If you haven’t seen Cruelty Squad in your social feeds or Steam algorithms yet, let me gently remind you: holy shit, you need to play Cruelty Squad.
Leah and I played the game on stream last week, although ‘playing’ is a generous description of what you’re in for. Playing Cruelty Squad is more akin to an assault on the senses. It’s a game that aggressively tries to make you as uncomfortable as possible through creepy sound effects and visuals best described as a Windows 95 shareware CD on acid.
You don’t reload your guns by pressing a button but by holding and dragging the right mouse button sharply downwards. There’s a camera shake button that’s almost uniquely offputting — so much so that during the stream, I had to disable it because it was triggering some viewers’ motion sickness. The Steam page has a strong warning for those with epilepsy or photosensitivity, but I found most people will probably prefer turning the camera shake off anyway.
There’s also just nothing quite Cruelty Squad’s level design. Each of the game’s maps is pretty sizeable, with multiple entrances and exits, taking clear cues from Deus Ex. But it also meant the creators were free to pull astronomically weird tricks like this.
I couldn’t work my way out of this one, so the only option was to restart the level. That’s not the biggest problem since levels can be knocked off in 5 to 15 minutes, depending on your approach. And if you go into Cruelty Squad with that level of expectation, it’s easier to laugh at some of the stranger inclusions.
Like the enemy that causes your field of view to go entirely out of whack:
It’s almost nauseating; I got an enormous shock when it happened. It helps that I don’t have a high tolerance for horror games or jump scares, and it’s not the only way Cruelty Squad likes to fuck with you.
It probably helps, at this point, to explain what you’re doing. You’re effectively a hitman for hire in the most late-stage capitalist gig economy hellscape for the Cruelty Squad. Dead enemies give you health and organs that can be traded on the stock market (both in-mission and in-between levels). That profit can then unlock all manner of cybernetic upgrades, opening even stranger pathways and secrets.
There’s a double jump you install by cutting holes into yourself. There’s a corporate chip that basically breaks the stock market. There’s a grappling hook that’s better described as your lower intestine repurposed as a rope. You can install an implant that shrinks you to the size of a pea; you can buy goggles that transform the entire game in a black and red filter. And if you feel like it, you can also just buy a house for a million dollars. It’s the most expensive item in the game, and obviously, it’s not just a house.
There are also random bonuses like fishing, and if you’re fortunate you can find exotic catches that sell for astronomical prices.
You’re not told upfront about any of this though, which is part of the point. The game also doesn’t tell you that you’re playing on the second hardest difficulty from the outset — and that the difficulty immediately changes upon your first death. Instead, there’s a visual clue in that the gross, Zerg-like border around the screen changes as your difficulty adjusts, and if you die 4 times in a level you’ll drop to the lowest difficulty.
One of the secrets is learning how to switch between difficulty modes, and learning how to unlock the hardest difficulty. Others include discovering 6 new levels, some of which require certain items and difficulty levels, while others are just hidden behind certain objects. (The final secret level also includes one of the game’s three endings, so it’s worth digging through all of the weirdness to find.)
Also, that fishing I mentioned before? That’s a secret too, and no, I won’t tell you where to find it.
All of this stuff to find is a good example why Cruelty Squad has been such a hit on Steam lately. It’s sitting at a 97% user rating from a couple of thousand reviews, and I’d be surprised if this didn’t end up as one of the most prominent indies this year. Not everyone will love it — the visual and aural design is almost singularly designed to be as unpleasant as possible. The drunken, warped visuals will trigger genuine discomfort for some, so please watch the trailer in advance.
If that didn’t trigger any visceral, physical reactions for you, then you’re able to enjoy one of 2021’s weirdest experiences. I’m not going to say it’s the best game I’ve played this year or any similarly grand pronouncements. Cruelty Squad is simply its own, bizarre, beautiful thing.
If you’re going to check it out, don’t watch any other gameplay or trailers or guides: just enjoy the ride.