‘Cruelty Squad’ review: an anti-capitalist screed that’s the most compelling game of the year

What if J.C Denton took LSD?

Much like an onion, and a certain ogre, Cruelty Squad has layers. There’s a surface weirdness that it shows at face value, a shooter set in a science-fiction dystopia where you’re a killer for hire, harvesting organs from your fallen enemies to make bank to jam cybernetic upgrades in your body.

You get this up-front: at a glance the game plays out like David Cronengerg’s Doom as private security guards strafe back and forth through pulsing fleshy walls and bookstores filled with sourceless, agonised, wailing.

Then, there’s something altogether weirder. It shows itself slowly – the Elder Sign daubed on the roof of a house, an inky-black basement with something crawling around inside, a long corridor leading to an impossible small door. None of this is ever really explained, as your viewpoint and the world itself throbs and churns. Before long, you’re charging around clearing corridors, racing to every threat with a blast of flechettes from your shotgun.

And what a shotgun it is. The weaponry in Cruelty Squad is a joy to use – while the recoil doesn’t feel as meaty as I’d personally like, the impacts feel solid, turning enemies to gibs or popping their skulls with a spurt of claret. There’s a wide arsenal of weaponry in Cruelty Squad and everything you manage to carry out of a mission is yours to take into any other mission. It’s a simple system, and has meant I can play not just with the shotgun but also the frighteningly good K&H X20 assault rifle or the Riot Pacifier, which fires a grenade full of flesh-eating smoke.

One of the tricks the game pulls early on is that you reload with a press of the right mouse button and jerking your mouse downwards. This requires quite a weighty pull and will throw many FPS die-hards off at first glance, but within a few firefights, this becomes almost second nature.

Several of these weapons have incredible destructive power, and this gore plays into the body horror too, as you’re often looking through the chunks afterwards to try and pull a few choice organs for you to sell on the black market later.

It’s unpleasant, but you have to do it: you need the money. Early on, the game charges you $500 for every death, and you quickly work out that it’s a lot of stomachs, kidneys and hearts to pay for every death.

Several angry gamers – often tapping out their frustrations alone in empty rooms – decry the inclusion of politics in games. They’re, frankly, wrong. Cruelty Squad could be held up as a shining golden example of this: the political message at the heart of Cruelty Squad’s grody dystopian nightmare is that capitalism is bad, but rather than merely showing it, it’s woven into every mechanic and every level.

A shopping mall seems to be textured in low-res images of Funko Pops, the pop culture Ouroboros that seems determined to turn every ounce of nostalgia into cold hard cash. Then there’s the brutal punishment for death, the terrible rewards for each level, and the fact you can hit the tab key at any time to see – and trade on – a fast-moving and nonsensical stock market. Earning decent money in Cruelty Squad is possible, and I can see the instruments that will allow me to do so, but the methods themselves seem so eldritch that I have found myself grinding away at my low-paid assassination gig, sliding further and further into debt every time I catch a bullet, becoming less and less human all the while.

Later, just when this mechanic starts to feel tired and irritating as your sixth attempt to sneak into a police station ends with you falling off the roof and painting the sidewalk, the mechanic is stripped away, and your debt is cleared and you aren’t charged for dying anymore. It takes a step away from the political message, but it does mean you can devote more time to experimentation without consequence… and you can spend money on body augmentations like the leg-built Gunkboosters, which propel you into the sky on a wave of assorted biological detritus spraying from your heels.

Body horror, remember?

But none of this is the game’s best part. The best part is the fact that this is a bonafide immersive sim, every part as interesting as a Deus Ex, Thief or Hitman.

While Cruelty Squad might look like a nauseating fever dream, there’s plenty of evidence of intelligent design: how else would you be able to easily differentiate friend from foe? How else would the repulsive biomechanical doors be easy to read? The level design stands out here not because of how chaotic it is, but because it’s clearly been made by a genius who has swallowed the “Immersive Sim Level Design” encyclopedia in one gigantic mouthful – there is, after all, always a vent that can get you where you need to be.

This somehow works even better when the geography later in the game gets a touch of the M.C Escher’s and turns everything on its head – because how often does Hitman ask you to run an assassination through the acid-drenched nightmares inside Agent 47’s own head? How many horror games let you pile a collection of bins on top of each other to reach a nearby platform?

I can’t remember the last time I was surprised by a game in the same way as Cruelty Squad. While it may be too far out in a lot of ways for some of its more interesting ideas to be absorbed into the mainstream, that doesn’t matter as the game itself is well worth the price of admission and the several small sandboxes contained within it are likely to keep me entertained for a long while as I work out the combination of weaponry, abilities and routes that will let me pull off the perfect hit and keep my corporate overlords happy.

Cruelty Squad is available for PC. This review is for that version. 

The Verdict

A furious shout at the hypercapitalism currently infesting our society has created one of the year’s most compelling video games. Cruelty Squad completely reinvents the FPS playbook, introducing plenty of new ideas under a neon-flecked haze of dystopian aesthetics.

Pros

  • Solid gunplay
  • Beautifully crafted levels
  • Fun body modifications
  • Dark sense of humour

Cons

  • Can be unwieldy to get used to
  • UI is a clunker
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