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Cruelty Squad review: this game is too cool for me, probably

A miserable little pile of secrets

Cruelty Squad didn't click with me, not because of its grinning antagonism or brain grating lofi, but because I didn’t find it all that interesting. I’m sort of rooting for it, still, thumbing its leprous nose-cavity at inexplicable Steam bestsellers that won’t be out for six months.

Still, I signed up to have awful soup, made from Clippy’s wire entrails and melted immersive sim floppy disks, spooned on my eyeballs. What I got was a reasonably tense shooter with some extensively labyrinthine level design and, to be fair, a very good shotgun.

Cruelty Squad is a maximum effort shitpost wearing a puke stained Rainbow Six t-shirt. Set in a hellish gig-economy future, the titular squad of which you are a member deals in corporate liquidations. Really hardcore ones, using guns. But amongst the technicolour visual bombast, this game has secrets. On my quest to find them, I have plucked kidneys from the dead and sold them on the stock market. I bought holes in my flesh that excreted a thick green goop and let me double jump across a toxic river, which led to a mostly empty attic containing a very tiny gun that bled when I shot at it. I grinned. There’s probably more to this gun that I’m not seeing, I thought. Then I realised that nothing I had seen in the last eight hours of play was odd or exciting enough drive me to find out. I shot the tiny gun a couple more times, and I left.

Cruelty Squad has secrets tucked under secrets. There are at least six levels I haven’t found yet. There are thirteen main ones, each of which is a bit like a Goldeneye level and a bit like riding a bullet through BonziBuddy’s mind palace while it receives electroshock therapy. Floating red reticles tell you where your targets are, but not how to get there. You enter, excavate, eliminate, exfiltrate.

Sometimes you find a four inch slanted protrusion on a wall which is also the actual way to progress. Sometimes you kick out a sewer grate and squelch through a slop tunnel, like a tactical fatberg. There are at least five ways into the main building on the first level, some of which require augmentations I didn’t get until much later. There’s some real care put into these levels.

Is this secretly an immersive sim? Some of the weapons have silencers on, and occasionally they even work. Also, there are quite a few vents, and you can move bins to get into some of them. You can also pick the bins up and throw them at people, but you will probably get shot up in the process. There are other ways you can try to get creative with the shooting, but you will probably get shot up in these processes too. The best way to not get shot up is by crouching and sniping, so that’s what I did.

Ah, the old crouchy-snipey! So this is secretly a tactical shooter? Yes, in the sense that you die quickly, and if something gets behind you and you don’t immediately deal with it then you’re probably already dead. In the sense that the weapons have a lot of zoom and most things die with one headshot. In that all the enemies have hitscan weapons (hitscan being the sort of modern-military macaque-cack the game tricks you into thinking it might be philosophically opposed to). It is most efficient to kill everything methodically, before it sees you, from far away.

I liked methodical shooting things, but you come to learn the difference between being engaged with rewarding, interesting combat and being hyper-focused because mistakes will kill you and make you repeat things. Controlled instead of captivated. This robotic enthralment could well be thematic intent in Cruelty Squad. I’m just not that into it.

"You can knock out a receptionist with a euphoric pink gas grenade and then kick him from one side of the level to the other."

Nice guns, though. I found a gas grenade launcher that melted clustered enemies into piles of quivering pulp in seconds. There’s a pistol made of meat, and an automatic sniper rifle with impossibly satisfying recoil. You can knock out a receptionist with a euphoric pink gas grenade and then kick him from one side of the level to the other, listening to his pained grunts as he slides like an air hockey puck across recently buffed linoleum tiles.

The shotgun shoots flechettes. Flechettes are tiny darts that injure so indiscriminately that their use at all is a matter of some debate (incidentally, the IDF has allegedly used them in Gaza). If you miss with Cruelty Squad’s shotgun it leaves a cluster of flechettes embedded in the wall, which is a nice touch. I see you, game. I appreciate the image of corporate interests performing methodical but inexplicably sadistic liquidations on potential threats to power and profit. I dig the nightmarish vision of flesh being augmented past the point of humanity to achieve it. The game mostly just told me all this, though. I never really felt it.

Is Cruelty Squad a... secret fishing simulator? Actually, yes. A fishing simulator is the thing Cruelty Squad is best at, so much so that the game becomes a thousand times more interesting if you choose to believe all the corporate wetwork and biomechanical daymare fuel is just a Baudrillardian backdrop to it. The Desert of the Reel. The fishing animation is magical. You don’t so much catch the fish as absorb them into yourself. And then you sell them on the stock market and use the money to have a portion of your brain scooped out and replaced with a gun. The fishing rod is a secret. I will not tell you where it is.

There is absolutely a lot of content here. Save for some wonky AI, the game is well made. I just didn’t quite get what I was looking for from it. I admit this may be the fault of my own expectations. I have lingering sense memories of 90s shooters that felt like inscrutable portals to madness, because their attempts to create believable spaces were stymied by technical limitations. Impressionistic, slanted, almost haunted zones summoned by earnest accident.

Deliberate efforts creatie that same feeling require a certain vision and vitality to not feel hollow by comparison. Cruelty Squad kept me clicking, and I might click on it some more. I just don’t feel the need, as others have, to rush to the Steam reviews and write a piece of abstract microfiction about it.

Hollowness is an aesthetic all of its own though, Maybe it's one you enjoy, and maybe Cruelty Squad is secretly well subversive and I’m just a massive narc who doesn’t get it. It is fifteen quid, though, which is enough for one Paradise Killer, or ten copies of Post Void, or all of Jack King-Spooner's games, all good solid mindfucks that I got more out of than this. Also, everyone else seems to love it, which technically makes me the counterculture here - I shout, downing half a Punk IPA shandy, and attempting a gob which dribbles down my chin.

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