Did I wake you up from your depression nap?
How does one even critique a game like Cruelty Squad? It looks like a mid-’90s bootleg sin. It’s like a PlayStation puked a Rainbow Six disc into a blender with Bubsy 3D. It’s the sort of thing that can only be conceived after a night of hard drugs and animal sacrifice. Things we take for granted like clean UI and legible graphics have been defiled here. It’s a purposeful desecration of the holy grounds of game design.
So, that’s pretty cool.
Cruelty Squad (PC)
Developer: Consumer Softproducts
Publisher: Consumer Softproducts
Released: June 16, 2021
Don’t ask me to explain this mess. As far as I can work out, you’re a corporate hitman. You’re sent out on missions to remove white-collar cultists and middle managers. A list of targets is given to you at the outset, and you have to figure out the best way to wade through their goons and feed them a ballistic breakfast. Then, you have to get out, which is usually the easiest part of the job, but I’m not promising anything.
Cruelty Squad bills itself as a tactical shooter, and forgive me if I don’t quite know what it means by that. Is it called that because you can tactically take advantage of its stupid AI and kill them in doorways? Does it call itself that because you can lean around corners? Is it because you pick your loadout between missions?
When I hear “tactical shooter,” I think of games like The Sum of All Fears, where you can plan out your mission beforehand, or Ghost Recon where you can instruct bravo team to go screw off somewhere while you skulk through the bushes. I don’t get that here. I played a few missions where I tried to find the best route to sneak in, then I found I preferred to wear heavy armor and mow through dudes like the T-800. It just paid better, because it allowed me to gather more organs.
Yeah, organs. If you kill someone and they didn’t happen to instantly blow up from your heavy ordinance, you can rummage through their remains to steal their pancreas. Then you can sell those organs on the stock market. You can also play the stock market like a normal stock market, or catch fish and sell them there for extra money. The missions pay like crap, so dig into those corpses and grab those organs.
You spend the money on new gear which ranges from useless and cruel to pretty helpful. Like most of the game, some of it is actually pretty unsettling. Some of it will tell you it’s useless straight up, while others will just hint at their drawbacks. Sometimes, you won’t even know what something does, it just screws with things in subtle ways that you can only figure out by experimenting.
It’s something you’ll have to do a lot of, because Cruelty Squad doesn’t tell you all that much, and that’s honestly a big part of its appeal. Yes, you can just follow the crosshairs to your targets, take them out, then walk to the exit, but you’re going to be missing a lot in the game. Hidden weapons, bizarre bits of gear, strange tidbits of worldbuilding, secrets upon secrets.
And you never really know what it’s going to throw at you, even if you just follow the critical path. Towering mall cops, fleshy bouncy castles, bizarre altars with no immediately apparent use. You dig and you dig; replaying levels and peeling back layers to find what’s hiding. What’s the point? Who can say? Maybe you’ll get a cool gun, maybe the game will just become more nightmarish, you won’t know until you climb up to that ledge or figure out how to open that door.
Cruelty Squad is just so anarchic that you never really know what’s going to happen next. The level design is absolutely all over the place, eschewing concepts like flow and pacing. The second level is a suburb, and most of the buildings are pointless to even enter. It weirdly works, though, because you never know if those houses are the home of a whiz new gun or a secret area. On the surface, it looks like someone’s first attempt at a Quake mod, but somehow, gameplay finds a way.
That’s not to mention the look of the game. It looks awful. Garish would be putting it kindly, and agonizing would be more accurate. Yet, you can tell that it was on purpose. It’s part of its design, like its uneven upgrades and impenetrable worldbuilding. Nothing looks right. At best, it looks severely dated and at worst it looks nauseating. H.P. Lovecraft had this esoteric way of describing the architecture of ancient, elder god cities, and I think this is what that looks like. It’s horrifying.
The music is the same way, it’s this mix of low-quality MIDI and uncomfortable sounds. Disturbing is probably the best way to describe it. Even at its most musical, it tends to clash with the murder on screen. Sounds just creep into the background, and it’s hard to be sure if they’re part of the music or something in the environment is about to jump you.
I almost want to say that the aesthetics will be the most make-or-break part of Cruelty Squad for most people, but it just makes too much sense to me. It’s an intrinsic part of the game’s personality. The shifting textures and horribly clashing design elements make you question if they were put together by a mad genius or mad amateur. But more than that, it communicates the disturbing and surreal nature of the world and ties together the bad design elements into a package that just… makes sense.
I feel I need to return to my original question: How does one even critique a game like Cruelty Squad?
It knows what it’s doing. You can feel its smug grin as it watches you blunder through its ridiculous environments, turning over every rock to try and make sense of its fever dream design.
The Hitman-style assassination gameplay is somewhat satisfying as you try to navigate its hellscapes and efficiently take down your target, but is this the best game to do it? No. The AI is terrible and the only way to learn the best paths is to replay the levels repeatedly. Yet, weirdly, the off-kilter attempt at a cool “tactical” shooter just ties into the game’s aesthetic. It’s a swirling vortex of bad design that condenses into a brand new color that has never been witnessed before.
I’m not even sure if I enjoyed it, I just couldn’t look away. It’s like being trapped in a burning circus; it’s a little terrifying, but you can’t help enjoying yourself. There’s something awe-inspiring about having all these terrible little facets come together into a cohesive package. So, I guess I recommend playing it?
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]