NEED TO KNOW
What is it? A psychedelic assassination nightmare.
Expect to pay $20 / £15
Developer Consumer Softproducts
Publisher Consumer Softproducts
Reviewed on Nvidia RTX 3080, Intel i9-9900K, 30GB RAM
Just looking at Cruelty Squad can make you queasy, but it passes the most essential immersive sim tests with bright, nauseating colors. I used classic vent routes to quietly assassinate a bouncy castle made of flesh one playthrough, switching to a rocket launcher and using my guts as a grappling hook for a more direct approach the next. I stacked enough barrels to climb over entire buildings, and picked off some targets with perfectly timed sniper shots from across the map.
Cruelty Squad is Deus Ex if it were made today, the natural product of furious people exhausted by wealth inequality, police militarization, and the stubborn structures that keep humanity rolling towards total annihilation of the soul. Yeehaw.
But Cruelty Squad wants to have fun before the inevitable end. It’s a stealth action game that props up the pure, lizard-brained joy of feeling like I outsmarted the designers through wild experimentation, even if I’m doing exactly what they expected. Like Hitman, it’s a cathartic exercise in taking out the absolute worst people alive. It’s an audiovisual marvel, a virtual world disintegrating in front of your eyes. And it’s one of the most brilliantly absurd games I’ve played in a minute, a vision of the future where people are considered corporate subsidiaries and the weapon market ebbs and flows based on what guns are licensed for use in popular anime.
You’re a depressed assassin for hire in the bad future, killing on behalf of the Cruelty Squad, “a depraved subsidiary company tasked with performing wetworks for its host conglomerate.” The structure is similar to Hitman: Pick out some guns and tools, then explore a massive level, avoiding or killing guards, finding efficient routes and vantages for a clean, quick kill.
Successful kills and extractions grant you cash for body mods, from basic stuff like body armor to juiced up legs for a higher jump. And whatever guns you find in a level and finish with are added to your arsenal, now available to take into any mission. It’s a super rewarding track that lets you explore more aggressive or stealthy playstyles while casting replays of previous levels in a new light.
Tiptoeing through each level as I master their bizarre layouts, memorizing enemy placement, pathing, and navigation is a joy. I’m happy dying on repeat to poke around for the perfect sniper nest or stealthy infiltration route (or Satanic summoning circle). Doing it over and over again with new weapons and tools, be it a DNA-scrambling pistol that turns enemies into a static gut explosion or a tape player embedded in your arm for whatever reason, is just as fun as the first time around.
Death kicks you back to the start of a mission, but Cruelty Squad never loses momentum. You can harvest organs from corpses and catch fish to sell on a virtual stock market, keeping the cash flowing and the new body mods coming. There’s even a gun with damage that scales to how much you have in holdings. Subtle commentary? Not at all, but I respect Cruelty Squad’s openly angry mockery of everything late capitalism. We’re venting together.
Cruelty Squad’s spaces are easy to lose time in, each with a distinct premise and seemingly endless secrets to dig up. I played a level in a deranged woodblock suburbia five times before I found the city beneath the city, pitch black catacombs full of terrible stuff. The Cancer City Megamall is composed of massive atriums and outdoor plazas patrolled by towering cyborg cops, a literal vent-crawl maze acting as its veins and defying usefulness just to riff on a classic immersive sim cliche.
There’s an intense apartment building shootout, where you’re actively hunted from the start. I found a few hidden levels, each more wild than the last, trips into seemingly impossible spaces where nightmares live. Cruelty Squad’s level design is so broad that it even turns into a full-on horror game at times, and a good one at that.
My eyes ache from scanning the truly strange spaces of Cruelty Squad, its sharp, shifting polygons plastered with low-resolution textures and strained, smiling faces. The art is a grotesque wonder, not a gimmick for Steam store thumbnails but a cohesive vision of a world under intense stress, sick and rotten and irredeemable.
NPC faces shift beneath the polygons, the skies pulse with reds and purples, and the soundtrack underlines the dread with sparse plinks and hums like a Game Boy melting into the scorching blacktop of a dollar store parking lot. Cruelty Squad is one of the most sinister, upsetting games I’ve ever played and I absolutely adore its total dedication to such an alienating tone.
Besides a few with surprising hooks, most of Cruelty Squad’s 20-plus weapons are fairly restrained. Handling tends towards realism, with recoil and spray patterns that lose accuracy if you’re peeking corners, sustaining fire, or aiming from the hip. I’m partial to the New Safety M62 revolver, which has a lovely delay and subtle tilt animation to simulate the slow pull of a trigger. And the Balotelli Hypernova shotgun recoils with a solid thump, effective at mid-range like it’s pumping out gravel-packed slugs. It’s satisfying enough to feel sick about it.
I love the contrast between the playful setting and more grounded gunplay, even if it feels like you’re wearing your shoes on the wrong feet at the start. You press shift to zoom. Interact is mapped to the R key. Most bizarrely, to reload you hold right-click and whip the mouse back. It feels great with time though, like I’m shifting gears in a murderous man car.
I wouldn’t want to gesture reload in every FPS game, but it adds to the unique pace and tension of Cruelty Squad, particularly when you’re hastily pulling the mouse back to reload and retrain your aim before a guard turns and notices his dead pal behind him. Keeping that cursor straight requires staying calm, and in a game that hits like the Winamp music visualizer, it’s a unique challenge.
That initial control shock has intent, a sign you probably shouldn’t play this like most shooters, but also to make up for extremely simple enemy behavior. Enemies are dumb, behaving like the police fodder Cruelty Squad casts them as. They just shoot on sight, awkwardly scatter to reposition, and relentlessly pursue. I’m reminded of older Rainbow Six games or Hotline Miami, in which whiplash reflex and accuracy supported by good recon is more important than improvised FPS dancing.
A single enemy can kill you with a second or two of concentrated fire in Cruelty Squad, so top notch enemy AI isn’t really the point. The point is sneaking into the center of a hornet’s nest and getting out alive, though I do wish the cops were a bit less predictable.
A few experimental enemy types mix things up on occasion, including a terrifying one that hijacks your FOV, drawing it in and out in sickly, disorienting waves as it closes the gap. Even so, once you know the layout of a level, getting the better of the bad guys is a little too simple.
That’s OK: Cruelty Squad transcends small problems like that with its wild level design and the breadth of tools it gives me to explore them. And what makes it really special is the perfect tension between fun and disgust it maintains throughout. This is some prime existential PC gaming horror.
When I take out the Mayor of Cancer City in that megamall for the fourth time, it sends the police cyborgs with machine gun arms into a violent frenzy. They are not programmed to protect citizens, ripping through the crowd gathered for the speech as they hunt me. As I leave, I think about all those wasted organs I’m not trading on the stock market, and then very quickly think about how that’s a pretty awful thing to think about.
But I’m not sure anyone in Cruelty Squad is thinking kind thoughts. This world is sick and rotten, the putrid meat falling off the bone, and all by terrible, beautiful design. All that’s left is the brittle skeleton of our favorite pastime here on PC Gamer: a computer game. And holy cow, it’s a good one.