment every tool in your arsenal is functional, and this makes the learning process of each new level a blast as you work out a functional plan and loadout that’ll help you in sending your targets to the genetic recombinator for reconstitution.
The open ended nature of these levels means that not all approaches are created equal. Once you’ve sussed out the enemy placements and unlocked an arsenal some levels are capable of being beaten in mere seconds. I killed a guy at the top of a pyramid by shooting his window out and filling his office with gas grenades. Am I proud of it? Kind of, honestly, that was fucking rad. And this is the sort of power fantasy gameplay that Cruelty Squad revels in. Going back to levels with access to a wider range of gear reveals how much work Consumer Softproducts has put into the game’s level design; everything reveals possibilities, in some cases bad ones, but always something. Should you find the game get a bit too easy once you’re JC Denton-ing your way through missions don’t worry – Punishment Mode is a toggleable that makes the game dramatically tougher and there’s a Cursed status you can voluntarily inflict on yourself later in the game that essentially turns on hard mode for any given level: more tough enemies in new locations, cash penalties for every death, reduced draw distance, and an extra assassination target to track down. As of writing this I’ve beaten most of the levels on Cursed and let me tell you – you don’t do it for the money. You do it to prove to the game that you can, in fact, pull that shit off. And it feels incredible.
When you’re not feeling quite so violent there’s also the game’s side content: stocks and fish. At any moment (including mid-mission!) you can check your portfolio and buy or sell your little heart out. If you’re anything like me this will be a far greater source of comedy than cash. I’m able to profit consistently now, but early on when you’re poor it’s a hell of a thing to invest in a company only to kill their board off in a mission and watch their price crater in real time, taking your pocket money with it. Fishing is where the real money lives. Once you find the fishing rod you can equip it in a weapon slot and fish in any body of water. Finding great fishing spots is how I bought the vast majority of my gear, no joke, and the fishing rod has some secret applications that may justify bringing it along to missions you actually intend to complete too. You’ll see.
And this not-so-subtle commentary about the angler life being superior to the gig assassin’s ties neatly into me talking about the game’s themes. The opening cutscene spells it out pretty plainly with you taking a phone call in the middle of a depression shower, as well as revealing your shitty empty apartment because you’re broke. After a few deaths on the job your senses are dulled thanks to the experimental respawn augment that’s forced upon you. Level after level you’ll struggle, only getting by through use of the aforementioned equippable augments that are increasingly dehumanizing, punctuated with a sigh sound effect that plays every time you put one on. But eventually, upon reaching the final (non-bonus) level, you ascend to some strange pseudo-divine plane. You restore your body, escaping your life as a cannibalistic murdermachine. You battle God, or a manifestation of your demons, or maybe both/neither. And you realize that despite there being no relief from the cycle and the pain not stopping, you aren’t miserable anymore. It may not be the intended read, but my interpretation is that the game’s journey through endless punishment ends with the player character finding some kind of solace in it all. Communicating all of these ideas almost exclusively through gameplay is an incredible feat demonstrating craft that any writer would kill to have, and I respect it immensely.
But it’s also a game in which you can kick people to the moon and using the stealth suit has you officially labeled a “shitman”, so I could be overthinking things. Maybe all that matters is that the game is great. Even in its current early access state Cruelty Squad feels more feature-rich and complete than most released games. It being a completely singular experience on top of that makes it an easy recommendation, if only just to see it in motion. It’s one of the best immersive sims I’ve ever played and I don’t say that lightly. To summarize: you may have played some games kind of like Cruelty Squad, but I guarantee you’ve never played a game like Cruelty Squad.
Reviewed on Steam.