Last year, in my drive to reduce my huge game backlog, I wound up playing a bunch of FPSes, which was a genre I’m not well acquainted with. Inspired by the Half-Life VR AI series, I ended up going through the first two Half-Life games, which I had a lot of fun with, and that branched out to me checking out most of the Halo games. With my slow growing experience, I’m hoping to step into the field of indie FPS games more.
And so, I was led to Cruelty Squad.
Cruelty Squad is an FPS that’s still in Early Access at the time of writing. Made by Consumer Softproducts, Cruelty Squad presents a grotesquerie of an FPS. If I have to make comparisons to other games, I’d say that it’s the Space Funeral of indie FPSes. Well, as far as I know.
Early in the year, game developer David Jaffe openly mocked Cruelty Squad which led to people yelling at him. Ironically, this probably led to Cruelty Squad getting more attention than it probably would have. In fact, I honestly would have never heard about Cruelty Squad if it weren’t for him getting roasted for being a jerk about things. So hey, thanks David Jaffe.
You play as a sad sack that was recently fired from his death squad gig. While hanging around his poorly furnished apartment in a depression haze, he receives a phone call offering him a position in the Cruelty Squad, an assassination company. Since your character is a far more pathetic version of Travis Touchdown, he accepts.
The first thing you’ll notice with Cruelty Squad is its unusual visual style. Ever play one of those surreal 3D exploration games on itch like #21: The World? It feels like an FPS set inside that kind of game. Everything is cohesive – but only just enough. The individual components winds up turning the game into a fever dream.
You enter the game proper and see that the stage select is just as fucked. It’s a mess of symbols that’s hard to immediately parse, while your employer jibber jabbers exposition text on whatever stage you have selected. Honestly, just expect the above screenshot to be the vibes for the rest of the game, especially since your life meter is a pulsating mass of sludge. Unfortunately, you can probably guess that this is one of those games that isn’t friendly on the eyes, which may leave out some people.
(Also pro-tip: don’t use the Nightmare Vision goggles.)
Going in, I was surprised by how dense the game is. You are given a number of targets for each level, but there’s multiple routes you can take. In the first proper level, you could try going in guns blazing. Alternatively, you can take an easy, calm stealth route toward the first target. Or, if you have the grappling hook upgrade, you can go in through the front door and rocket your way up to him without having to deal with as much mooks. Personally, as someone who’s a fan of Hitman, I appreciate that stealth is an extremely viable method and that one of your starting weapons is a good ol’ silenced pistol.
Which is not to say that going in guns blazing is bad (I just suck at that). The weapons feel satisfying to use, especially the more weirder options. Personally, I love the magnum (which is canonically impractical but the cops think it’s cool), because while it takes a second for it to fire, the bullet just completely destroys most people it fires through. Firing through a gun’s magazine has this neat noise distortion effect as it empties, and reloading it requires dragging the gun downward with a right-click that feels more tactile than just pressing a button.
You don’t even need a weapon to kill people! The melee option of kicking the shit out of people actually works pretty well. You can pick up objects in the environment and chuck them at people. If you have an upgrade that increases your throwing power, you can kill someone with an arm from a corpse you just harvested. Your character is very good at killing – and really, that’s all he’s destined to do.
The world of Cruelty Squad is a dystopic nightmare, with weapon flavor text speaking of a somehow more cartoonishly evil police system and alluding to food riots. Everyone with any amount of power essentially has a private army to shoot on sight, assassins work in the open and if you’re a civilian you’re likely to get killed in the crossfire and have your corpse devoured for a measly one extra point of health. Most of the people you’re told to kill are scumbags, but unlike the recent Hitman games, the reasons for doing so are for the sake of the Cruelty Squad’s parent companies.
Though, the bleakness is offset by how goofy the game can get. Most NPCs are unhinged weirdos that are free to ramble about whatever if they’re not in direct danger. Some of the situations you find yourself in are just weird, like a bizarrely extensive sewer system within a ski lodge full of zombies – one of which can be found chilling in a hot tub. And, well, just look at the game. Forget about cyberpunk, this is the new style of late stage capitalist nightmares.
Now, a large part of Cruelty Squad‘s identity lies in how playful things are designed. Each level has a different sort of sensibility to it, playing around with the conventions of FPS levels. The first level feels a bit standard, with more “action-y” music kicking in when you get into a fight. The second level in contrast feels like one of those surreal walkaround games had an FPS plopped into it, as it is an unreasonably large sprawling neighborhood of bizarre buildings as a weirdly calm tune plays. Another level seems like a normal level with warehouses to infiltrate, but the main building contrasts this with a large colorful office complex full of grimacing face textures, which ends with its victim of the day surprisingly being armed with a powerful weapon that’d take you down with him if you’re unprepared. One of the secret levels completely embraces horror, with a unique framing device when you’re walking through an open space.
Cruelty Squad is a confident game because each level finds a new way to surprise you, be it through level structure or new situations. Going through the game, it feels like the developer was thinking of neat things to shove into a game as development went along. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Cruelty Squad‘s density can also be seen in the ideas it explores. Besides getting money through doing missions, you can also make money through the stock market. Yes, you can pull up a special tab at any time to invest and sell stocks to make easy money. There’s even a stock market for the black market industry of organ selling, as you can sell the collectible organs you occasionally rip out of corpses at fluctuating prices. Yes sir, truly nothing escapes the free market.
But in all the chaos in the world of Cruelty Squad, you can also take the time to do what truly matters in life: fish. You can find a fishing pole in that level with the warehouses and catch fish, which is also something to trade on the stock market. It’s a surprisingly extensive system too, because each level has at least one secret place to fish with their own stock of fish to reel up. Remember when Call of Duty: Ghosts made a big deal about its realistic fish AI? Well, does Ghosts actually let you go fishing? No? Well, I guess we all know what the better FPS is. Does this game need a fishing system? No. Is it good that it’s there? Hell yes.
From the visuals to the game’s design ethos, Cruelty Squad radiates an “I do what I want” attitude that’s admirable. It’s a punk attitude that hilarious contrasts with the game’s late-stage capitalism setting, exposing how fucked things are and could be in its own special way. Even if you’re not particularly a big fan of FPS games (like me), Cruelty Squad is a fascinating game to check out, and I can’t wait to see how it’d be like in its finished form.