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Cruelty Squad is both brilliant and hard to love

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Explaining the summer’s indie darling

Cruelty Squad - The protagonist navigates through a purple, low resolution world. They are carrying a gun, and a large health bar takes up the top right of the screen. Image: Consumer Softproducts

There are few games like Cruelty Squad. It’s a brilliant entry into the immersive sim genre that critiques capitalism and the military-industrial complex. It’s also — and there’s no polite way to say this — a complete assault on the senses. The game is ugly, loud, and difficult. Playing Cruelty Squad can feel a lot like trying to eat a coconut with your bare hands. Yeah, there’s very clearly some good stuff in there, but for now I’m gnawing on this weird, hairy shell and starving.

All you have to do is look at the game to understand my trepidation. Everything is painted in bright, jarring colors. The menu text looks like it was scrawled in MS Paint with someone’s non-dominant hand. Cruelty Squad places its warped aesthetics above all else, including accessibility. Despite the fact that Cruelty Squad is opaque and unpleasant, it’s still one of my favorite games of the year. Even when I don’t like it, I respect it.

Cruelty Squad - the protagonist faces a bunch of low resolution peers. One of them is saying “I’ve heard the rumors about what happened at your last job. Don’t let it get to you buddy, we’re all here for you.” Image: Consumer Softproducts

The basic gameplay loop of Cruelty Squad is simple. I hang out at assassin HQ until I’m ready to tackle a contract. I head into a new level, where my handler gives me a briefing to read about the target I need to kill and the explanation as to why they need to die. There are other objectives in the level as well, so I’m not just getting in and out as quickly as possible — I need to touch all the bases and explore a little.

These missions are out in the field, away from handler HQ, and if I leave, I leave behind the weapons I found and progress made. However, I do get to keep my cyborg implants, and fish. Yes, there’s a fishing mechanic. There’s also a stock market, which is so volatile that it can easily leave you either broke or a billionaire. Some of the volatility is random, but some can be predicted. For instance, if I kill the owners of one company during an assassin mission, the stock is going to plummet. If only I’d remembered to sell mine. Oops!

Assassination missions are the main thrust of Cruelty Squad, and they’re really fun. I can sprint through the level with assault weapons blazing, or sneak my way through vents and hidden paths. I start out quite delicate, and I can’t take much damage. Luckily, the guards are equally fragile, and the environment is my greatest ally. Everything can be picked up, and at the very least, used as a distraction.

Cruelty Squad - the player confronts two guards, one of which is sneering as he raises his weapon. Image: Consumer Softproducts

If I run out of ammo, I can throw my gun at a guy’s head. I can toss a small prop to distract one of my foes, or try to take someone out by chucking an industrial barrel at his head. If I feel especially spicy, I can grab an enemy’s corpse and use their guts as a grappling hook, or throw their head like a projectile. There are secret weapons I can only find by fiddling with slot machines or exploring every inch of a building. I can also augment myself to jump higher, move faster, and otherwise body-mod myself into a better and more refined killer.

Cruelty Squad rejects a ton of modern design sensibilities. In most FPS games, when I reload my gun, I hit one button and I’m treated to a smooth animation with satisfying sounds to accompany each bullet being fed into the chamber. In Cruelty Squad, I have to pull my mouse back to reload, which is a slow and awkward process. But it also inspires some great “oh shit” moments, like when I’m mid-mouse pull and I see a guy come around the corner. Cruelty Squad delights in both making me feel like an untouchable tactical god and a ham-handed fool. It doesn’t matter how ugly and jarring the game is to witness; it still managed to trick me into getting very, very involved in my one-man war.

Will you enjoy Cruelty Squad? I don’t know. It’s a hard game to recommend. It feels like it rips mechanics wholesale out of slick, satisfying shooters like the old Rainbows Six, Deus Ex, or Hitman. Except it’s also intentionally opaque, refusing to lend players a hand in deciphering its visuals or navigating its oppressive atmosphere. And yet, I’m still here gnawing on this coconut, because the pain is worth the taste of that delicious joy.

Cruelty Squad is available on PC and Mac. The game was reviewed on PC using a code provided by Consumer Softproducts. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.