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Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cruelty Squad is a depressing Rainbow Six fever dream

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VIDEO: Play This: Cruelty Squad, also available on YouTube

Cruelty Squad is what happens when you gut Rainbow Six and Hitman, invert their corpses, and write cryptic, funny messages on the floor with their guts. The basic idea is simple. You’re a depressed loser assassin on a budget. Kill the targets, don’t die—or do, whatever—get money, buy horrific body mods that make you into more of a literal corporate tool and an even bigger loser. Hell yeah, now this is cyberpunk, a queasy, cynical entertainment product that actively resists being played. But if you like a little pain with your pleasure, you should try anyway. Cruelty Squad is weird enough to see through. 

In early access on Steam now, Cruelty Squad falls firmly into the emerging genre of sensory violence videogames, where parsing erratic textures, bizarre UI elements, and how to even play the damn thing is part of the appeal. (See our Golden Light and Post Void videos to see what I’m talking about.) Cruelty Squad feels like a dangerous .exe that came secretly attached to a free trial of sketchy antivirus software circa 2002. 

Despite its jarring presentation, Cruelty Squad is actually a pretty fun throwback to early tactical shooters. It’s nowhere near as fluid or as fully featured, but I really dig the simplicity here. You pick your kit from an array of assault or stealth weapons, then enter a huge, open level and find a way to kill your assigned targets. The challenge comes from staying out of the way of guards by putting them to sleep with tranq darts while seeking out vents or hidden paths to get in and out discreetly. Or it comes from conserving ammo, peeking corners to take out guards efficiently and conservatively without kicking the beehive. You can’t take much sustained fire, even if you quickly gobble up the corpses of your enemies for a bit of health. 

Enemy AI isn’t ever going to outsmart you, and it could definitely benefit from improvements, but you’ll still be tested on your ability to stay out of sight or pop heads without wasting too much ammo.

Each level is like a reduced (and very stinky) Hitman level, where just poking your nose around to find the perfect vantage for a sniper shot or stealthy infiltration route is half the fun. And the levels have some major range in Cruelty Squad. The first is a multi-level pharmaceutical company infiltration with multiple routes inside from street level and the rooftops, while the second level is a whole-ass neighborhood where the houses are literal castles. I found a sniper rifle in an outlying building and didn’t even need to pop into the fortress at the center to take out two of my three targets. Nice angles and good timing did the trick. I won’t dig into the other levels because they vary so much in theme and style that it feels like spoilers to touch on. Expect the unexpected. 

You’ll fall off this mountain on one side or the other, no way to perch it safely: I love Cruelty Squad’s overt FPS control mix-ups. It walks in the rotting skinsuit of old tactical shooters, but willfully subverts industry standards when it comes to controls. The R key is interact. Shift zooms, a very ’00s FPS control choice, and to reload you hold down right click and pull the mouse back. It’s awkward at first, but what feels like a joke quickly becomes a reminder that there’s still a lot of room to experiment with FPS controls. 

I love whipping back on my mouse like I’m shifting gears in a murderous man car. I wouldn’t want to do it in every FPS game, but it adds to the unique pace and tension of Cruelty Squad, particularly when you’re pulling the mouse back to reload and correct your aim before a guard turns and notices his dead pal behind him. Keeping that cursor straight requires staying calm, and in a game that hits like the Winamp music visualizer, that ain’t easy.

But instead of just trying to get the jump on guards, I’m also peeking corners to avoid the unknown horrors of Cruelty Squad, like a swarm of leeches that busted out of their containers the second I stepped out of cover. If you can’t tell, this is an odd, fucked up world full of surprises. 

After you’ve discovered them all, there’s still incentive to go back. Successful kills grant you cash for body mods, from basic stuff like body armor to juiced up legs that give you a higher jump. And whatever you guns you find in a level and finish the mission with get added to your arsenal, now available to take into any mission. It’s a nice track that lets you build out your depressed maniac assassin into more of an aggressive or stealthy tragedy while gradually mastering each level from repeated attempts. Things get easier, and slicker, and more efficient, and that feels nice, even if feeling nice in a game as sickly as Cruelty Squad is sinful and grotesque. 

What else can so confidently hold up such a grimy mirror to the state of affairs of the world and my character but a PC game. Cruelty Squad. It’s really cool and really upsetting. I like it a lot. 

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