At the beginning of one mission, you are marked for dead by the organization you work for. Your handler has no idea what happened but informs you that they are coming for you. You must blast your way out of your extremely depressing apartment and try to find a way to escape the hit squad coming after you. Former colleagues turned enemies, giant mechs, and leeches are the only thing between you and freedom. With no time to lose and no remorse to give, you kill the hit squad, take out your landlord who is having a party, and make for the exit. The game then takes you back to the level-select screen after paying you. Your handler informs you that it was an HR mistake since you had a similar social security number to one of your co-workers. He apologizes, tells you to move on, and hands you your next mission as if nothing happened.
I took my hands off my mouse and keyboard for just a moment as I couldn’t control my laughter. My mind retreated to years working in retail and having to deal with the HR department and exact same kind of response from them. “Just get back to work and move on” they said, or, “there’s nothing we can do.” I would just feel frustrated, like neither the problem nor I mattered to them. But what was I to do? I had to make money, so I would just shrug and go back to work. I would return to my workstation and just stand there in my own frustration just waiting to punch out for the day, daydreaming of finding something better. It’s in those memories of frustration, that I finally come to understand Cruelty Squad.
Look upon my gameplay ye mighty, and despair
Cruelty Squad in its purest form is an immersive sim. You play as a recently fired mercenary, sitting in your apartment until a friend of yours gives you a call and says they have a job for you. From there the game begins. You start your mission with a briefing from your handler (who looks like Jabba the Hut in a trucker hat) about your target. You choose from a set of “upgrades” and weapons to take with you to complete your mission and off you go. Right away, you’ll notice something off about the controls; assuming you play a bit of PC shooters. Your reload button requires you to pull back the mouse and your usual reload button is now the use key. There is no sprint button but with upgrades to your character you can quickly change this. It takes some time to get used to, but you learn to adapt quickly. From there, how you complete your objective is completely up to you. Any option is viable if you get out alive. While not as complex as its contemporaries like Deus EX, Thief, or even Dishonored, you still have an alarming amount of freedom in player expression. You can go in guns blazing like a cyborg John Wick if that’s your style. For those with more patience, perhaps a stealthy approach is more your speed. You can even go in with no guns and just kick your target out of the nearest window if you choose to (though I highly advise against it).
It may not look pretty but it gets the job done.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first. This game is not winning any award in the looks department. Everything just looks six kinds of wrong. All the environments, animations, and models scream PS1-era graphics. Normally that would be fine if it were not for the strange choices made with the texture work. Bright neon colors and weird faces plastered across the surfaces almost offends the senses by how off-putting it looks. Models don’t even register as human most of the time; they look like what you get if you asked an alien to draw what a human looks like from only having one described to it. The upgrades you can add to your body sometimes produce what I can only hope is bile. One upgrade is especially heinous as its set of intestines grafted to your arm to use as a grappling hook. However, after a while, you stop noticing it. It all ends up blending into a surreal horrorscape as you maneuver from one area to the next, working to eliminate your target. Just like everyone in Cruelty Squad, it’s something that you accept and move on. The only thing that may not work in your favor thanks to the bizarre textures that once the gunplay gets heavy, it may be hard to tell your enemies from the civilians, especially in close quarters. Since there is no real penalty for taking out innocents, I suppose it’s a small nitpick.
But what does it mean?!?!
Cruelty Squad…is a very angry game. It is a punk-rock style critique on the plight of those on the bottom and what they must do to make it at the apex of capitalism. While not overtly in your face about it, exploration rewards players with some insight into how this cyberpunk-inspired nightmarish hellscape works. You’ll find a world where Death is a slap on the wrist and business expense, capitalism has gone out of control to the point where armed mercenaries gunning each other in the streets for their corporate overlords is the norm, and a plethora of office workers have dreams of getting out of the office and hope their startup pays off.
Most missions give you the ability to face your target directly and not even bat an eyelash that you are brandishing a gun in front of them. Interacting with them only provides us tidbits of information; sometimes they think we are part of the security detail and some just don’t even care that we are here to kill them. Even your missions give off meager pay with your own side hustles supplementing your own income. Body parts can be collected from your slain foes to sell on the black market, stocks move in real-time ready to be purchased, and if you are feeling lucky, there is a fishing mini-game that can bring stacks of in-game currency to spend on a house one day.
It’s a clear jab at the toxicity of “side-hustle” culture that has infected Gen-Z and Millennials who can’t make it without turning their hobbies into profit. This game is a megaphone; its creators shouting obscenities at corporate elite and their friends. That same megaphone just so happens to be covered in blood and bile.
All my friends are just Flesh Automatons.
So, with all that being said; is it any good? Yes.
Would I recommend it? I have no idea.
Some people will be turned off by the art style but that’s to be expected. Some people may grow frustrated by the difficulty. Others will look at a trailer and think “it’s one of those artsy-fartsy” kind of games and not even give it a go. However, for those brave enough to try it, they will find a unique experience with some extremely satisfying gunplay at its base level and some clever satire underneath.
Cruelty Squad has quite a bit to say; it’s not always coherent and you have to do some of your own digging, but it’s a list of grievances about how our society works and a team’s vision about where it could lead. This game won’t be for everyone, but if you choose to dive into the surreal nightmare that is Cruelty Squad maybe you’ll find yourself frustrated at some things too.