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 bit of a generous description of the experience. Playing Cruelty Squad is more akin to an assault on the senses: it aggressively tries to make you as uncomfortable as possible through creepy sound effects, paired with 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 actually 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.
Putting that aside, there’s just nothing quite like the level design. Each of the game’s maps are pretty sizeable with multiple entrances and exits. It’s obviously inspired by Deus Ex, but it also means the game can just pull astronomically weird shit 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 completely out of whack:
The effect is 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 actually explain what you’re doing. The intro establishes you’ve recently lost your job for killing civilians, but no matter, because the Cruelty Squad will happily take you on board. You’re effectively a hitman for hire in the most late-stage capitalist gig economy hellscape. Dead enemies give you health and organs which can be traded on the stock market (both in-mission and in between levels). That profit can then go to all manner of cybernetic upgrades, all of which will inevitably open new 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’s 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 actually playing on the second hardest difficulty from the outset — and that the difficulty immediately changes upon your first death. 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 make sure you watch the trailer in advance.
If that doesn’t set you off, then you’re able to play one of this year’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 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.
This article has been updated since its original publication.